Sunday, March 21, 1999

Will we choose cages or classrooms?




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was — even in our jaded times — an extraordinarily sordid story. But the theme was a familiar one.

        A 34-year-old mother of four from Bethel was found guilty last week of sexually assaulting her children. At her trial, she said she was molested by her father when she was a child.

        Wilford Berry, a vicious killer, was executed last month at Lucasville. When he was 9 years old, he tried to commit suicide. During a psychiatric test a few years later, he was asked to complete the following sentence, “Most mothers...” His answer: “beat their children.”

        Court records state that he was sexually abused as a child.

Breaking the cycle
        Doesn't it make you wonder what we're doing for the children of the Clermont County woman? The children — two boys, 10 and 16, and two girls, 7 and 13 — are in various foster care programs. Clermont County Prosecutor Daniel “Woody” Breyer says he hopes the children will be able to move on with their lives.

        In closing arguments, Mr. Breyer said the mother allowed up to 22 people to engage in sexual acts with her daughters. He said the abuse of the children occurred over a period of years and began when one of the girls was barely 3 years old.

        The woman lived with her children in a junkyard near Moscow. In an abandoned bus.

        It seems as though these children will need more than just ordinary encouragement to “get on with their lives.”

        I'm not saying they are destined to be criminals, but it just seems reasonable to help them out now. Rather than pay for it later. In fact, we might give a little more thought to lavishing our resources on children every time we get a chance. It is simply sound fiscal policy.

        The smaller they are, the cheaper it is to help them. Day care is cheaper than remedial reading tutors in elementary school. Reading tutors in elementary schools are cheaper than armed guards and metal detectors in high schools. It's cheaper to pay for a child psychologist's time than to pay for a lifetime of incarceration.

        Roughly speaking.

        And this is not even counting the bleeding-heart stuff like despair and unrealized human potential.

        The arrest, prosecution and execution of Wilford Berry cost Ohio taxpayers about $1.5 million. The tab for incarcerating him in the Cuyahoga County jail for almost nine years is more than $130,000. Gov. Bob Taft says Ohio should spend about $3.1 billion on prisons during the next two years.

        In his budget proposal last week, Mr. Taft also recommended that all of the state budget surplus — about $400 million — be spent on school construction and repair. He recommended spending nearly $13 billion on primary and secondary education over the next two years.

        This will be hotly debated over the next few months.

Save now, pay later
        I hope that our legislators will remember that children who grow up ignorant and desperate will be in our pockets for the rest of our lives. I hope they notice that guidance counselors, school nurses, reading tutors and librarians are not frills.

        And teachers. I hope they remember that good teachers perform priceless services. Maybe they will remember that it is often the teacher who notices the bruises, who spots a kid in trouble, who inspires a kid to come to class.

        I hope legislators take a good look at the money Mr. Taft proposes spending for social welfare programs. And I hope they help us Ohioans get the most for our money.

        Or they could decide that children are just not a big priority and that people who do not have children should not have to help finance their education or their shrink bills.

        This would be a dangerously expensive point of view.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine. Her book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE