Each week, my readers turn to section B of the Focus to read my stories. But this week you will find a surprise. My best friend, wife and editor tells her story, which first appeared in Newsweek, on January 15, 1990. Becky’s story is even more relevant today.  JVF

They’re back… I’ve been hit again. Another break-in. This time, as I was leaving my home I saw my three-foot cerebral palsy puppet, which I use in an educational program, hanging upside down from a tree.  I looked around my car. Other things were missing. Immediately those familiar feelings of surprise, fear, anger, revenge and then, as always, helplessness came over me. When is it going to stop? As I retrieved Mark from the tree, it occurred to me how like Mark I am – a helpless puppet.

After experiencing 10 break-ins or attempted break-ins over the last six years, I have had it!  But then comes the helplessness. I had “had it” after the first break-in, but what can I do? I have a sophisticated security system that automatically calls the sheriff. I keep serial numbers on all the “popular” items (TV, stereo, VCR, etc.)  I write STOLEN FROM FERGUSON on all our lawn and garden tools. I keep a loaded gun. I had a dog, but even she was stolen. I feel like a hostage in my own home.

The sum total of all the goods stolen over the years and the damage done probably equals, monetarily, less than what we donate to charities in two or three months. But that isn’t the issue. Anyone who has had even one attempted burglary can testify to the personal violation they feel.

I am a gentle, giving person. I am your typical WASP stay-at-home mom who spends a lot of time volunteering away from home. I teach a free dance class twice a week for the city Recreation Department, but my tape player and all my dance tapes were stolen in this last break-in. I plan and cook Wednesday night meals at our church, but the proceeds from our last dinner were stolen in the burglary. I am a volunteer puppeteer with The Kids on the Block organization, but Mark, my puppet, was left hanging from a tree, and his storage bag and part of his wheelchair were stolen. So much of the “giving” me was taken with this last burglary.

What if I were able to confront one of the guilty? Once I interrupted a teenager breaking in. I was so enraged all I could do was chase him into the woods. But if I had caught him, I might have been the guilty one and the “victim” would have been a “young, disadvantaged teenager who should have been in school.”

When your privacy has been violated as often as mine your attitude is also affected. The “gentle and giving” me goes beyond seeing these people as the tragic result of a bad home life.  They are members of an ever-growing group of criminals who are allowed to victimize entire communities, yet receive little or no punishment if caught. I don’t fault our law enforcers. Each one who has been in my home has been a caring, supporting person, as equally enraged as I. And as impotent.

As a society we teach our children that a “community” (be it a family, a classroom or a town) can exist only if we follow the rules, and when we break rules, certain consequences will follow. I asked my 9-year-old why she doesn’t throw food in the school lunchroom. “I’d get in trouble!” she responded. And so she should.

What’s happened? Where are the rules of society we work so hard to teach our children? How did we evolve into a society that protects a criminal’s rights to the extent that private citizens are held hostage? I cannot disagree with the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I do believe the pendulum of “justice” has swung too far in that direction. It’s only when a person becomes a habitual criminal, or when the crime is such that society is totally outraged, that just punishment is even considered. In my community first- and second-time burglary suspects are released – there is just no room in jail. They are back on the street in three or four hours ready to strike again, with even greater motivation, knowing their risks are small.

Sense of community: Many of these “smaller crimes” are committed by teenagers or young adults who seem to have gotten lost, who seem to have slipped through the cracks during those all-important impressionable years. And we are producing more lost souls every year in many of our educational systems. In this world of “bigger is better” and money-saving cuts, we have traded our small neighborhood schools for large, broader institutions.  While it may save money and provide a wider scope of academic experiences, in the process one’s identity and self-esteem are often sacrificed. How can a child who has little or no home support be expected to develop a sense of worth, a sense of belonging, amid the confusion that is rampant in elementary schools of 500+ students and high schools with campuses as large as many colleges? In a neighborhood school, teachers know every child and every child’s parents, or lack of parents. A supportive sense of community naturally evolves and a child grows up believing he is a viable part of a whole.

To crack down on “smaller” crimes, we have to start with smaller people – our children. Raise them and educate them in an environment that doesn’t allow so many to get lost in the crowd. If we start here, perhaps we could alter the recognized route of habitual criminals. The dust of petty crimes is being swept under our carpets and is growing larger and spreading the eventual filth of major crimes throughout the country. It’s time for some house cleaning, America.

Did writing a “My Turn” column bring to light any new solutions? Not really. Will it reduce the number of break-ins? Probably not. Did it help diffuse any of my rage? Perhaps a little – until the next break-in, and then the cycle will begin again. I just hope next time it’s not me they leave hanging from a tree.                  

Becky Venable Ferguson, 1989