At least Child Protection got it right with Nora Brooks’ second kid.
I don’t mean to sound snarky. I have heard too many stories of child protection workers who are young, overworked and – in many cases – overmatched by manipulative abusers to lay all of the blame at the feet of a flawed system. But it is hard not to be cynical when a 5-year-old boy is beaten to death. That is especially true when enough alarms were sounded – including a you-gotta-be-kidding photo of Eain Brooks’ burned face – to make caseworkers’ ears ring. So, yes, it was nice to hear that CPS stepped in last week and took the newborn girl from the mother’s arms and placed the infant in the safer hands of relatives.
Nothing that is said or done now can bring Eain back. But it is not too late for all of the little boys and girls who, even as you read this, are being harmed. Let the cross that Nora Brooks has to bear be a reminder to mothers everywhere: You are the last line of defense.
Hopefully, some of the gaping holes can be mended in the safety net that failed to catch Eain. Police say the West Side boy was killed last month by Matthew Kuzdzal, his mother’s boyfriend. The same safety net failed last year to catch 10-year-old Abdi Mohamud, who – astoundingly – placed his own 911 call for help. Short of screaming “Save me” on a street corner, what more could that kid have done?
There is plenty of blame to go around when a child is killed after numerous warnings. The bulk of it, obviously, lies with the murderous abuser, the source of the evil. He deserves as much punishment as the law allows. But those who knew what was happening and did not do enough to stop it also are complicit.
Nora Brooks may have lived in fear of Kuzdzal. It sounds like she had a hard life. But the laws of nature ought to be more powerful than any imperfectly protective law of the land. The bonds of motherhood should be stronger than any fear, any need for attention, any craving for affection or whatever moves a woman to stay with a man who is hurting her child.
Even the best child-protective system, and ours is far from that, cannot see behind closed doors. There is a vast margin for error, sometimes fatal error, when caseworkers are young and – in some cases – talk to a victim and family members with the suspected abuser sitting in the same room. But in almost every case, there is one person who knows – even if she may not want to admit it, to herself or to others – what is going on. And that person is the child’s mother.
“Nora is just as much at fault as the system,” Carolyn Spring-Baker told me. “She failed her son, and she has to live with that.”
Spring-Baker is Eain’s great-grandmother, on his biological father’s side. The boy stayed at her Southern Tier home for a couple of weeks every summer, getting a taste of country life.
I have trouble believing that Abdi’s mother had no idea what was happening to a boy who eventually was beaten to death in the basement with a rolling pin. Nora Brooks reportedly chose to believe Kuzdzal’s bizarre explanations for Eain’s injuries – including an ice pack that supposedly burst, burning his face – after CPS caseworkers somehow swallowed the lame stories.
Caseworkers are fallible. Reports of abuse get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. For reasons unfathomable, and this clearly must change, complaints are cycled through an Albany hotline before circling back – or not – to a local CPS agency.
Yes, the system is hugely flawed. Which is why a mother is any child’s first – and, sadly, often last – line of defense.
Spring-Baker, the great-grandmother, suspects that Nora Brooks was emotionally and perhaps physically abused by the man charged with Eain’s murder.
“I think that yes, she was in that kind of a situation,” Spring-Baker told me by phone. “I know what abusers do, how they alienate people from everyone else. I feel that he had that kind of control over her.”
If so, there was a double layer of abuse. The other victim was a mother who – according to relatives – lurched from one unhealthy relationship to another.
I know it is a lot to ask, asking an abused woman to stand up and break free. But if she is not going to do it for herself, then she at least should do it for her child. Every mother in that situation has a choice. She can pretend it is not happening. She can remain silent, fearful of anything from a beating to abandonment. Or, knowing what is happening, she can take the child and leave – saving herself and her boy or girl.
That may be a lot to ask. But, sometimes, nothing less is good enough.
Nora Brooks learned that much, in a way she now has to learn to live with. It is something for every mother to think about, when strange bruises appear on her child’s body.