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The Politics of Parenting: How Our Society Criminalizes Poor Mothers of Color

Posted on Jul 24, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar


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When 46-year-old Debra Harrell was arrested July 1 for leaving her daughter unattended at a public park, she joined the ever-increasing ranks of poor mothers of color who are criminalized. Harrell, who is African-American, and whose full-time job at a South Carolina McDonald’s meant that she couldn’t watch her own child, or have enough money to afford child care, was jailed and separated from her 9-year-old child for some time.

Harrell has since been released from jail and reunited with her daughter. Harrell’s lawyer says his client was fired without specified reasons from McDonald’s last week; the company says it did not fire her. Nonetheless, Harrell’s case represents the increasingly barbaric terrain that lies at the intersections of gender-, race- and class-based prejudice.

Earlier this year, a 35-year-old African-American mother in Arizona named Shanisha Taylor was arrested for leaving her two young children in a car unattended with the windows cracked open while she went for a job interview. A homeless mother who had no child care options, she decided, perhaps unwisely, that getting a job to financially support her child was worth the small risk. She is now being charged with two counts of child abuse, is separated from her children and has likely lost any chance at employment or housing.

A third example is 22-year-old Thelma Louise Edwards, also an African-American mother who was recently incarcerated for leaving her 4-year-old in a car while she worked at a New York TGI Fridays. As this columnist explained, Edwards’ brother, who normally watched the 4-year-old boy, dropped him off unexpectedly one day outside her workplace and when she went to the car, the child was asleep. Edwards, who like most working poor parents, has two jobs and did not want to risk losing one of them. So when her manager asked her to work late, she felt obliged and left her son sleeping for a bit on his own. She now faces the prospect of never seeing her son again.


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As a society we actively suppress wages, cut child care subsidies, insist that poor parents work, require that they comply with a complex legal maze of caring for their children by any means possible, and then imprison them and separate them from their children when they cannot make the impossible possible. And it is women more often than men, poor people more often than rich, and black and brown parents more often than white ones who are held to these harsh standards.

Take the case of a white woman named Kim Brooks, who explained in a Salon article how she, in a rush, left her son in a car on a cool day while she stepped into a store for just minutes. A passer-by surreptitiously took a video and turned her in. With the ability to hire a lawyer, Brooks was able to defend herself against charges and walked away with a requirement to do community service and take parenting classes. Even though her experience was harrowing, she did not face jail time or the prospect of her child being taken away from her. Her class, and likely her race, privilege protected her from the same fates as Harrell, Taylor and Edwards.

Another white mother, Lenore Skenazy, a blogger and author of the book “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry),” attracted plenty of criticism some years ago, including the epithet of “World’s Worst Mom,” for her decision to let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway on his own. Skenazy has certainly not faced criminal charges or the potential separation from her child. She asserts that today’s society is obsessed with the constant dangers we imagine children face and that we need to allow kids much more independence for their sakes and ours. The problem with this idea is that when poor mothers or mothers of color consciously or unconsciously adopt the idea of “free-range kids,” they are more likely to be viewed as unfit, neglectful mothers and face the very real likelihood of being separated from their children.

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