Across the country these days - in every village, town, city and state - there is a collective effort to slash operating budgets. That's probably a wise thing given the state of the economy. But as we make choices about what gets cut back and what doesn't, I hope we remember the children.
19 year old Colton Harris-Moore underscores my point precisely. You may know him as the so-called Barefoot Bandit, the catchy little name the media applied to what is obviously a very troubled kid. If Colton's home state of Washington had had enough money and determination to protect him from a sub-standard upbringing way back when, scores of people might never have been victimized by this kid.
His childhood reads like something out of Dickens. His parents are reported to have been abusive and neglectful, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. His father was imprisoned when Colton was about two years old. His stepfather apparently died when he was 7 and after that the young boy left the family trailer and started living out in the wild near his home in Camano Island, Washington - alone. He would be gone for weeks at a time and to survive he broke in to vacation homes to steal the essentials. In the early days, police said, Colton simply ate some food and soaked in the homeowner's bathtub. Later he would steal more valuable things like tools, credit cards, cash and vehicles.
By the time Colton was 12 he'd been convicted of stealing and several more convictions soon followed. He was always punished with community service or a short stay in a detention center and then he would be sent home again. When the state required him to submit to psychiatric evaluation he reportedly revealed the sad state of his home life. And, back in 2004 he told his school principal (who had confronted him for allegedly stealing school electronics) that "he could not stop stealing and he did not know why."
In other words Colton Harris-Moore needed outside help for a long time. And for a long time - longer than the 19 year old Colton has been alive - this country's social welfare network has lacked the authority, manpower and will to decide, "This child needs to be removed in order to thrive."
We hesitate. We give offending parents chance after chance and in the final analysis it is always the child that suffers. More often than we care to admit the neglected and abused child is forced to turn to crime to survive. Youthful stealing, prostitution, and drug abuse and drug dealing are the most often seen side effects. By the time they're old enough to vote their lives are on a ruinous path.
In April, 2008 Colton was serving a three year sentence at a half-way house in Renton, Washington on a triple felony conviction when he simply walked away one day. His two year, cross-continent flight led this victimized child to victimize dozens of others. Police suspect him of stealing at least five small airplanes, at least two cars and a boat and he could be charged with as many as 100 home home break-ins in some half a dozen states.
His mother's response on CNN? She said she was, "proud of him, 'cause I was going to try to buy him flying lessons some day." She's hired an entertainment attorney to see if she can make some money selling her son's story to television or the movies.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Not by the mother's actions, nor the media's sensational coverage of young Colton's fugitive crime spree. News coverage very nearly glamorizes what he's done, they tout his "boundless gumption" and the 85 thousand "friends" he has on his Facebook page. They nearly chuckle when they report that a South Dakota couple came home last month to find a naked Colton fresh from their shower. Somehow the sadness of all of it has escaped his Mom and the media as this young boy's future prospects are over. He is going to jail for a long time.
Make no mistake. I am not overly sympathetic to a person who breaks into homes, steals from others, fraudulently uses homes and credit cards and habitually crash lands airplanes. On his Facebook page, right under his photograph, it reads: "Colt is the real life 21st century outlaw. The world is his playground." Cocky stuff but in the world of these throw-away kids it's either be continue to be victimized or cop an attitude.
Colton Harris-Moore stands 6 foot 5 - but somehow no one in authority saw him as the needy kid he was.
The young man's odyssey ended with his recent arrest in the Bahamas (where he is reported to have crash landed a plane he stole in Indiana and was arrested on board a stolen boat) and people ask, "Gee, how did this kid do it all these years?"
The better question might be, "How did we allow this kid to live like this all these years?"
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com