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Editorial: Questions in the wake of tragedy

Thursday, July 3, 2014
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Every time there's a school shooting or a bombing or some other mass murder, the first question we always collectively ask ourselves is, "Were there signs?"

The second question we ask is, "Could anyone have done anything to prevent it?"

Could anyone have done anything when they observed the terrorist connections of the Boston Marathon bombers or heard the homicidal urges of Aurora movie-theater shooter James Holmes or witnessed the mental deterioration of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza?

Those same questions are no doubt in our minds right now, following the deaths of 6-year-old Eudora Thurston and 9-year-old Callidora Thurston. The two sisters were murdered by their mother, Angela Mtambu, as part of a murder-suicide in East Greenbush overnight Tuesday.

It's far too early in the investigation to reach any conclusions. And no one wants to face the possibility that maybe this could have been prevented. But the issue needs to be faced in order to help reduce the chances of another incident.

In answer to the first question, "Were there signs?", it seems there were.

Apparently, those close to Mtambu were aware of her despondency over the suicide of her son, Mitchell, three months ago. And apparently, authorities were aware more than a month ago that Mtambu was so distraught that she intended to harm her daughters. They even knew where she intended to commit the act.

"Her intention was for her and her two children to be deceased at the same residence as her son," police said Tuesday.

On a trip from Texas to our area last month, authorities in Pennsylvania picked her up and held her in custody for nearly three weeks for psychological evaluation because of this possibility. They then released her, and she was reunited with her children. In Rensselaer County, she was evaluated by social services workers, but no orders of protection were issued to protect her daughters from harm.

Yet on Tuesday morning, we awoke to the news that Mtambu had carried out the very act people close to the situation had suspected she intended to commit.

The second question, "Could anyone have done anything to prevent it?" raises even more questions.

How did people know Mtambu intended to harm her children? How serious was the threat? If it was serious, why was she released from psychiatric care and allowed to be with her children again? What did social services officials in Rensselaer County learn about her that led them to believe the children were not in jeopardy? What could police have done differently, if anything? Did someone incorrectly believe the threat had passed? Did someone in a capacity to intervene not act when they should have? If everyone followed procedures as the law proscribes, do legislators need to look at whether the laws designed to protect children in such circumstances are strong enough to allow officials to take action when they believe there's a strong likelihood of something happening? Is more mental-health training needed to make better evaluations in such situations?

Or was this just something that no one could have done anything about, that these situations are just too difficult to predict? Were the children's deaths an inevitable consequence of the natural and legal limits of officials and family members to intercede? Do we just chalk this up as a terrible tragedy and hope it never happens again? Or do we face the tough questions and take whatever actions we can to prevent the next one?

In memory of Eudora and Callidora Thurston, and for the sake of other children in the future who might find themselves in similar circumstances, we'd better find some answers.

 
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