Finley: Childhood a tragedy in Detroit

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Mitchelle Blair, left, Stephen Berry, top, Stoni Blair

"So Tragic" is perhaps the most apt headline that's topped The Detroit News in a long time.

Two children found in the freezer of their Detroit home, and their mother facing charges, certainly qualifies as tragic. And chilling. And bizarre in that uniquely Detroit crime story way.

This tragedy didn't begin at the moment of death, but rather at the moment of birth. The dead children of Mitchelle Blair and the two left alive are pieces of the greater tragedy lived by too many kids in a city that is the most deadly place in America to be a child.

It was so predictable that Blair and her children could have been following a script.

Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Blair was among the teen mothers who account for 18 percent of the births in Detroit. Like many of her peers, she delivered her baby into poverty, despair and dysfunction.

She dropped out of school and never married the father. Again, the standard formula. More than 70 percent of babies in the city are born to single mothers.

Unable to get a job and with minimal help from her family, Blair and her first baby went on welfare. And then this already impoverished mother chose to have three more in a world in which pregnancy is easier to prevent than a cold.

She sued the various fathers for child support, but there's no evidence they played a significant role in the lives of their children. With no meaningful societal sanctions, young men feel entitled to sow their seed in as many gardens as they please and no obligation to stick around to tend the plants.

So children like Stoni Blair, who would have been 15, and Stephen Berry, who would have been 13 — the two who were killed — and their two siblings, 8 and 17, are wholly dependent on mothers who are overwhelmed by the enormous challenge of raising kids without money and with few coping skills.

Unemployable, uneducated and largely estranged from her family, Blair faced eviction notices and the relentless needs of her children. It's a recipe for neglect and abuse.

And sure enough, two of those children ended up in a freezer that sat next to the living room as casually as if it held steaks and Popsicles.

Last year, The News ran a series of stories about the nation-leading rates of infant mortality and childhood deaths in the city, much of it tied to poor prenatal care and teen pregnancy. It's impossible to protect children who are being slaughtered by ignorance and irresponsibility. Those who survive face futures all but set in stone. The city's maternity wards may as well do double duty as welfare and prison admission offices.

And, yes, I know the boilerplate disclaimer — many children of teenage mothers thrive, and many single moms raise healthy, happy kids, often with the help of engaged fathers. But that's not how it plays out for way too many children.

This town's civil rights leaders take readily to their platforms to rail against injustices imposed on Detroit from the outside. Someone needs to stand up and shout about self-inflicted wounds that could easily be prevented by common sense and the expectation of more responsible behavior.


Follow Nolan Finley on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Channel 56.