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Les Misérables in New York

The pathetic face of little Cosette multiplies on sweatshirts and lampposts all over New York, spread there by the producers of Les Misérables to assert an appeal that fills the Broadway Theater every night with customers who pay up to $50 to pity this battered child of Victor Hugo’s imagining

[whose] whole person…her gait, her attitude, the sound of her voice,…her looks, her silence, her least motion, expressed and uttered a single idea: Fear.

Cosette’s sponsors have earned our thanks for devising and circulating the most appropriate of symbols for the New York of 1988, which is more and more a theme park reproducing the England of Dickens, the France of Hugo, and, in extreme cases of the violation of innocence, the Russia of Dostoevsky.

Kareem David Thornton-Bey was only five years old when he was already schooled well enough by hard use to give the police a false name as a try at escaping reconsignment to his father.

Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Mary O’Donoghue remembers what Kareem David said when he came to the last item in the catalog of parental beatings: “It was when I asked for more soup.”

He was born in 1982, and his voice echoes Oliver Twist’s. One night last October, a New York City transit officer found Kareem David riding the subway on Upper Broadway. He explained that his mother had left him there with an order to get lost. He had been living until then with his parents and his three younger siblings at a welfare hotel, an experience discouraging familiarity with official benevolence, and this uniformed patrolman’s kindness must have been something of a surprise.

But then there are always Good Samaritans to redeem the worst horrors in Dickens. There is also the bureaucrat to blunder matters back to their old iniquity. Kareem David was transiently the ward of Special Services for Children, whose investigators recorded the testimony of his prior ill treatment. But within a week, the police penetrated the disguise of Kareem David’s pseudonym and found his parents and, for being too much in haste to check its records, SSC delivered him back to the mother and father who had beaten him and would do so again.

Seven days later, two private citizens came upon Kareem David and his three-year-old sister, Mushana, wandering a street not far from the stage door of Les Misérables, shivering with the late November chill and begging for food. The Good Samaritan had bobbed up once again: their rescuers first bought them a meal and warmer clothing and then took them to the nearest police station.

Special Services assumed custody of all four children and found them foster homes. Rusul and Stephanie Thornton-Bey asserted their parental rights and were given permission to visit Kareem David’s three siblings, none of whom, so far as official knowledge ran, had ever been violently trammeled by father or mother. On January 5 last. Rusul and Stephanie Thornton-Bey came to visit and snatched all three with a threat to kill any social worker who interfered with their departure.

The next day, the police arrested the Thornton-Beys, indicted them for two felonies, and restored their children to safety. At one point in gathering her evidence, Mary O’Donoghue brought little Mushana to the welfare hotel that had been the scene of all the torments imputed to her parents.

Mushana’s memory was quickened when she saw a wooden coat hanger in the closet. That, she said, must be the weapon her mother used to beat her; she could tell by the feel.

The Thornton-Beys are yet to be tried, and their conviction will not be easy work. The medical evidence aside, every voice that could testify against them belongs to a child no older than six. But such are the impediments to the salvation of this our Dickensland, where the only direct and living witnesses to the torture of children are almost unvaryingly the children.

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