Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What UT's Murder May Be Costing Us

It wasn't supposed to happen to her.

But maybe it's the price we're willing to pay.

She was a bright, beautiful, and talented freshman at the University of Texas in Austin.  On April 5, her lifeless body was found on campus.  Originally from Portland, Oregon, Haruka Weiser had been murdered at one of the most prestigious universities in the Lone Star State.

The university's leadership was appalled.  Parents of UT students - a privileged lot by any measure - were aghast.  This type of thing doesn't happen at UT, a sprawling institution flanking I-35 through the middle of Austin's popular and congested downtown district.

Although the center of a metropolitan region numbering over a million residents, the only thing that makes Austin feel like a big city is its atrocious traffic.  For decades it had quietly served as the bureaucratic hub for the state's government, but lately, its fortunes as a world-class technology center had re-made the capital into San Jose East.  Property values have skyrocketed.  Its slums - if it has any - are hard to find.  Its streets are mostly clean, and its culture - the most socially-liberal of any major Texas city - reeks of hipness and cross-racial progressivism.  Crimes aren't non-existent, but they're mostly petty.  When it comes to violent crime, Austin ranks third from the bottom nationally.

And for this ranking, being at the bottom is a good thing because it means for a city of Austin's size, violent crime is rare.  Parents who send their kids to UT usually only worry about how drunk they'll get when they go out partying on Sixth Street, the city's raucous bar row.

So not only is any murder appalling, but in Austin, at UT, any murder is also surprising.  Was it a romantic tryst gone horribly wrong?  A gristly case of mistaken identity?  A botched mugging?  Weiser is the first person to be killed on-campus since the infamous clocktower mass-shooting of 1966.  In the wake of Weiser's death, the institution has been reeling with angst and distress.

When police announced they had arrested their suspect in Weiser's murder, however, this tragedy took yet another unexpected turn.  Allegedly, Weiser's murderer is younger than she was, a 17-year-old black teenager.  And he is homeless, believed to have been taking shelter under a bridge near the UT campus.

Police have yet to detail* their suspicions of his motive, but their suspect, Meechaiel Khalil Criner, is believed to have mental problems.  At the very least, Criner has experienced a tortured family life.  Court documents researched by the media record that child welfare officials removed Criner from his mother's Dallas home in 2001, when he was two years old.  He went to live with his grandmother, but the state took him away from her in 2009 after she "hit Meechaiel in the face with a belt, leaving him with two black eyes."

A caseworker testified in court that his grandmother beat him so badly, his eyes were swollen shut.

Criner then went to live with an aunt, but she died last year.  Since then, as far as the police can determine, he's been homeless.  He has at least one sister, in Houston, who told the media that she believes her brother is mentally ill.  An uncle has described Criner as being intellectually disabled.

Of course, that is an assessment at which many onlookers often scoff.  Another murderer trying to get off by claiming insanity, they figure.  You can hear it now, can't you?  Maybe you're even presuming that yourself.

Who cares about his environment, his growing-up years, whether or not he was in a nurturing family?  We're all accountable for our actions.  You can't simply see a beautiful woman walking across a college campus and kill her, and then expect to walk with an insanity plea.

Indeed, motive remains a mystery.  We don't know what led to Weiser's killing.  Besides, the courts have yet to determine that Criner is the person who killed her.  But according to Criner's uncle, his nephew likely doesn't even know what murder is.

Criner has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old, according to his uncle.

“I refuse to believe he just maliciously killed this young lady,” the uncle told a Dallas Morning News reporter. “This kid don’t know nothing about killing.  His mind don’t compute like that.”

Criner was in Austin because, after being caught shoplifting in a far north Dallas suburb, he'd been sent to a homeless shelter there specializing in at-risk youth.  He had a locker at that shelter, but apparently, didn't necessarily sleep there regularly.  Police paired him with Weiser's murder after initially arresting him for a trash fire near the UT campus.

It's a story of state-sponsored intervention after state-sponsored intervention, time and time again, for practically all of Criner's still-young life.  Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations, different police departments, and CPS-directed placement in state-recognized youth shelters.

How sad, right?

Of course, this would be another point at which indignant taxpayers would respond with questions of why the state has to spend money to try and fix family problems like Criner's.  If families were tighter-knit and better-functioning, the state wouldn't have to get involved, and maybe young adults like Weiser wouldn't get murdered by teenagers like Criner.

And yes, these are valid points.  And there are even better questions:  How much money, for example, should taxpayers be expected to pay to fund public agencies to manage problems families have historically be expected to manage?

Then again, at what point are mental deficiencies too big for families to handle?  If a family member becomes too belligerent, or too combative, why shouldn't the state step in somehow to protect physically-vulnerable family members?  When does physical contact among family members become criminal assault?  For that matter, when does psychological gamesmanship among family members become criminal mental abuse?

The answers to such questions are vague at best.  But we do know a few other things.  We know Texas is notorious for spending relatively little on family agencies like CPS.  The state ranks at the bottom in terms of per capita spending on child welfare, and that's not a good list to be at the bottom of.  Meanwhile, Texas consistently ranks at the top of the list when it comes to the number of children killed through child abuse - again, not a good list to be at the top of.

These bleak statistics were true in 2009, and they remain true today.  CPS suffers from chronic under-staffing, and an inability to retain what staff it manages to hire.  Caseloads are prohibitively high, morale is extraordinarily low, and whenever a sensational case like Weiser's grinds through the media, taxpayers cluck about how their tax dollars are going to waste in such an inefficient department.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves, even if Griner is simply one teen in a caseload total too big to count.  And the numbers add up to at least one incontrovertible fact:  kids are expendable.  At least politically.  After all, they don't vote, so politicians have no vested interest in placating them.  And while their parents do vote, enough parents are saying that they don't want to pay any more taxes to bail out those parents who have bailed on their kids.

Taxpayers likely figure the state couldn't get child welfare done right no matter how much money it could spend.

All combined, these attitudes have created a political climate in Texas that, for all practical purposes, says protecting the welfare of children is not a high priority.  The state's vocal religious conservatives like to presume otherwise, what with their family values and all, and they protest vehemently when it comes to abortion and unborn children.  But woe be the post-birth child left to grow up in a woefully dysfunctional household.  The state's former governor, Rick Perry, used to criss-cross the nation, trying to poach jobs from other states by touting Texas' quality of life for families, plus its low taxes.  All the while ignoring what those low taxes weren't paying for.

Perry made quite a name for himself because he kept a hard line on taxes.  Which, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Nobody denies that there's a lot of bureaucratic and political waste in government, and low taxes help curtail at least some of that waste.  And the government is hardly a comparable replacement for loving, nurturing parents.

But for Texas to consistently lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to funding public agencies that try to do the work Texas families can't - or won't - do themselves..?

Maybe Weiser's murder is the price Texans are willing to pay for barely funding its child welfare department.

Hey, there's no proof that a well-funded CPS would have managed Criner's case any better than it has.  Besides, if Criner's extended family didn't like the way CPS was handling things, why didn't they turn to a faith community for help?  If you don't want to hold Criner accountable for his actions, then blame his mother, who was a drug addict.  Or his grandmother, who beat him.

Just don't blame us taxpayers, right?  Are we supposed to be our brother's keeper?  Or our sister's?

Update 4/13/16:  The Austin American-Statesman is reporting that Weiser was sexually assaulted and strangled.

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