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The Criminalization of Poverty

June 26, 2014

This post is only tangentially related to medicine, more directly related to parenting, and absolutely related to humanity.

There has been a recent spate of children-left-in-cars stories lately.  Some of these moms, and it’s always moms, like Christina Moon (http://www.today.com/parents/errand-crime-parents-now-face-hard-consequences-leaving-kids-car-6C10584642) and Kim Brooks (http://www.salon.com/2014/06/03/the_day_i_left_my_son_in_the_car/) were criminalized for leaving their children while running an errand.  Arguments can be made both ways on that.  Normal mothers trying to manage their children and their lives getting put in jail and getting visits from the Department of Children and Families seems a little extreme to me.  Especially in Massachusetts, given the safety record of children under the care of DCF.  But the story of Shanesha Taylor is different.  Taylor’s story is about the criminalization of poverty.

Shanesha Taylor, if you haven’t heard, is the unemployed, homeless mother who left her two very young boys in her car while she went for an hour-long job interview.  She is being charged with two counts of felony child abuse, each of which carries a 7-year prison sentence.  Her children have been taken away.

Now, the facts of the case are in some dispute, because Taylor’s story has been called into question.  Was she homeless or wasn’t she?  Was she unemployed or not?  Did she have any available funds or not?  Did she really arrange for childcare that fell through or not?  Ms. Taylor says that she had a good job as a loan officer until her mother died, at which point she quit her job to “regroup”.  Ok, bad decision.  She had two children with a man she is not married to, while underemployed and on shaky financial ground.   Ok, bad decision.  It doesn’t matter.  People make bad decisions every single day.  But, two counts of felony child abuse? 

A felony is defined as a crime sufficiently serious to be punishable by death or a term in state or federal prison, as distinguished from a misdemeanor which is only punishable by confinement to county or local jail and/or a fine.  Really?  Shanesha should be eligible for the death penalty? (The countries with the largest number of executions, by the way, are Iraq, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Japan, and us.  That’s an awesome list to be on.)  Historically, however, felonies were crimes involving moral turpitude, those which violated the moral standards of a community.  Ah.  Good old fashioned moral judgement of someone else’s actions without knowledge of their situation.

Someone must have called the police while Shanesha was in her job interview.  Someone also called the cops on Christina Moon and Kim Brooks.  The people who called 911 might have been well-meaning.  But no one knows anybody else’s story.  Those who call 911 made a snap judgement that results in the criminality of the mother.  But what are the real circumstances?  What if, instead of calling the cops, a truly concerned person had checked on the children, attempted to find the mother, and offered to help?  What if the person who called 911 on Shanesha had actually spoken to her?  “Gee, Ms. Taylor, that sounds terrible.  Why don’t I watch your kids for a little while while you go try to get a job?”  Or even a simple “How can I help?”.  If you call the police because a kid is in the car alone, you don’t know anything at all about the situation.  Maybe that mother has been driving around trying to get that kid to sleep for an hour and finally the kid is sleeping.  Maybe the kids are in the car because the house is on fire and the mother has run to the neighbors for help.  Maybe that father (yes, fathers do it too) has a sick kid at home and really needs to just drop in and fill that prescription.  It’s 60 degrees, the child in the car is engaged in a video game, it’s a low-crime neighborhood, and the perfectly good parent makes a choice based on the information available.  Isn’t that what parents do all the time?

What was the goal of the person making that call to the police?  Was it concern for the children?  Well, now the kids are in foster care and the mother is in jail.  How wonderful for the children.  Maybe the goal was more along the lines of the historical definition of felony.  Maybe the caller wanted to punish a Bad Mother, in which case, nice job.

Parenting is hard.  Parenting while broke is harder.  Being a mother while broke is not a crime.  It’s a social and public health problem created by the United States’ lack of support for working mothers.  Can’t we help each other?

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5 Comments
  1. The illness is a systemic cultural one. American society is terribly anti-children; it just doesn’t want to admit it. We are not pro-life, no matter how we discuss abortion.
    One of the reasons that the nursing profession was eliminated was that it reaches too far into society for people’s comfort to look at the deficits in wellness care.

    • I would argue that society is sort of hyper-pro-child at the expense of parents. Or pro-child as a way of covering up the lack of support for working women.

      • I think we are arguing myth vs. reality. America puts a smashing good job at looking like children matter. Since we cannot have a good guy without designated a bad guy, all problems are the parents’ fault, perhaps.

  2. The problem is you have no idea if you are helping someone or not. What happens when you don’t report something and leave a child alone and then finding out later that he/she died from the heat? Are you suggesting we just leave kids to die, as some might (the parents’ comments that they forgot the child was there)?

  3. I agree only in that everyone deserves a fair trial. In these cases, yes, alert the police because unattended children in a car constitute a threat to child’s life. American Academy of Pediatrics said, about 20 years ago, NEVER leave a child under the age of 12 unattended in a car. We have too many cases of toddlers escaping from safety restraints and playing with the controls of the car until the vehicle rolls into traffic. None of these cases constitutes criminalization of poverty. Putting a child’s life in danger is and should be a felony; do not make a case that it might result in a death sentence. I rarely tell parents ignoring screaming children in restaurants that they should do their job better’ and if I wanted to effectively parent more children than I have (three biologic and three take ins) .I have my business to go about, how much time will it take to find the errant parent?

    By all means, call the police if you see an unattended child in a car.

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