Last month, Debra Harrell gave her 9-year-old daughter a cell phone and allowed her to play at a nearby park (less than a mile away from her job) for the day while she reported to work at McDonalds. Normally, Harrell had her child accompany her to work where she sat at a table and played on a laptop. However, as the laptop had been stolen and with nothing to keep her child busy, Harrell allowed her daughter to go to the park instead. After a concerned individual questioned the child as to why she was alone at the park, she alerted authorities and Harrell was later arrested. Not long after the incident, Harrell lost her job. While she later won it back, she’s still awaiting trial on a neglect charge.
In March 2014, Shanesha Taylor was arrested after leaving her two young children in her car for 45-minutes while she interviewed for a job with Farmer’s Insurance. When Taylor returned to her vehicle after the interview, she found herself surrounded by police and was subsequently arrested. It was later discovered that she was unemployed, did not have access to childcare services and had been homeless for periods of time. After a booking photo of Taylor with tears streaming down her face went viral, supporters raised more than $100,000 to pay her legal fees. In an about-face, prosecutors in the case brokered a plea agreement with Taylor. Taylor would not face any prison time on the condition she take parenting courses and establish trusts for each of her children in the amount of $10,000.
Much of the discussion about these two stories has focused on the individual choices made by Ms. Taylor and Ms. Harrell and how criminally blameworthy they are. These discussions are misguided. Individuals who care for children face a special set of circumstances in the workplace. When these families are in a precarious financial situation, assistance in the form of housing or subsidized or free childcare becomes a necessity that allows breadwinners to stay employed and provide for their families. When one adds the intersection of race, class and gender—the situation can become far more complex, with serious repercussions for families.
Thankfully, at least some of the conversation about Ms. Harrell and Ms. Taylor has recognized this and focused on how the availability of social services has been and continues to be informed by cultural biases.
For example, during an interview for the HuffPost Live regarding Debra Harrell, writer Jonathan Chait said “[t]he fact that the mother is a black woman with probably a low-income job at McDonalds probably made her and her child less sympathetic and less familiar, less understandable to the middle class and more white community around them.” Jayne Huckerby, a clinical professor at Duke University School of Law, acknowledges that the emphasis on punishing Harrell is “an easy way to sideline a harder conversation about the public-policy choices, including lack of affordable childcare, that create these massive inequalities.”
What was most tragic about Taylor’s situation was that she was ultimately penalized for trying to lift herself out of her current situation. Some may argue that Taylor could have utilized drop-in care for her children, but being unemployed, it is more likely than not that she simply did not have the funds to cover such expenses. While Taylor would have been a likely candidate for free or heavily subsidized childcare, from my own experience as a preschool teacher, I know that waiting lists for these services can leave parents waiting for weeks, months and in some cases—even years. This means we have a system that forces parents to either make choices like the ones that Taylor and Harrell did or to resign from trying to better the financial situations of their families altogether.
Harrell and Taylor have put a human face to an issue that affects thousands of families, particularly single mother-headed households, across the United States every day. Though Taylor’s situation looks as if it might end on a more positive note, there are likely many families who find themselves in a position similar to Debra Harrell, uncertain about whether scrutiny surrounding their actions will elicit disapproval instead of compassion. That shouldn’t be. It is in everyone’s best interest that these working mothers are supported, not criminalized and condemned.
Though the issue of confronting bias with respect to social services is an uneasy conversation, it is one that needs to occur and hopefully leads to a larger discussion about access to services for any individual who needs assistance in getting back to work.