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How politicians blame the victim

By Jennifer Roesch | November 14, 2003 | Page 9

ON OCTOBER 12, Kim Brathwaite--a single mother from Brooklyn--had to make an agonizing decision. Her babysitter hadn't shown up by the time that she needed to leave for her 12-hour night shift at McDonald's--so she had to decide whether to stay home and risk losing her family's only source of income, or leave her 9-year-old and 19-month-old children home alone.

It is a choice that thousands of parents have to make all the time. But on that night, there was a fire in Kim's apartment, and her two children died. Now she is being charged with reckless endangerment of her children and faces up to 16 years in prison.

The Brooklyn case comes amid a series of similar high-profile tragedies that highlight similar issues. Last month, a Connecticut woman, Judith Scruggs, was convicted of criminal negligence in the case of her 12-year old son's suicide.

Her son had been mercilessly bullied at school and received little support from the administration, and Judith--who worked 70 hours a week at her two jobs as a teacher's aide and at Wal-Mart--repeatedly sought help for her son. Nevertheless, the prosecution argued that her dirty house was a contributing factor in the suicide. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey--a state wracked by scandals involving its child welfare system--four boys were discovered in a malnourished state after they were starved by their adoptive parents. The media and politicians immediately targeted state caseworkers--nine were fired.

Ordinary people are rightly horrified by the suffering of children in tragedies like these. But the politicians and media have scapegoated people who are doing the best they can in difficult or impossible circumstances.

The real blame belongs with the broader social realities--which are a direct result of government policy--that have a devastating impact on children and families. In New Jersey, for example, a series of budget cuts dramatically expanded caseloads for social workers. The caseworker most directly responsible for a foster child in the house where the boys were starved had a caseload of 38--more than double the recommended limit.

Moreover, the state Division of Youth and Family Services was no longer required to check up on the four boys themselves--because they had been legally adopted several years before and were no longer foster children. That's a direct result of "adoption reform" passed under Bill Clinton that speeds up the termination of parental rights and pays foster parents to adopt.

The prosecutions of Judith Suggs and Kim Brathwaite are part of a growing trend of criminalizing poverty--sped up by the passage of welfare "reform" legislation, again under Clinton. More and more poor women have been forced into the workforce under welfare "reform"--stuck in low-wage jobs with little or no help in providing child care.

That's for those who have jobs. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate for low-income single mothers was 12 percent last year--double the national average. At the same time, low-income single mothers saw their real incomes fall by $484 in 2001.

In this context, it is little wonder that Kim Brathwaite was terrified of losing her job. Leaving her children at home was not an act of criminal negligence--as the district attorney in Brooklyn has claimed--but a desperate gamble to provide food and shelter for her family. She and her children are victims of the bipartisan shredding of the social safety net in the U.S.

The biggest problem facing most families is the lack of adequate child care. Across the country, child care subsidies have been slashed by state governments running record deficits. According to one estimate, low-income households with small children spend 19 percent of their income on child care.

The truth is that for the working poor, caring for children is a fragile patchwork of arrangements with neighbors, family and co-workers suffering under similar strains. The politicians of both parties talk about "family values"--while implementing a program of cutbacks and attacks that punish poor families.

People do the best they can to navigate their narrow options. And when they fall through the cracks of an increasingly broken-down system, they are punished. Take the case of a woman in a mandatory welfare-to-work program in Athens, Ga. When she couldn't find day care for her children, she hid them in a shopping cart at the store where she worked and did her best to provide for their needs.

Eventually, she was discovered--and her kids were taken away and thrown into the foster-care system that has repeatedly failed children in its care. This is the consequences of a system that puts the profits of a tiny few ahead of the welfare of the working poor.

We can't let the politicians and the media blame the victims. We have to show where the responsibility for these tragedies really belongs--on the relentless war on workers and the poor that has devastated millions of children and their families.

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