Foss: Recovery of child’s body demands answers

State Street neighborhood in state of despair
Schenectady Police stand by at 766 State St. where a makeshift memorial has been set up.
Schenectady Police stand by at 766 State St. where a makeshift memorial has been set up.

Categories: Opinion

The signs of despair are everywhere in the block where the body of a child was found late Thursday night. 

There are boarded-up houses and vacant lots with knee-high weeds, snippets of graffiti scrawled on walls and sidewalks, broken windows and piles of garbage accumulating on sidewalks and in alleys. 

These are not the characteristics of a happy community. 

Or a healthy community. 

We don’t know exactly what happened to 4-month-old Rayen Puleski, the baby reported missing in Schenectady. Other than noting that the body recovered from behind 766 State Street was “consistent with that of a child,” police offered few details in this extremely disturbing case. 

But if it takes a village to raise a child, we need to take a good, hard look at the village where the child’s body was found, and ask some difficult questions.  

Among other things, we need to ask why babies in this zip code — 12307 — are more likely to die before their first birthday than in any other neighborhood in Schenectady County. 

As I learned last year while researching high rates of infant mortality in the Capital Region, between 2012 and 2014 there were 35 infant deaths in Schenectady County, eight of which — 22 percent — occurred in the 12307 zip code, which encompasses the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood.

If the body recovered last week is that of Rayen Puleski, he is simply the latest in a long line of infant deaths on Hamilton Hill, and his death is a symptom of larger, community-wide woes. 

Also see: Few details available in missing infant case, autopsy pending, Aug. 10, 2018

In places where infant mortality rate are high — places like Hamilton Hill — chronic ailments such as asthma occur at much higher rates, and intractable social problems such as poverty, joblessness and substance abuse are more widespread and thus more visible. 

On my short stroll through the Hill on Friday, I passed a parking lot where people who were either drunk or high had gathered. One of them asked me whether I could give her $2 so she could get something to eat; when I see her again, she is standing outside a corner market, yelling.

“Women and children are like a canary in a coal mine,” Kathryn Mitchell, the Albany-based maternal and child health director for the March of Dimes, told me when I interviewed her in 2017. “They’re one of the indicators that tell us whether we have a healthy community.”

Again, we know very little about the life of the child whose body was recovered last week. 

But if the body is that of Rayen Puleski, then what we do know is quite troubling. 

We know that his mother, Heaven Puleski, was located at a nearby Days Inn in Schenectady, questioned by police and taken to “detox” at Ellis Hospital, according to family members. One family member said Puleski struggled with addictions to heroin and crack cocaine. 

In 2016, Puleski was arrested for escaping police custody in Gloversville on drug charges, spent 10 months in the county jail, and had another child removed from her custody. 

Which raises the question: Why was Rayen Puleski still in the custody of someone who, if the descriptions provided by family are accurate, was clearly unfit to be a parent? Why did it take so long to figure out he was missing? 

Perhaps, in the coming weeks and months, we’ll get answer to these questions. 

But here’s what we already know: The child whose body was recovered on Hamilton Hill deserved better. 

The system failed this child, and unless something changes, it will fail many more.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

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