You’re 19, single, on welfare. You breast-feed your baby because you know breast is best. When the baby fails to gain weight, your mother says not to worry, you were even smaller at that age. Twice you take the baby to your Medicaid HMO for checkups, but you’re turned away: The baby’s Medicaid card hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. Finally, after two months, you rush the baby to the hospital, but it’s too late; the baby, now weighing barely five pounds, dies in the taxi. A tragedy, surely, but manslaughter?
A lot of people had a hand in the death of little Tyler Walrond of the Bronx, but only one was put on trial: his mother, Tabitha Walrond. This is family-values America, where mothers and only mothers are held responsible for their children’s well-being, even as fathers decamp and communities and social services fall apart. Walrond, prosecutor Robert Holdman argued in what must be one of the most misogynous accusations on legal record, was a woman scorned who starved her baby to get back at his father, Keenan Purrell, who abandoned her in mid-pregnancy.
The evidence of Walrond’s malevolence toward the baby? Well, on first being dumped she considered having an abortion–as if a just-rejected pregnant teenager’s momentary thought counted for more than the fact that she not only didn’t have an abortion but was an exemplary prenatal patient–went to all her doctor’s appointments, attended Lamaze class faithfully, decided to breast-feed, an unusual choice among poor urban women and, after this trial, likely to become even more so. Holdman brought out Purrell and his mother, who made allegations that were shown in court to be untrue: that Walrond had tried to prevent Purrell from seeing his son, that she ignored the baby, that they had given Walrond money. The prosecutor didn’t explain why the father, or his mother, weren’t also to blame for Tyler’s death. They could have whisked him off to an emergency room themselves if they were as worried as they later claimed to have been.
And then there were the doctors. Walrond’s lawyer, Susan Tipograph, showed that Walrond’s numerous doctors failed to give her appropriate information, even though the breast-reduction surgery she had at 15 was a major risk factor for breast-feeding failure. Most culpable of all, though, were the Medicaid managed-care system and its clinics. By law, babies whose mothers are enrolled in Medicaid are supposed to be automatically enrolled as well. But no prosecutor full of baby-protection zeal thought to bring charges against HIP, Walrond’s plan, though its contract with the city stipulates that it will see babies within two weeks of birth, card or no card. “There’s no reason for that baby to have died,” Elisabeth Benjamin of the Task Force on Medicaid Managed Care told me. “This is a tragedy of privatized healthcare. The name of the game is to deny care.”
The jury rejected the murder-by-breast scenario but convicted Walrond of criminally negligent homicide after a mere two and a half hours’ deliberation. “No matter what, she was the mother,” one juror told the New York Times. “She was failed, but she should have been strong enough to do more.” That’s the pure spirit of the Personal Responsibility Act talking, but it rings a bell, I’m sure, with a lot of well-meaning liberal middle-class people who, like the jury, were horrified by photographs of Tyler’s wizened day-old corpse (Tipograph was unable to enter into evidence photos of the baby taken shortly after death, in which he looked less ghastly). How could Walrond not have seen that her son was starving when she saw him every day? How could she not have found some way to get to a doctor?
It all seems so unlikely from the perspective of people who know how to demand what they need–who know what phone calls to make and to whom to complain. But is it so unlikely? If you live with someone every day, you can miss or explain away even quite alarming gradual changes–denial is a powerful force. And, according to Dr. Marianne Neifert, a lactation expert, starving babies can look more or less OK for quite a while, and then crash suddenly. After all,whatever happened with Tyler, Walrond’s mother, who also saw him every day, missed it too.
Once the scorned woman hypothesis is off the table, there’s no reason to see Tyler’s death as anything but what it was–a tragedy set in motion by ignorance, poverty, social isolation and a deliberate policy of depriving the city’s needy of social services. It should never have been prosecuted. Last spring in Brooklyn, the district attorney wisely decided against going forward with the very similar case of Tatiana Cheeks, another poor young black woman whose breast-fed baby died.
“People think of breast-feeding as an intuitive, natural thing,” Galen Sherwin, head of NYC-NOW, told me. “But we’re not cats.” Advocates of breast-feeding have done a good job of making women feel guilty if they don’t opt for it, but there’s a reason that it’s mostly prosperous women who choose it and stick with it. (See Linda Blum’s At the Breast: Ideologies of Breast-feeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States, just out from Beacon, for an enlightening discussion of the cultural and social contexts of breast- versus bottle-feeding.) You need a lot of information and a lot of support, and we’re not living in villages where these things are part of the social fabric, where breast-feeding is a part of life and every woman is able to instruct new mothers. Even well-off, well-educated women can run into trouble without realizing it. Tipograph told me she received many letters from such women with stories much like Walrond’s. The difference is that those women had private pediatricians, and their babies’ problems were caught in time–although sometimes only just.
The women’s movement is always being accused of not caring about poor women of color, but virtually the only advocates for Walrond have been feminists: NYC-NOW, which staged demonstrations at the courthouse, the NYCLU Reproductive Rights Project, City Council member Ronnie Eldridge. Walrond’s supporters are asking for polite letters urging compassion and no imprisonment for Tabitha Walrond, who will be sentenced on June 30 and could get up to four years. Write the Hon. Robert Straus, Bronx Supreme Court, 851 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY 10451.