Jeremiah... Victoria... Marcus... Tonique... Aaron... Breanna... Precious Doe... Unknown...
Dozens of pink and blue tombstones lined the steps outside the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City on Wednesday, April 25. Each bore the name of a little boy or girl who had died in Jackson County due to child abuse or neglect. During the annual "Day of Remembrance," the wooden markers symbolized innocent lives lost as Jackson County joined with Operation Breakthrough to urge all who can to take action to save lives through reporting suspected child abuse to proper authorities.
"It is up to us -- the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the neighbors -- to be sure we pick up the phone. If you have a concern about child abuse, pick up the phone and let the authorities check it out," said Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.
Sanders praised the efforts of Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp to improve the safety of children through cracking down on sexual offenders who fail to register. In the four to five years prior to Sharp taking office in 2009, Sanders noted that Jackson County prosecuted "only a handful" cases for failing to register.
"Upon taking office three short years ago, Mike has himself been involved in the filing of over 600 failure to register cases," Sanders said. "Mike, I want to thank you for what you've done to make us safe in Jackson County.
"It's up to us all to get involved, so that the cycle of violence gets broken."
'We Need More Sister Bertas'
Sheriff Sharp, County Executive Sanders, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and longtime Kansas City non-violence advocate Alvin Brooks each thanked Operation Breakthrough co-founder Sister Berta Sailer for her more than 40 years of service dedicated to improving the lives of children and strengthening families.
Operation Breakthrough opened in 1971 to provide child care for poor working families in Kansas City's urban core. The not-for-profit agency began with 50 kids. In the four decades since, it has expanded to serve more than 600 children daily, while providing a host of social services -- in addition to operating pre-school as well as before- and after-school programs.
"Without Sister Berta and Operation Breakthrough, there are a lot of children and families in this community who would have an uncertain path to travel down," Sharp said. "She also provides education for families to help stop the cycle of violence, the kind of violence that caused the deaths of the children whose names we see here."
Stressing that "we need more Sister Bertas," Peters Baker called on all adults in the community to understand they have responsibility for helping protect children "because children can't protect themselves."
"I commend Sister Berta for doing this work, year after year," Peters Baker added. "But let's say in 2012 she doesn't have to do it alone."
Brooks, a former Kansas City Police detective and City Councilman, made a call for preventing all violence targeting young people. He pointed out that child abuse crosses all social, ethnic and geographical boundaries. (Brooks was also a founding member of the AdHoc Group Against Crime.)
Lights That Shine Too Briefly
The "Day of Remembrance" began with 10 pre-schoolers from the Operation Breakthrough children's choir singing This Little Light of Mine.
Glancing at the names on the markers, Sister Berta said, "The kids with tombstones behind us never got to let their light shine very long."
Child abuse takes a toll on a "whole household," Sister Berta continued, not only on the murdered children but also their surviving siblings. She recalled having a 4-year-old foster son whose little sister had been kicked to death. When she and the little boy drove past a fire station, he told her he wanted to be a fire fighter -- "if I grow up."
Sister Berta had a simple yet urgent message: "Make sure the kids you know are safe. Intervene, if they are not.
"It's too late to say let's not have any fatalities this year because we've already had a couple. But let's not have any more."