By Dan Kotowski
His name was Taj Smith. You won’t know who he was, but we did. Through our foster care program at ChildServ, our team was very involved in his life for a couple of years and did everything we could to ensure that he had the best life possible.
Taj was loved and cared for by his parents, his foster parent, his relatives, friends and our case workers. He died a few months ago at the young age of 17 and his death left a hole in the hearts of everyone who came into contact with him.
Taj was killed when he was shot in front of his friend’s house. The cause of his death warranted six brief lines in a local newspaper. Six brief lines. No newspapers provided an obituary highlighting the impact of his life, or the time and place of his funeral service.
Taj was wearing a suit in the open casket. It was his mother’s wish. He had never worn a suit when he was alive, and his mother, naturally, like any parent, wanted her son to look his best.
Taj looked very much like a boy on the verge of being a man. I could see it in in his face: soft skin with full sideburns. I thought about everything he would miss: high school graduation, college, marriage, his first job, his first child, the next Bulls or Cubs championship.
But there was something else. In addition to no death notice, no obituary, there was no gravesite service and no burial at a cemetery. So not only had Taj been taken way too soon from this world, but he and his family had to suffer the additional indignity of no gravesite burial. It was as if in the world outside, he did not exist, and his life did not matter.
When did the death of a child become like a tree falling in the forest? What has happened to us as a country that we are letting children vanish from the earth like vapor? Was it because he was poor? A ward of the state? A person of color? To add insult to injury, when I asked a major city newspaper what it would take to have an obituary written, they stated that it would cost $400 dollars for 17 lines of content. Imagine having just 17 lines to describe the life of your child. Worse yet, imagine not having the money to do so.
There is something morally wrong about not telling the stories of children sacrificed at the altar of perpetual violence.
Taj was not perfect, but he was caring, thoughtful and intelligent, and he deserved to live a long and productive life. He was a good speaker, was starting to get As in school, and was a peacemaker among his friends.
He loved to be in the kitchen cooking, especially pancakes. He was very affectionate, liked to give hugs and tell people he loved them. His mother called him, “My Boonkie Bear.”
Taj’s dream was to work in the community. He liked helping people.
There is something so dehumanizing about letting children die without stopping to properly and publicly mourn their loss. If we don’t talk about their lives, share their stories, let people know about the mark they left on our world, they will have died in vain. Even worse, this will permit more children to endure the same silent, tragic end.
It is our responsibility to honor the lives of these children by making sure the world knows who they were and what they dreamed and how they suffered, so we can finally take serious steps toward protecting our kids and the future that was supposedly promised them.
It starts today by telling Taj’s story. It continues by shining a bright, clear, piercing light on the lives of hundreds of other children killed by violence.
Chicago native Dan Kotowski served nine years in the Illinois State Senate, focusing his efforts on the education, safety and well-being of children and families. He is currently the CEO of the Chicago based non-profit ChildServ, a human services agency. As CEO he has instituted programs that address the needs of the whole child and their families. Kotowski has used his network to increase ChildServ’s impact and maintain consistency of care for children and families in its programs. Just before Christmas he oversaw the donation and delivery of more than $90,000 worth of gifts to 1,500 at-risk Chicago area children.