The rush to blame a mother

March 3, 2016

Don Lash reports on the tragic death of a toddler and the way the media and authorities immediately rushed to blame her mother.

THE BODY of 2-year-old Kalenah Muldrow was found under a bed after an apartment fire in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn that began at about 6 a.m. on February 22. Now, the tragedy of her death is being compounded by an ugly media rush to demonize her mother.

Kalenah's mother, Leila Aquino, reportedly arrived on the scene as the fire was extinguished. Since then, Aquino has been vilified in the New York media--with changing stories and speculation about what she had been doing and why her daughter was alone, along with completely irrelevant details about how she earned money and whether she had an arrest record.

Unfortunately, as is typical in such tragedies involving poor children of color, the story about Kalenah Muldrow's death has now been framed by anonymous "law enforcement officials" and the city's tabloid press as a merciless attack on the child's mother, her character and her fitness as a parent.

Before anyone really knew what had happened, allegations were made and repeated--only to be contradicted by other allegations, seemingly with little regard for accuracy.

Leila Aquino
Leila Aquino

The rush to vilify and dehumanize Leila Aquino serves a purpose: to deflect attention from the really essential questions about how poor and working-class families struggle through life with uncertain employment, an inadequate safety net, limited or no child care assistance and substandard housing.

A New York Post report, for example, made much of the fact that Aquino was working as a dancer and reportedly returned to the apartment with a box containing the tips she had earned. How Aquino supported herself and her child has nothing to do with the fire or the fact that Kalenah was alone, but the tabloid press seemed to consider it the most important detail--with the Post explaining that Aquino had no child care because "the pole-dancing mom" owed money to a babysitter.

Reports in the media also suggested that there were open child welfare investigations at the time of the fire, implying that an uncaring and inefficient bureaucracy had failed to document Aquino's unfitness as a parent before it was too late.

In reality, anonymous calls to a child abuse hotline were investigated and deemed unfounded. One call alleged the child was covered with bruises, but investigators saw Kalenah the same day and found none. Another claimed the home was improperly maintained, but investigators visited the home and observed Kalenah with her mother, and found that the apartment was clean and properly stocked for a child. They found that Kalenah was healthy and well-cared-for, while Aquino was observed to be a caring parent.

The existence of prior contact with the child welfare authorities has been taken as evidence of Aquino's supposed unfitness as a parent, but it should be remembered that the child welfare system as a whole subjects poor parents--particularly Black parents--to scrutiny and intervention with a frequency and intensity not seen with more affluent white parents.

Being the subject of a neglect or abuse investigation is far from uncommon, and can be prompted by anonymous calls from angry relatives, neighbors or landlords, or by calls from mandated reporters in schools, hospitals or social service agencies. In part, that's a consequence of the far greater frequency with which Black families interact with many of these reporters. Another is the likelihood that reporters--perhaps unconsciously--will be more vigilant lookouts when interacting with Black families in these settings.

So while being investigated by child welfare authorities may be outside the experience of many parents, it shouldn't be assumed that if a parent has been investigated, that is evidence of unfitness, particularly when allegations--like those against Aquino--have been fully investigated and determined to be unfounded.

VAGUE REFERENCES in the media to an arrest record have been used to smear Aquino as a "convicted felon" and to suggest she's an unfit parent, but her attorney revealed she has a single conviction for the minor misdemeanor of "disorderly conduct," for which she previously served two days of community service.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant are far more heavily and aggressively policed than predominantly white neighborhoods, and officers are encouraged or directed to make as many arrests as possible. (Bedford-Stuyvesant was where Officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded his superiors instructing officers to meet arrest and ticket quotas in 2008, and, despite denials and promises to reform, the quota system in minority neighborhoods remains.)

Disorderly conduct, the offense for which Aquino was convicted, is a vaguely defined public order offense, over which officers typically have a great deal of discretion. So the fact that anyone living in such a neighborhood would find themselves prosecuted and convicted for such an offense is not particularly surprising nor evidence of anything about a person's character, let alone their fitness as a parent.

No one really knows what happened yet in Kalenah Muldrow's death. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the police didn't know either, but that didn't stop the police and district attorney from rushing to file criminal charges after interrogating Aquino immediately after her daughter's death. Charged with two misdemeanors--reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child--authorities made sure that Aquino was held on bail that she couldn't afford to pay.

Although the purpose of bail is to make sure someone shows up in court, not to punish, here, it appears as though it is being used to satisfy the public outrage generated by tabloid headlines. According to Leila Aquino's lawyer, friends and family have raised money to post bond to secure her release on bail. A fundraising site, "No Rush to Judgment for Kalenah's Mom," has been set up to help cover the cost of the bond.

According to some reports, Aquino put Kalenah to bed and then went to work (although there is contradictory information about whether she ended up working that night). Other reports suggest that she had lost a previous child care arrangement because she owed money.

These allegations raise more questions about poverty than about "neglect," however. No parent should be forced to choose between giving up income they need to support a child and leaving that child unattended. Aquino had reportedly received a voucher for child care from the city, but if the only employment she could find, or the only employment that offered pay adequate to meet her needs, was at night, such a voucher would be worthless. Many would judge her a "bad parent" whichever way she resolved the dilemma.

Fire department officials have suggested that the fire was caused by a space heater that was left on, and some are citing this as further evidence of neglect. But if Aquino's apartment was inadequately heated, the young mother was again left with an impossible choice--the certainty of exposing her child to the cold, or the risk of using a space heater.

THE POINT is not to justify all of Aquino's actions, but to recognize that she was faced with horrible choices because she is poor, and that she is now being punished, before ever being tried in court, because of public outrage about what happened to Kalenah.

But that outrage should be directed at a system in which 40 percent of children of color in the U.S. are living in poverty. Working-class and poor parents should not be blamed for not having access to child care, for being dependent on irregular or "unsavory" employment, or for living in substandard housing. And a grieving mother should have the support of friends and family and the opportunity to bury her child, without being vilified in the media.

This case is the latest in a growing trend of criminalizing motherhood for poor women of color. It follows cases like those of two Black mothers, Tanya McDowell in Connecticut and Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio, who were jailed for "fraud" for using fictitious addresses to register their children in wealthy school districts.

In Arizona, Shanesha Taylor was jailed for leaving her children in a car while she interviewed for a job, and Debra Harrell was locked up in South Carolina for letting her 9-year-old play in a park while she worked a shift at McDonald's. Such cases are an attack on Black mothers, at a time when welfare "reform" and austerity have reduced access to income support and child care.

Leila Aquino's record of involvement with both the child welfare and criminal justice systems is hardly coincidental. As legal scholar Dorothy Roberts noted in a law review article, both 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."

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