Nightmarish stories about about the criminalizing of motherhood have been making headlines of late. There was Shanesha Taylor, arrested on child abuse charges for leaving her kids in a car to go to a job interview; Debra Harrell, locked up for child abuse for letting her 9-year-old play at a nearby park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s; Mallory Loyola, the first woman to be charged under a new Tennessee law that makes it a crime to take drugs while pregnant; and Eileen Dinino, who died serving a jail sentence because she was too poor to pay legal fees from her kids’ truancy cases. Other countries provide social programs and income supports for poor single mothers; in the United States, we arrest them. This week at The Curve, we ask contributors what, in their view, is driving America’s assault on mothers, and what is the remedy? —Kathleen Geier
Sarah Jaffe: It has been impossible for me to do much this week except obsessively read news reports from Ferguson, Missouri, where the horrors of a militarized suburban police force have been unleashed on a community mourning one of its own, Michael Brown, shot by a police officer on Saturday, August 9. It has been hard to click away from Twitter, where my feed is overflowing with tweets from Ferguson, to go to sleep at night or to work on other stories.
My feed is full of pictures like this: pictures of mothers holding children facing down lines of heavily armed police, police in camouflage, police with wooden batons and riot shields and rifles loaded with who knows what. Mothers in tank tops, babies in shorts, nowhere to conceal the weapon that it would be ludicrous to think they had. I see those pictures alongside pictures of Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, crying for her son who was left dead in the street for hours. Photos of her with her hands in the air, the way her son reportedly died.
As Dani McClain wrote on this website earlier, it is sometimes hard to get the broader feminist movement to see the killing of black children as a feminist issue, though it has long been part of the woman of color-led reproductive justice movement. But as we see the criminalization of mothers grabbing headlines around the country in recent months and years, we would do well to understand all of these issues as connected.
I wrote at Salon about the arrests of Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell for not being with their children while they pursued a job and were at work, respectively. I argued there that we should see the NYPD’s notorious arrest of Denise Stewart, dragged half-naked from her Brownsville apartment, and her 12-year-old daughter as part of the same pattern of criminalizing black motherhood in particular, of not just devaluing the work done by black mothers but implying that their parenting is bad, dangerous, criminal.
The demonization of poor mothers but particularly of black mothers was used to sell the “welfare reform” policy signed into law by Bill Clinton, the precise policy that made it necessary for mothers like Debra Harrell to go to work at McDonald’s and not to be home with their children, a policy that shoved parents into work and did nothing to provide them with childcare. This same stereotype of the lazy bad welfare queen serves to reinforce our idea of childcare as a private responsibility rather than a community good, and thus leaves us all without a childcare system that works.