What Are Neighbors For? The Cleveland Kidnappings

As a clinical psychologist and a neighbor I have many questions about the behavior of Ariel Castro’s neighbors. As we are all painfully aware, Mr. Castro is the man who allegedly kidnapped and sexually abused three young women for an entire decade. Where on earth, I would like to know were the neighbors? How could they not have sensed that something was amiss in that house that supposedly had barbed wire in the backyard. Barbed wire is not a typical item that is kept in the backyard or in the home for that matter. I am sitting here scratching my head.

I have heard several stories of what may have aroused the suspicion of neighbors. Apparently, an unnamed individual may have seen a little girl in a van driven by Mr. Castro. Yet another neighbor may have seen two young women in Mr. Castro’s backyard. I don’t know if these are actual true stories or if they were even reported to the police. I can tell you,though, what I do know. I know that people often do have a gut sense that something is wrong when something is in fact wrong. And, as a clinical psychologist I can tell you that many people do not trust their gut reactions. That explanation for why neighbors may not have reported suspicious activity is in my opinion very generous. It is more likely that our old friend “diffusion of responsibility”-a psychological explanation for why a lack of action is often a group’s reaction to dangerous behavior- was operating in this neighborhood. Everyone assumes that someone else is going to take action so what actually happens is that no one steps up to the plate and takes action.

We are living in a culture where kids are getting bullied and killing themselves. Each week we hear yet another violent story about how yet another “wonderful” person committed a horrendous crime and “snapped.” Well let me tell you that individuals do NOT snap. Their violent behavior is usually not a surprise to people who knew them well. How I wonder do people keep explosives in their homes without anyone knowing? When and how did we become a culture that literally and figuratively looks in the other direction? Do we not have responsibility for one another? Aren’t neighbors supposed to be looking in on and out for each other. I say shame on neighbors who have suspicions about the family two houses away and say nothing. There was a time when neighbors would do things like borrow sugar from one another.

There is nothing sweet about negligence and silence. I hope that this Cleveland set of atrocities will serve to wake us up as a nation. It takes a village not only to raise a child but also to keep our children safe. Clearly, I have strong feelings about this situation. I would love to hear how the rest of the country feels about this.