A visit to her grandchildren’s decrepit home 20 years ago became a pivotal moment in Jane LeMond-Alvarez’s life.
She entered her daughter’s apartment strewn with filth and feces, crawling with roaches and fleas. Her grandchildren, Kenny and Lizzy, who at the time were 5 and 3, were gaunt, disheveled and severely malnourished. Kenny greeted her with a smile of rotting teeth.
Not until she saw her 18-month-old grandson, Jon, lying unresponsive on the hard board of his playpen, did Alvarez begin to cry; he was caked in his own feces and soiled in urine.
In spite of their conditions, the children were ecstatic to see grandma and grandpa ready to take them on a two-week outing.
Helplessness arrested Alvarez as she tried to understand how negligence and the deplorable treatment of her grandchildren could go unnoticed for so long.
Today, Alvarez is a strong children’s advocate.
“I had blinders on. Like many, I believed calling Child Protective Services was enough to help my grandchildren,” a truth she later learned to be false.
She founded National Association Against Child Cruelty, also known as Children’s Wall of Tears, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and increasing awareness of child cruelty and abuse, which also memorializes and honors children killed by their caregivers.
Alvarez says the system is designed to preserve the family unit at all costs, but this becomes the death sentence for many children.
“It is a misguided effort to maintain a mythical family unit. Children cannot speak for themselves. Adults can,” Alvarez said.
After 14 years of working as a crime analyst for the Oxnard Police Department Major Crimes Unit, Alvarez compiled some compelling statistics about child cruelty. According to her findings, seven children die each day from abuse, and 80 percent of the abusers are parents. Furthermore, these figures are based on reported cases only.
Alvarez created a laminated roll, which names 800 children and lists their ages and methods of death reflecting 2007 figures; it names 800 children that died within a 22-week period. If today’s figures were adjusted to this list, there would be 1078 children killed.
When stretched out, the list extends approximately 25 feet long. It’s meant to help people see what her statistics mean.
“These are irrefutable facts and you can’t dispute them. The majority of the cases are held behind closed doors in the name of confidentiality, which is meant to protect the child but also the abuser,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez says many of the children removed from abusive caregivers are later returned by the court under the strong belief that reunification is the best solution. Instead, children find themselves back in the same dangerous environment where more trauma, or even death, awaits them.
Immediately after her grandchildren’s two-week visit, Alvarez began the process of trying to remove her grandchildren from their parents. She reported the incident to Child Protective Services and to the San Diego Child Abuse Unit, but they rejected her claim, excusing her concerns as troubles between mother and daughter.
An anonymous tip granted her the evidence she needed to fight for custody. There were 29 separate reports made by nurses, schoolteachers, neighbors, even the very organizations she sought help from, which proved her grandchildren were cruelly neglected by their parents and sexually abused by their father (a registered sex offender). The baby had suffered from a broken femur. Later, Alvarez understood the injury was the cause for Jon’s unresponsive behavior on that fateful day in his playpen.
Alvarez made numerous calls to the San Diego Police Department seeking help, but each was ignored. Finally, a young officer took her case. After visiting her daughter’s apartment, he found sufficient evidence of neglect to remove the children from their parents and placed them in temporary care.
After a year and a half of long battles with Child Protective Services, the San Diego Child Abuse Unit and a system designed to preserve family unity, Alvarez and her husband were able to become temporary guardians of their three grandchildren. Two years later, when her grandchildren’s parents failed to meet basic court mandates, Alvarez and her husband were able to adopt Kenny, Lizzy and Jon legally.
On June 3, Alvarez and her husband, Leo Alvarez, will journey across the nation to bring awareness about the growing numbers in child abuse and the need to change certain laws that protect the abuser and not the child. They’re supported by B.A.C.A., Bikers Against Child Abuse, and together they will carry the monument from Wall of Tears to commemorate children who died from cruelty.
“Two thousand, five hundred, twenty children die each year from child cruelty. If this many people died from the swine flu, schools would be closed and clinics would rise. Child abuse is a national epidemic and a worldwide pandemic with numbers growing each year,” Alvarez said. She said she believes one should notify the police before calling social services because child abuse is a crime and child abusers are criminals.
Jane LeMond-Alvarez is the author of Blinders, a book that shares her ordeals in trying to remove her grandchildren from their abusive parents. For more information on Wall of Tears, visit: thechildrenswalloftears.org/ new/about.