There are so many questions to ask in the bizarre case of Banita Jacks.

If you have been following her story in the Washington Post, you know that, when U.S. marshals showed up to serve an eviction notice at her rental house at Sixth Street, SE, they discovered the badly decomposed corpses of her four children.

Ms. Jacks appears to have murdered the girls and continued living with their bodies. According to the Washington Post, authorities allege that Ms. Jacks ceased feeding the girls, aged 5 to 16. The oldest, Brittany Jacks, who would have been 17 last week, appears to have been stabbed in addition to starved, while Aja Fogle, the youngest, also may have been strangled and hit on the head. Apparently, when bodies are in such deplorable conditions, it’s hard to be certain.

What nightmare went on inside that house? Why didn’t at least one of the girls make an escape and tell somebody?

A story in the Post “Style” section raised questions as to why none of the neighbors did anything about the stench coming from the Jacks house. Coupled with the failure of the girls to appear, it was pretty good evidence of something very bad.

As usual, when children are maimed or lost, questions are raised about the child welfare agencies that should have protected them. Mayor Adrian Fenty is firing six welfare workers, including a division head, for bungling the case.

According to the mayor, a social worker told hotline operators that she was not allowed in the house when she went to check on Brittany, who had missed more than a month of classes at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School. “[Ms. Jacks] said she’s not allowing her to go to school because she didn’t want her to run away . . . she’s a hostage in the home,” the social worker said. The social worker saw two or three younger children in the house, looking unkempt. This was in April. There was still time to save at least several of the girls.

A Child and Family Services social worker visited the house twice after this, and no one answered the door. The case was closed by Child and Family Services after a report that the family had moved to Maryland to live with relatives. They did not bother to try to confirm the report. The case was handled badly.

Yes, of course, heads should roll, as they often do when children die. It was an abominable performance. People behaved in incredibly lazy and irresponsible ways. It’s always the same story when children are murdered: the relevant welfare agency has failed, often because welfare agents did not visit the family or foster parents, or, if they did, didn’t follow up. I have no sympathy for them. But I can’t help thinking that such lapses are inevitable. Government, when you get right down to it, wasn’t designed to bring up children. We need to come up with a better way.

What about the two grandmothers, who are now planning funerals? Didn’t anybody in either of the two paternal families of the girls worry about them enough to get in touch before it became funeral-planning time? Wasn’t there a kindly aunt or uncle who cared enough to see if the girls were all right? The newspaper reports that Jacks’ “longtime companion” and father to several of the girls had died a year ago. A longtime companion is not a husband, and right there some of the societal web that children of married parents have to depend upon was lost.  

Banita Jacks had become a single mother at the age of 16 and, as the Post describes it in singularly non-judgmental language, “eventually dependent on public assistance, she spent years tangled in court cases, seeking financial support from the fathers of two of her girls. She lifted herself up for a time — learned a skill, cosmetology. With a new boyfriend, and two more daughters, she seemed happy, doting on her girls. Then she plunged into poverty and homelessness.”

A new boyfriend may make her “happy” for a while, allowing her to dote on her girls, but without a marriage and responsibilities, a woman with four children is almost always going to end up “plunged” in poverty and homelessness. It seems obvious that Ms. Jacks had severe mental problems-but with a family in the traditional sense, people with mental illnesses used to survive in the past. Welfare pretty much puts the unfortunate children of such relationships into the tentacles of “the system” rather than somebody who cares about them.  

When the Jacks story first appeared, I thought of Faulkner’s gruesome short story “A Rose for Emily.” In it, Emily, a well-bred spinster, poisons a traveling salesman and places him in her bed, where he remains for years. The townspeople also smelled the odor of death and did nothing about it. Emily said she’d poisoned a rat. But she had taken pains to select a traveling salesman, somebody whose absence would be harder for her neighbors to notice. But these, the Jacks daughters, were children. What kind of society misplaces its children?

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.