Cover Story

In Loco Parentis

A triple murder. A suicide. A 2-month-old orphan. A mentally ill mother caused the tragedy, but it took a state bureaucracy to turn tragedy into travesty. The case in Connecticut now has implications for every parent: Can you really determine who will rear your children should you die?

Issue: "Bureaucratic burial," June 29, 2002

For Chad and Sara Prigge, the evening of Wednesday, June 9, 1999, started like any other. They tucked their children, 4-year-old Caleb and infant Rachel, into bed. Sara cleaned up from dinner. Chad, the assistant pastor at Truth Baptist Church just outside Hartford, Conn., had some studying to do before switching off the lights in their little green house in a quiet cul-de-sac.

About 1 a.m., the quiet was broken. Awakened by screams of "Help me! Help me!" the Prigges hurried to the front door. They saw a figure running toward them with what seemed to be a lantern or a torch. But it turned out to be neither. Instead, 9-year-old Jessica Silk, a neighbor across the cul-de-sac, was stumbling into the Prigges' front yard with her hair and pajamas ablaze.

The first few, sickening moments, everything was a blur. Sara screamed at Jessica to drop and roll on the front lawn while Chad dialed 911. Together they brought Jessica into their living room and tried to keep her calm until the paramedics arrived. Across the street, the Silks' two-story white colonial was on fire. Chad knew there were three other children inside, children he and his wife had often babysat or taken to church. But the sight of Jessica's frightening injuries compelled him to stay by her side.

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The little girl lay on the floor, muttering incoherently. The fire was out now, but her arms kept bleeding and bleeding, staining the floor between the floral-print sofa and the upright piano. There was a smell of burning flesh, but something else, too. Was it gasoline? What was she saying about her mother's nightmare? And why did her arms keep bleeding like that?

Awakened by the commotion, Caleb Prigge shuffled around the corner and saw his older playmate, charred and bleeding, lying on the floor. Sara hustled him off to bed. Worried for his own young children, Chad locked the windows and waited for help to arrive.

When the fire trucks screamed to a stop outside, Sara rushed to tell rescuers exactly where each bedroom was located in the burning house. There's a baby in there, she told the firefighters as she mapped out the quickest route to the nursery.

Moments later a firefighter returned, carrying a blackened little bundle in his arms. "I got him!" he yelled. The fireman laid the little victim on the Prigges' front lawn, well away from the smoke and confusion next door. "Joshua was as black as a piece of coal when they pulled him out," Mr. Prigge recalls. "We didn't think he was going to make it."

Amazingly, 2-month-old Joshua did make it, but he was the last family member who would leave the house alive that night. Inside, rescuers found the bodies of his mother and father, Charlie and Kelly Silk, plus a sister, Jennifer, nearly 3 years old, and a brother, Jonah, just a year and a half.

The two children had died of asphyxiation as the fire sucked oxygen from the air and filled their rooms with thick smoke. But what about the parents? Why hadn't they intervened? Slowly, Jessica's mutterings started to make a grisly kind of sense. The 9-year-old had awakened to sounds of a scuffle. Wandering into her parents' room, she saw her mother stabbing her father to death. Catching sight of the witness, Kelly Silk turned the knife on her daughter, stabbing her more than 60 times. As Jessica continued struggling to escape, her mother poured gasoline on both of them and lit a match.

For Mrs. Silk, it was a violent ending to a troubled life. Suffering from bipolar disorder and on heavy medication, she had already attempted suicide. Her marriage to Charlie Silk, her second husband, brought her into a church where she reportedly made many friends and found some stability. But three pregnancies in as many years sent her on a downward spiral. Instead of bringing joy, the birth of Joshua plunged her into a postpartum depression from which she never recovered.

Her husband may have feared the worst. In August of 1998, he approached the Prigges to ask if they would serve as the children's guardians if anything ever happened to the elder Silks. After praying about it for several days, Mr. Prigge says he agreed to be named guardian-then promptly put it out of his mind. Other couples in the church had also asked the Prigges to care for their children after their death, but, really, what were the chances?

The chances, as it turned out, were nil. Although valid wills were found two days after the tragedy, it took less than two weeks for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place Joshua with a young couple who had never even seen the child before the night of the fire. (Jessica went to live with her biological father in Minnesota, who was located shortly after the blaze.) The Prigges, shocked that their friends' final wishes could be so easily ignored by the DCF bureaucrats, sued for custody of Joshua.

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