How to End the Criminalization of America’s Mothers

How to End the Criminalization of America’s Mothers

How to End the Criminalization of America’s Mothers

Other countries provide childcare and income supports for poor mothers; in the United States, we arrest them.


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.

That same stereotype was present when Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother who in 2012 was living with her son alternately on a friend’s couch, in a van, and in a shelter, enrolled her son in the more affluent Norwalk, Connecticut, school district and was sentenced to five years in jail for “stealing” $15,686 in “education services.” Apparently it’s just that easy to quantify the difference between the quality of education in Norwalk and neighboring Bridgeport, where McDowell’s last permanent address had been. But instead of being horrified at the inequality between school districts, we were supposed to be horrified that McDowell had dared to acknowledge the difference herself and to reach across that line to want better for her 6-year-old boy.

Instead of fixing social services so that mothers don’t have to face impossible choices or take unknowable risks, we throw them in jail. They shouldn’t have had the audacity to have children while poor, we say, ignoring the fact that particularly after the 2008 financial crisis we should all be aware that economic circumstances can change at the drop of a hat through no fault of one’s own. Ignoring the years and years of racist policies that made sure that the face of poverty was likely to look like Taylor, Harrell, McDowell.

Our public policy suggests that women shouldn’t have the audacity to parent while poor.

Selma James, one of the founders of the Wages for Housework movement and the author of the anthology Sex, Race and Class, talked to me recently about the way she still sees care work devalued—from the low wages for preschool and childcare workers to the willingness of child services workers to take children away from their families. “When you are a carer, how you care, how you are allowed to care, the time you are allowed to care, these are the conditions of your labor,” she pointed out. Wages for Housework was a demand both for women to be seen as workers rather than the natural providers of care, but also a demand for real money for those who do that caring work, for an understanding that it is economically indispensable work. The welfare system, before it was dismantled, was a step in this direction. Now, instead, as Shanesha Taylor said, many mothers face a choice “between providing for my children and caring for my children.”

I started out as a feminist blogger and became a labor reporter, and now I find myself slowly but surely writing more and more about criminalization, about the way that police affect a community, about the intersection of our supposed criminal justice system with the economic system under which we live. I cannot write about gender in this country without writing about work and the economy; cannot write about inequality without writing about the vast criminal punishment system. Putting people in jail and violently policing their communities, is a substitute here in the United States for social policy. “Broken windows” policing is a substitute for fixing those windows, for equitably funding schools so no more mothers go to jail for “stealing” a free public education, for making sure that families have homes and childcare. Policing did nothing to help Lesley McSpadden raise her son. All it did was ensure that she found him dead in the street on his way to visit his grandmother.

As we continue to watch the militarized police in the streets of Ferguson, I think of the words of Dream Hampton about the caring work done by the women during the protests:

But I also think of what Selma James told me not long ago:

“Caring work is irrelevant because they don’t want us cared for, you know. I think they want a lot of us dead.”

Mariame Kaba: In March, I started a petition demanding that Maricopa County prosecutor Bill Montgomery drop all charges against Shanesha Taylor. Like many others, I saw her mugshot photo circulating in the media. Her tear-stained and anguished face was unforgettable. At the time, Shanesha was a homeless mother of three who left her two youngest children in a car while interviewing for a desperately needed job. Her children were discovered alone in the car unharmed. Shanesha was arrested and jailed for several days. After more than $114,000 was raised by strangers and nearly 60,000 signed a petition, Shanesha accepted a deal from the prosecutor that will eventually lead to the dismissal of her felony charges. I have no doubt that public attention and pressure played a role in this outcome.

Shanesha has expressed happiness and relief about the resolution of her case. I, on the other hand, remain angry that she was criminalized in the first place. How could prosecution and jail be the solutions for what is obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? The children were immediately taken to the hospital and pronounced in good health. They were placed under the supervision of child protective services. According to sociology graduate student Frank Edwards, nationally, “Black children enter foster care at a rate 2.4 times greater than do White children.” We know that, for the most part, removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. If anything, they worsen them.

Black women are seen as preternaturally “strong”—which justifies punitive treatment by the state.

In the United States, black mothers have been and continue to be disproportionately punished and controlled in various ways. In “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers,” legal scholar and sociologist Dorothy Roberts offers a cogent analysis of how the criminal legal and child welfare systems work together to police and control black women’s bodies and families. She writes that the systems “function together to discipline and control poor and low-income black women by keeping them under intense state supervision and blaming them for the hardships their families face as a result of societal inequities.” She also argues that stereotypes about black women as “welfare queens” and “matriarchs” subject them to and reinforce punitive policies.

This is not new. Black women’s bodies have long been “managed” and criminalized. In her book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Roberts offers many examples of the criminalization of black women, including this one:

In 1989, officials in Charleston, South Carolina, initiated a policy of arresting pregnant women whose prenatal tests revealed they were smoking crack. In some cases, a team of police tracked down expectant mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In others, officers invaded the maternity ward to haul away patients in handcuffs and leg irons, hours after giving birth. One woman spent the final weeks of pregnancy detained in a dingy cell in the Charleston County Jail. When she went into labor, she was transported in chains to the hospital, and remained shackled to the bed during the entire delivery. All but one of the four dozen women arrested for prenatal crimes in Charleston were Black.

More recently, in 2006, 16-year-old Rennie Gibbs delivered a stillborn baby. After an autopsy, the medical examiner found trace amounts of cocaine in the stillborn child and ruled that this caused the death. Gibbs was charged with “depraved heart murder.” The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.

A few months ago, a Mississippi judge finally dismissed the murder charge against her. However, prosecutors are suggesting that they may reconvene a grand jury to re-indict Gibbs for manslaughter.

The so-called “war on drugs” has really been a war on people, and its effects have been particularly devastating for black women and girls like Rennie Gibbs. While blacks make up 13 percent of the US population and are consistently shown to use drugs at similar or lower rates than others, they comprise almost one-third (31 percent) of those arrested for drug law offenses and more than 40 percent of those incarcerated for violating drug laws.

In the United States, the ‘bad mother’ is usually poor and almost always black. Popular representations of black women are shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class and more. Black women exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. We are preternaturally “strong” and feel no pain therefore justifying harsh and punitive treatment by the state.

It’s a small miracle then that some people were able to overcome our collective socialization to express compassion for Shanesha Taylor and for her children. But it isn’t nearly enough for us to care about black mothers and their children or to simply acknowledge their suffering; we must change policies that are destroying their lives. We must end the war on drugs. We must provide free or low-cost childcare options. We must create living wage jobs. And we must end racist mass criminalization.

Randy Albelda: Les Misérables, all over again… Some aspects of the criminalization of motherhood, such as arresting pregnant women because they take drugs, are just plain misogynist. In the view that drives these practices, women are not capable of controlling their own bodies. But some policies that criminalize mothers are deeply shaped by perceptions of the essential character of poor mothers, and women and men of color—perceptions magnified at the intersection of race and class.

Poor unmarried mothers historically have been characterized as deviant, dependent and even dangerous to society. Mimi Abramovitz’s 1988 classic Regulating the Lives of Women traced the ways in which unmarried mothers were seen as unfit (and therefore in need of regulation), especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More modern depictions, like that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, implied that problems facing urban black Americans at that time were rooted in the “Negro Family,” largely headed by a single mother. Ronald Reagan’s story of a welfare “queen” that drove a Cadillac and illegally milked the system resonated with the public, driving home the image of poor mothers as undeserving. Several states currently require or have introduced bills that require drug tests of mothers on welfare. Poor people, especially mothers receiving government assistance, have long been subject to scrutiny, surveillance and even criminal sanctions for their everyday actions.

Poor mothers’ lives are more exposed than other mothers’.

The problem poor mothers face is not criminal or deviant tendencies. It is that they are caught between a rock and hard place. Taking care of children is expensive and time-consuming, while women’s jobs often pay lousy wages. Mothers with low-wage work often face inflexible work hours in jobs that offer few benefits. In 2012, according to US Census data, the median earnings for employed single and married mothers was $29,120. The Wider Opportunities for Women 2010 report indicates that the typical childcare cost for a single parent with one preschooler and one school age child in the United Sates was $12,960. Without another reliable adult around, it is a Herculean task to find enough time and money to survive.

Further, poor mothers’ lives are more exposed than other mothers. Being poor means taking public transportation, living in denser housing, doing your laundry out of your house. Being poor while parenting (not unlike being black while driving) may be just enough for social workers, teachers, neighbors, bosses and others watching to deem you an inadequate mother. There is no denying that at times all mothers make poor choices about their kids or their spending. If you are white and not poor, there are few consequences for normal human error. But what are you supposed to do when you have no good options available? Do you leave the kid in the car while you go for an interview, or miss the interview and lose the chance of getting a job that provides for him? Do you go into debt to live in a safe neighborhood or risk harm in a dangerous, but cheaper, one?

Ironically, welfare “reform” in the 1990s was supposed to “clean up” poor mother’s deviant act by requiring employment and encouraging marriage. Welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972, “We’ve been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there’s something wrong with their character“ (Ms. Magazine, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue”). In fact, welfare reform forced many women to break the law. The amounts provided were so low and the scrutiny so high that most women had to work under the table in order to make ends meet, and many inevitably would break some rule of receipt. And there were many of these rules, especially around women’s sexuality. A woman could be denied aid for living with a man or refusing to disclose a child’s paternity.

Promoters of employment and marriage for poor mothers argued it would make poor women less lazy, less dependent and better mothers. The title of the 1996 legislation that brought in sweeping changes to the cash assistance was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act reflecting the sentiment at the time. On the day President Clinton signed the bill, he proclaimed the legislation would transform welfare “by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.” By having to “work” for a living, mothers would be able to stand on their own and be strong role models for their children. Even beyond the maddening fairy tale that poor mothers did not work (either for pay in low-wage jobs or taking care of their kids), this argument turned out to be fantasy. The labor market for low-income mothers was not reformed nor was there an expansion of affordable quality children care to fill the need. Far too many employed mothers do not make enough to support themselves, while employment leaves less time to spend with children. Welfare reform had made family life impossible for many. Coupled with the rise in men’s inequality since the late 1970s, there has also been an increase in the numbers of low-wage or no-wage men, not to mention the wholesale imprisonment of men of color. So much for the marriage solution.

“Ending welfare as we know it,” as President Clinton famously hailed the 1996 welfare legislation, has not resolved the untenable decisions poor and low-income mothers have to make. The growing examples of the neo-criminalization of poor motherhood seems to suggest that the deviant label still holds. Maybe poor employed mothers will garner more sympathy than welfare mothers did. I hope so, because the economics consequences of jail time in the United States are high.

In living their lives and doing the best they can, many mothers (and fathers) run up debt and patch together arrangements for their children that sometimes fail or are just plain dangerous. But, as we are seeing, these types of actions are deemed unlawful and deserving of punishment more often when done by poor mothers of color. The real crime lies elsewhere: the rising number of jobs that do not pay a living wage, an inadequate safety net and the woefully inadequate levels of early education and care.

Kathleen Geier: Why is America so much more likely than other countries to mete out punishment to low-income mothers, rather than offer help? The reasons are complex, but certainly, deep-rooted sexism has contributed to our refusal to adjust our patriarchal Mad Men–era work policies to meet the new realities of American families. Racism has also unquestionably played a major role. Not only has enduring racism weakened the bonds of social solidarity needed to support redistributive social programs, it has also been a powerful contributor to the rise of the carceral state.

There is another factor that has loomed increasingly large in recent decades: economic inequality. Rising inequality has led to an increasing dominance of wealth over our political process, and it is this, more than anything else, that has thwarted legislative efforts aimed at helping struggling moms. A forthcoming study by two political scientists, Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page, provides powerful evidence that the rich really do rule. Looking at 1,779 national policy outcomes in the United States over a period of over twenty years, Gilens and Page found that economic elites and business groups had “substantial independent impacts” on policy, while groups representing average citizens had “little or no independent influence.” In fact, the preferences of economic elites outweighed those of regular folks by the whopping ratio of fifteen to one.

Universal childcare has been the great lost cause of American feminism.

A growing body of research supports Gilens and Page’s findings. In his 2012 book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens found that when Americans of different income levels disagree about policy, “the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes.” Another important study, by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels confirmed Gilens’s results. Bartels’ analysis showed that US senators are highly solicitous towards constituents at the top of the income distribution and not responsive at all to those at the bottom.

What do low-income mothers have to do with this? It’s simple: to the extent we’ve tailored our public policies to suit the whims of the rich, by cutting their taxes and slashing government services, we’ve neglected the needs of working mothers. Nearly two decades ago, low-income mothers lost the right to welfare as an entitlement, and in the years since, extreme poverty among female-headed households tripled. Working-class single mothers are also struggling to find jobs. The percentage of single mothers with a high school education or less who are employed has declined sharply, from 76 percent in 2000 to only 54 percent in 2011.

Low-income single mothers—underemployed, suffering from economic stress, frequently overwhelmed—deserve a far better life. In European social democracies, they’d be eligible for assistance such as income supports, a child allowance, baby supplies and help at home from visiting nurses. Perhaps the most dramatic difference, however, is that they’d receive childcare. Universal childcare was one of the major goals of second wave women’s rights movement, and indeed, it came heartbreakingly close to becoming a reality. A groundbreaking, comprehensive childcare bill was passed by Congress in 1971—but then President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Ever since, universal childcare has been the great lost cause of American feminism.

Childcare as it exists in the United States today is shamefully inadequate. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn pointed out in an awarding-winning article last year, our childcare system is scandalously underregulated. It is also woefully underfunded. Among OECD countries, we rank third to last when it comes to public spending on family benefits. The major way we fund childcare in this country is through tax breaks, but the annual childcare tax credit is only worth a maximum of 35 percent of care costs, or up to $3,000 per child—grossly inadequate, when you consider that total childcare costs for two children is higher than the median rent in every state. Childcare subsidies and vouchers exist for women who meet eligibility guidelines, but co-pays are high and wait lists are long. In our post-recession austerity era, the nation’s already meager childcare budget has been slashed to the bone, and public spending on childcare is currently at a ten-year low. Given this sorry state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that less than half of American 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in preschool.

The time has come for feminists for revive the long-dormant dream of a free, universal childcare system. Getting there won’t be easy, but we can start by building on efforts that are already afoot. Paid family leave, which would enable parents to take paid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted or sick child, is a reality in several cities and states. Just last year, Congress took a major step forward when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rose DeLauro introduced a bill that would create national paid family leave for American workers. Campaigns for universal pre-K are also gaining ground. President Obama supports universal pre-K and the program which already exists in some states and localities, including Georgia, Oklahoma and New York City.

Research shows that paid leave and universal pre-K offer significant benefits well beyond the immediate ones of providing relief to stressed families. Paid family leave increases women’s job tenure and employment rates and improves child health and development. Early childhood education programs such as universal pre-K significantly improve long-term educational and employment outcomes, and they do so disproportionately for low-income children.

Making these programs the law of the land won’t be easy, given economic elites’ control over our political process. And clearly, even if they are enacted, paid leave and universal pre-K won’t come close to adding up to a universal childcare system. But it would lay a foundation, and we could build from there. It’s been forty-three years since the failure of the major effort to achieve universal childcare in this country. It is long past time for feminists to begin to dream again.

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