Private hell

Who is to blame in the death of a California toddler and the alleged neglect of 12 siblings?

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 Private hell

There were 13 children living in the three-bedroom house in Marinwood, a quiet, affluent suburb in Marin County, Calif. Five adults lived in the house, too — a 45-year-old man named Winnfred Wright and four women, three of whom had mothered children by Wright.

On Nov. 13, 2001, one of those children — a 19-month-old boy — died behind the closed doors and draped windows of the home. The women brought the toddler to a hospital, where doctors recorded that the child had perished from malnutrition and neglect. Authorities swept in to place the remaining 12 children in foster care, discovering in the process that at least some of the children were malnourished and suffering from rickets. The nearly obsolete condition, a weakening of the bones that results from lack of calcium and vitamin D, is also caused by a lack of sunlight: The children, ranging from 8 months to 16 years, apparently had little exposure to the outdoors.

On Friday, Feb. 8, after three months of research, police arrested the dreadlocked Wright and the four women — Mary Campbell, 37, the mother of the dead toddler; Carol Louise Bremner, 45; Deirdre Hart Wilson, 37; and Kali Polk-Matthews, 20. Charges against them ranged from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

By the following week, the local newspapers — the San Francisco Chronicle and the Marin Independent Journal — had unearthed bits and pieces of a bizarre and disturbing story. The family (or “The Family,” as they apparently preferred to call themselves) had lived what was described as a cultlike existence, cloistering themselves from the world with a growing flock of children. They had a history with authorities in Marin and San Francisco that spanned a decade — including another suspicious infant death in 1990, cult allegations, a series of child-abuse reports and two arrests for disorderly conduct.

As is often the case in the wake of a child’s death allegedly caused by abuse and neglect, various individuals and agencies scrambled to assign blame for the apparent tragedy of The Family. But it was hard to know, in a case involving so many children and such a long span of time, where to start the finger-pointing. Was this the responsibility of social services agencies that failed (or, for some reason, couldn’t) respond to warning signs? Had neighbors neglected a duty to report the strange behavior of the mysterious family with the invisible children? Or had The Family been so savvy about the weaknesses of the child protection system that they managed to evade the notice of authorities and neighbors?

At this point in the investigation, which authorities decline to discuss, there are no solid answers to these questions. But the sketchy details that have emerged so far highlight the limits of agencies meant to protect children, and point to the primacy of community in ensuring their safety. Are kids the victims of a guaranteed right to privacy? Are they endangered, in the age of high fences and itinerant families, by the disappearance of strong neighborly bonds?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s photographs from The Family’s arraignment on Monday, February 11, depict a motley and unsmiling clan. Winnfred Wright, the patriarch, has long graying dreadlocks and a trim goatee. Mary Campbell — the mother of the dead toddler — is strong-jawed and pregnant; Deirdre Hart Wilson, who happens to also be the granddaughter of Xerox Corporation founder Joseph C. Wilson, also is pregnant. Carol Louise Bremner, a former anti-apartheid activist from University of California at Berkeley, is bald and wearing a surgical mask; according to her lawyer, she has leukemia. And bespectacled young Kali Polk-Matthews looks like the college student that she reportedly was until last year.

The defendants’ lawyers claim that the family merely practiced a misunderstood form of Rastafarianism and vegetarianism, a circumstance that could have led to some dietary deficiencies. Others who have observed the family over the years — including both civilians and authorities — allege that Wright manipulated these women with drugs, sex, violence and racial guilt.

Reports have failed to document exactly when, and how, this group came together; but police records of The Family, as pieced together by the San Francisco Chronicle, start somewhere around 1990, when a three-month-old infant died in The Family’s San Francisco residence. The child had suffered from a cold but had not been treated by a doctor, the mother said; but, oddly, she kept the dead baby with her for three days before authorities were alerted.

Although the San Francisco medical examiner looked into the death, he found “nothing to indicate abuse or neglect” — the house was clean, and the cause of the baby’s death was not determined. No charges were filed; but the mother (who has refused to be identified) later left the home of her own volition. She was debriefed by cult expert Margaret Singer, at the request of local authorities; Singer has compared The Family to the Manson Family, a cult of charisma.

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In 1993, The Family apparently had another run-in with authorities. San Francisco Child Protective Services (CPS) officials visited The Family’s new home, after receiving tips that the children playing in the mud in front of the house seemed ill-fed and abused. The women at the house initially refused to let the CPS officials in, but changed their minds when the CPS returned with a police escort. The authorities examined the children, but found no evidence of mistreatment, and left.

The police visit apparently set Wright on a rampage. According to another police report, he proceeded to march up and down the street with an entourage of his children, screaming abuse at his neighbors. The police returned to the house, and after forcing their way past two women, arrested Wright and Wilson. But the charges were eventually dropped.

At some point, the family moved out of San Francisco and up to Marinwood. The Chronicle reports that there was another incident in Marin involving Wright, in the company of some unkempt children, displaying erratic and threatening behavior, although the Marin Child Protective Services wouldn’t confirm this. But the family, perhaps having learned a lesson in San Francisco, began to stay indoors, according to neighbors reports.

The neighbors have described the way adult members of the family covered their windows with white drapes; and came and went in a Suburban with tinted windows, which they entered under cover of the garage. The children weren’t enrolled in the local schools, according to district officials; and neighbors had little idea how many people were actually living in the house. Neighbors told the Marin Independent Journal that the children sometimes wrote “watch your karma” on the sidewalk, but mostly called the family “quiet.”

If the goal of The Family was to avoid the prying eyes of authorities and neighbors, whom social services rely upon for tips about abuse, they seemed to have succeeded. They apparently gave birth to their children at home, so that there were no records of their existence; didn’t take them to hospitals; didn’t interact with their Marinwood neighbors; and didn’t enroll their kids in school.

“These people were clever in what they did to avoid contact,” says Pat Tinker, a San Francisco-based child abuse expert and consultant with the National Children’s Alliance in Washington D.C.. “People assumed that they were home-schooled, and they had no medical records because they weren’t even in school. When kids aren’t in school there is a higher risk — unless they blatantly break the law there is no way of tracking the kids.”

There is no formal system in place to monitor the children who move in and out of school districts, explains Dr. Lohwasser, superintendent of Marinwood’s Dixie School District. Families have a choice to register their children for public schools, private schools or home schooling; but the onus is still on the families to make the existence of their children known in the first place. Truancy officers can only track the children they know about.

“Apparently [The Family] didn’t avail themselves of any services related to the school district or independent programs or anything else. If we were aware of them — through soccer or church or anything else — someone in the community would have said something,” says Dr. Lohwasser. “There are triggers out there that are pretty defined within the school system. But if they are purposely concealed, we don’t know about them in the first place.”

But even if the school district didn’t have a record of The Family, the local authorities apparently did: The Family left a trail of police reports and Child Protective Service visits behind them. Reports of abuse existed as early as 1993 — perhaps even earlier — and a child died in 1990 amidst allegations of cult activity; yet it appears that no steps were taken that might have saved another child a decade later.

Child Protective Services officials are, naturally, defensive about being assigned blame in this case; as Janice Anderson-Santos, deputy of Family and Children Services in San Francisco, wryly says, “We’re used to it, it happens. It comes with the territory.” She is not allowed to talk about the specific case of The Family, but warns against jumping to conclusions before the defendants have been tried. Few details about the past five years have emerged. Still, a look at the system shows loopholes that could potentially be exploited by determined abusers.

It’s quite possible, for example, that the Marin County Child Protection Services had no idea of the earlier San Francisco incidents: Only since 1997, when California mandated a statewide database and tracking system called CWS-CMS, have counties been able to cross-reference their CPS files. (In fact, people used to regularly move from county to county in order to evade detection.) Similarly, an arrest for disorderly conduct in San Francisco, a legal infant death in 1990 and a child abuse call in Marin County may never have been matched together as part of a growing problem: There is no master database that cross-references the files of medical examiners, child protective services and the police.

Anderson-Santos doesn’t see this as a flaw in the system: “The interface we already have with [medical examiners and police officers] is outstanding,” she says. “There are times when we shouldn’t see stuff in the police’s system.” Many Americans, concerned with constitutional rights to privacy, would agree.

Constitutional protection also is invoked when patterns of suspicious behavior fail to result in increased protection for the children involved. The fact is that a map of suspicious or objectionable behavior doesn’t necessarily leave authorities with anything to prosecute. Even if Child Protective Services receives repeat tips about suspected abuse — as they did in this case — they can’t simply enter the home and make arrests or remove the children. A savvy parent will know that he doesn’t have to grant CPS access to his house; if he refuses to open his door, CPS has to turn to the police and get a court order. And even that requires proof of the abuse.

“Unfortunately, you have to have enough evidence to get a court order and go on in and get the kids. There is a balance between protecting civil rights and protecting children,” says Tinker. “There’s a lot of guidelines social workers and police have to follow. Do they put kids in jeopardy? Generally, no. But with smart people that know how to work the system and know that their civil rights will be upheld because you can’t just go into their homes, that’s a whole different thing.”

In the case of The Family, it’s still too soon to determine whether CPS had its hands tied by civil rights guarantees; if there simply wasn’t enough evidence of abuse to require counseling or remove the children from the home; or if CPS dropped the ball and failed to follow up on reports.

But were there reports? There were a few, over the years, from the neighbors of The Family. But apparently not enough to bring intense scrutiny. The fact is that the police and Child Protective Services need to be alerted about potential child abuse by someone — usually a teacher, doctor or neighbor. If parents choose to home-school and avoid hospitals, the only watchful eyes will be those of the immediate community.

“[It was easier] when you did have neighbors involved in children and their families, and you had systems in place so that families knew there was help and assistance when you needed it,” says Anderson-Santos. “You could say it takes a village to raise a child; and when you have people living [far] from their birth family, it does create isolation around them.”

Marinwood is an affluent neighborhood where the beauty and quiet of the location seemed to be enhanced by privacy. Neighbors have been reluctant to talk about what they observed, if anything; one neighbor told the San Francisco Chronicle that he “just thought they were really bizarre.”

This points out yet another problem: Even when neighbors are diligent, it is sometimes difficult to know what to report, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where unusual families are de rigueur. “How would you, as a neighbor, know what you are reporting if the kids don’t come out of the house, unless there was a major disturbance?” points out Tinker. “[Their behavior] is not necessarily illegal, it’s just odd.”

In the case of The Family, the odd behavior apparently added up to the death of one child and the dangerous malnourishment of others. Is it necessary to accept that the apparent tragedy of The Family simply proves the statistical probability that abuse will sometimes slip through the cracks in a system that protects its citizens from invasions of privacy and harassment by the law? How then, does the same system fulfill its promise to leave no child behind? Clearly, there are children out there who need to have answers — for some, it might be a matter of life and death.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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