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Should Jenise Wright’s parents face child endangerment charges?

Six-year-old Jenise Wright's body was found near the mobile home park she vanished from last weekend. A 17-year-old has been arrested in the death and sexual assault of Wright. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

Taken from The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio.

Ron Upshaw says…

This story of the killing of Jenise Wright has really been sticking with me. I’m going to try to be as sensitive as I can, but I’ve been really struggling with how to think about her parents.

On the one hand, the Wright family is going through one of the most difficult weeks of their life. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it is to have a child murdered, and the type of guilt that you’re feeling.

But I want to acknowledge that while there is room for compassion and room to acknowledge that is just a horrific set of circumstances, another part of my brain says, well this never would have happened if the 6-year-old wasn’t allowed to just roam around her mobile home park unsupervised.

If you’ve followed the story closely and read all of the comments from the family, it appears like she was given free rein to come and go as she pleased as a 6-year-old. There was a quote that said she might get up in the morning, go look for some playmates, might have breakfast at this house, play for a while, and have lunch at another house, then come back later in the evening. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary that the family hadn’t seen her.

I got to thinking, is this negligent? Is this criminal? Or is it just a tragic mistake? In my way of thinking, I don’t see a world where a 3-foot-tall, 45-pound, 6-year-old girl can just run around free range out there doing her own thing.

But I’m not a parent. I look to people I know and family members like my sister. She has two daughters. My nieces are teenagers, and to this day they don’t go out without adult supervision. Maybe my sister is overprotective, but she seems to really monitor them. I asked people around the office, too. A person that works on our website with two small kids, said there’s no way at 6 years old she’d let them wander unsupervised. Our program director has a small kid and said no way as well.

I guarantee if I go to a playground in Queen Anne right now, or Capitol Hill, there’s a parent sitting on the bench, probably looking at their cell phone, but there is a parent sitting on the bench while the 6-year-olds are playing. I would bet you $1,000 that I would not go to a city park right now and have a gaggle of 6-year-olds unsupervised playing at the playground.

Maybe in Seattle and surrounding areas, we think that 6 years old is not old enough to run around unattended, but maybe in unincorporated Kitsap County this is the norm.

But aren’t you responsible for a 6-year-old 24 hours a day? If a 6-year-old went into a grocery store and stole a bunch of stuff, who is responsible for that? The parents are responsible for that. If a 6-year-old broke something, the parents are going to pay for that. If a 6-year-old picked up a can of spray paint and sprayed something on my door, who is responsible for that? The parents are responsible for that.

The conclusion I’m coming to is I’m leaning toward this being criminal what these parents did. I looked up child endangerment today to make sure I’m not overreacting to this, and defined it as:

“Child Endangerment refers to an act or omission that renders a child to psychological, emotional or physical abuse. Child abuse based on the offense of child endangerment is normally a misdemeanor, but endangerment that results in mental illness or serious physical illness or injury is a felony.”

Am I out of bounds to look at this and say they left a 6-year-old to her own devices, that to me seems like criminal child endangerment? If they came out and said we’re going to file criminal negligence, child endangerment charges against this family, I would be OK with that. Their 6-year-old died.

Ron called out for the listening audience to share their perspective. Here are a few of the email responses:

Listener who identified as a nurse with CPS says…

As a public health nurse who works with families like this along with CPS, I encountered situations like this all the time, especially in settings like trailer parks. CPS often has trouble with making negligent allegations stick. What happened with this child is neglect. More importantly, there is a reason usually why the child doesn’t want to be at home. She is so obviously vulnerable she becomes a target for predators. […] It’s because of grinding poverty that families with problems usually end up in these situations, hard to know what to do.

Listener Torry says…

I grew up as a kid in Lake Stevens. I lived on a dead end street and all the kids were able to run around the cul de sac and I just couldn’t get off that street with no adult supervision. I think it’s more a norm as you get away from the city.

Listener Sue says…

This is definitely neglect. I’d be checking on my kids multiple times during the day, always knowing where they are. It has nothing to do with class, income and location or any other factor except the parents sense of responsibility to care for their kid.

Listener Kim says…

I think a lot of it has to do with it being a mobile home park. I used to live in one and kids were always running around. I think a big reason for that is because most parks like that there aren’t really yards for the kids to play in. On the other hand I do think that it is completely ridiculous that the parents did not notice that she didn’t come home. Typically I think kids need to come home for meal times but otherwise they can play.

Listener Jordyn says…

Wasn’t a mother just recently arrested for letting her son walk to the park or pool because the cop considered it neglecting her child? What’s the difference in that case and the case with Jenise? If that mom was neglecting her son in that situation, Jenise’s parents were very clearly neglecting her.

Mel in Seattle says…

Seriously? 24 hours without knowing where your 6 year old is? Those aren’t parents. I’m actually fine with kids running the neighborhood in a pack. This happens a lot with different age groups and in smaller communities. I don’t know about 6 but if they are with their older siblings, maybe. 24 hours? I think not. My 15 & 11 year old run around TOGETHER during the summer. The rule is they have to check in whenever there is a “location” change. I don’t need a play by play, but knowing where your child is seems pretty reasonable.

A listener who asks to remain anonymous says…

I live in Silverdale, work in downtown Bremerton. Sadly, I think this is a socio-economic thing. I’ve lived in many different socio-economic areas in the Midwest and in WA. Lack of proper child supervision runs rampant in lower income areas, especially trailer parks. Stereotypes exist for a reason.

Taken from The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio.

What do you think?

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