Six or seven years ago, I met a teenage mother in the Bronx who was mired in the city’s bureaucratic and legal systems. It wasn’t just through no fault of her own; the blame for the circumstances in which she and her young son found themselves rested squarely with the same bureaucracy and courts that were condemning them. The city’s family shelter system refuses aid to anyone who has family who says they will house them, and the city goes to lengths to track down family members. This girl’s grandmother had told city officials she would house the girl, but when she gave birth, she kicked them both out, saying she didn’t want to live with a baby. The girl went to live with her brother and his girlfriend, but became a pawn in their fights, and was ultimately kicked out of their place too. It was winter, so she tracked down her father, who was squatting in a decrepit, vermin-infested building in the Bronx. She did her best to keep her boy safe, including taking him to doctor appointments required by the city in exchange for care for some of his medical issues. One day, she had to choose between making it to an appointment with the family shelter system or going to one of those doctor appointments. Desperate to get her son out of that vermin-infested building, she skipped the doctor, just that once. The doctor reported the missed appointment, and investigators went to her grandmother’s place, and then her brother’s, where her brother’s girlfriend suggested they find the father at his squat. When they arrived and found the baby amid all that vermin, they took him away. His mother, who was not a drinker or drug user, diligently went to parenting classes, Narcotics Anonymous and jumped through every other hoop the city placed before her — whatever she needed to do to get her son back. She was a better, more attentive and more devoted parent than most others I’ve known, and after letting her down over and over, the city punished her, treating her like a stereotype she didn’t fit and taking away the one thing she had ever cared about.
I thought of her this weekend when I read the New York Times‘ exposé on New York City’s use of foster care as punishment for “predominantly poor black and Hispanic women,” a practice that the Times reported some have nicknamed “Jane Crow,” in reference to the laws that codified the American practice of racial segregation.
In the Times story, one of the lawyers who represents these women in court explains how Jane Crow works:
“It takes a lot as a public defender to be shocked, but these are the kinds of cases you hear attorneys screaming about in the hall,” said Scott Hechinger, a lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”