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Just a mom, but she has a message

On a rainy Halloween morning, as the weather played its tricks, Liz Fehr packed her children's book bags with lunches and costumes. Her 10-year-old son, Max, was dressing up as the Phantom of the Opera. Her 8-year-old daughter, Samantha, was playing Jeannie from that old TV show I Dream of Jeannie.

Then she took her kids to school, took her 10-month-old, Monica, to day care and set her old Jeep Cherokee, with 100,000 miles on it, in the direction of her office at a St. Petersburg printing company.

Occasionally, she glanced through her rain-streaked window at the houses she passed and had the thought she always has after she hears about another child abuse death.

"It could be going on in that house over here," she says, "'or that house over there."

We're in Liz's office now, days after the death of 2-year-old Jonathan Flam of Tampa, whose skull was allegedly fractured by his mother's boyfriend.

Pictures of Liz's own children are propped against the wall. In one photograph, Max and Samantha are lying on a blanket, their baby sister Monica between them. The picture was taken on a Saturday, right after they awakened, and they're grinning silly, matching, good-morning grins.

She tries to reconcile this picture with the picture of Jonathan that she'd seen on the news this week, in which the toddler's face is so battered he looks oddly grown-up, like a boxer after a lost match.

"How does an adult get satisfaction out of ..." she hesitates, as if she is afraid of the next word "... torturing a child?"

And how could Jonathan's mother, Nadine Flam, let her boyfriend look after a child he already had been accused of beating? Liz Fehr puts herself in Nadine Flam's shoes and speaks as a woman with several children. "I can't relate to (her) not having her priorities straight. These children are her blood! She's all they have to lead them through life."

Liz is 38. The lines around her blue eyes, I want to believe, have been etched by smiles.

Her life is, by her own description, so boring she would never qualify as a guest on Montel Williams. She has no dark secrets, just a husband and three children and a goal of serving her family a home-cooked meal three times a week, with everybody together at the table, sitting down, the TV off.

She lives by the alarm clock, the crock pot, the microwave oven. She is a whiz at making chili, tuna casserole, spaghetti. She pays for day care and after-school care, is insistent about homework and struggles with herself over whether her job takes up time she should be giving her children.

It was Liz who called me weeks back, after five children died in one bloody Florida week, and said she just couldn't bear to follow the terrible stories. I thought of her while preparing to write about death No. 6, Jonathan Flam's, and in a column on Thursday mentioned her affecting call.

Liz still wasn't reading the paper closely then, but her mother was. Her mother saw what I had written, guessed correctly she was reading about her daughter and called her right up. Liz in turn called me, and we arranged to meet.

"Tell me, who do I write to to say, "I'd be willing to pay more taxes to fix it?' "

When I say she ought to tell her legislators, she apologizes for not knowing who they are. As if she has time to keep up with them, too. She makes occasional donations to a local abuse shelter and wonders if it would be possible to establish local emergency babysitting pools for stressed-out parents, to keep them from taking their rage out on their kids.

But those answers are grand, global, and the only piece of the world in which she sees herself having a chance is in her own home, with her own kids. "It makes me want to just go in their rooms and give them another hug and instill in them the right skills, so that when they're parents, they'll do it right."

Even that, though, can't drive out Liz's thoughts of the killing of Jonathan Flam: "I'm not a religious person, but I wonder, where was God then?"