Thursday, July 24, 1997
Are we brave enough
to save a child?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

What a lot of attention little Misti Highfill is getting. Now that she's dead.

Neighbors doing sound bites. ''She was a loner.'' Children being interviewed. ''She was a nice kid.'' Flowers and notes and toys left at the Dumpster site where her body was found Monday. A candlelight service at the apartment building where she lived in Fairfield.

Her self-conscious grin is on the front page of The Enquirer. She was just 8 years old, the age when our second teeth are a little too big, kind of gappy and rough, not yet polished by use.

No instruction manual

Her photo looks like my second-grade school picture when my mother was telling me that my ears were not too big, that I would grow into them. Misti would have been in the second grade except that she had to repeat the first grade because she missed 33 days. Last year was better - only 6.5 absences and three times tardy. Maybe she overslept.

''The child would be outside at all hours,'' according to a neighbor.

''We love you, Misti,'' someone scribbled in marker near her home. Not enough, we didn't.

Will Smith, star of the movie Men in Black, told Oprah when he bought a new television set, ''They gave me, like, a book of instructions.'' When he left the hospital with his new baby, ''They said 'Good luck.' '' Of course, anybody who is a parent needs a lot more than luck. We need help. From family. From teachers and neighbors. From friends and strangers.

A neglected child is a big, a very big, thing. It's not something they grow out of, like having big ears and crooked teeth. Another child, a 15-year-old boy, has been charged with Misti's murder. Another neglected child?

The people who have stepped forward to tell of Misti Highfill's bleak life and their role in it - ''She was crying and I tried to make her feel better'' - are just like the rest of us. They already have all the trouble they need.

Neighbor rage

Blame? A single mother ''doing her best'' who didn't report the child missing for 20 hours. Belated reports that the little girl wandered the apartment complex, hungry and unsupervised. But road rage is nothing compared to neighbor rage. You really have to be brave to interfere with somebody else's child. These same neighbors have said the 15-year-old was a bully and a troublemaker.

You have to think twice before you tangle with something like that.

Of course, we adults know enough to be cautious. Maybe that's why children are so brave. They don't know any better. And they don't have a choice. What more could Misti have done? How could she have asked more plainly to be protected from harm?

She was surrounded by people who could see that she needed help. Sometimes she got it. A sandwich here, a bandage there. Some who knew her are probably beating themselves up because they didn't do more.

Here's the thing. Misti Highfill is irreplaceable but not unique. She can't bask in the glow of candles and smell the flowers and read the notes. She doesn't need us any more. But some other kid does. Somewhere else. Right now.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.