Last week, a black single mother dominated the national news cycle. In her mug shot, plastered above many a think-piece headline, Shanesha Taylor’s tear-soaked cheeks and emptied eyes were offered to the world as a kind of apology, a kind of explanation, a kind of platform. The reading and viewing public was all too happy to fill in the blanks. At first, she spoke to us only through the police who arrested her for leaving her sons, ages 2 and 6 months, in a hot car with the windows cracked in Scottsdale, Arizona. She left them for approximately 45 minutes, while she interviewed for a job. According to Sgt. Mark Clark of the Scottsdale Police: “She said she was homeless, she needed the job. Obviously, not getting the job. So it’s just a sad situation.”
This got the wheels of the commentariat grinding. Black single mothers are popular grist for the editorial mill; our circumstances spun in whichever ways suit the writer’s (and the public’s) politics. Shanesha Taylor, then, became the face of America’s public daycare problem, the soul of its limited housing and employment options for unpartnered parents. Her name seemed an instant folk ballad, invoked to woefully decry the ripple effects of poverty.
Outrage was leveled at lawmakers and at the criminal justice system, while Taylor’s case was used to educate readers about the brick walls single mothers face on their labyrinthine quest to improve their families’ quality of life.
We are used to the news cycle ending here, with most readers’ mournful tsk-tsking at circumstances they’ve either not had to face or have left far enough in their rearview to provide an insular distance. How sad for her, we’d say as newer and equally complicated stories crowded Taylor’s out of reportage. Society is cold and hard, we’d muse while reading about some other injustice.
But this case was different.
By now we all know about the YouCaring campaign, with an original funding goal of $9,000, that has raised over $85,000 to date, for Shanesha’s bail, pending legal battle to have her charges dropped, and housing and child care needs. While the initial local news coverage of Taylor’s case can be credited for alerting us to Taylor’s plight, it wasn’t the columnists who saved her. It was other single mothers and their advocates.
Before the first wave of think-pieces was even in full-swing, 24-year-old Amanda Bishop* took matters into her own hands and set up the YouCaring page. She’d never met Taylor before reading the news report, but she heard in Taylor’s story something she recognized. And she wasn’t alone. Comment after comment on the fundraising page reifies the cliff’s edge over which single parents so often find themselves peering. The most resonant sentiment there is: This could’ve been me.
Taylor is not the first mother to make risky parenting choices, particularly not those related to leaving her children unsupervised. In 1999, the national number of children left to “self-care” (defined by one research brief as unattended or in the care of an underage sibling) was 3,325,000. Of that number, 866,000 are between the ages of 6 and 9. Taylor’s children were significantly younger. At 2 and 6 months old, the idea of “self-care” simply isn’t applicable. In this way, Taylor’s decision was less calculated risk than unmitigated desperation, a desperation capable of impairing logic.
It is absolutely true that she shouldn’t have ever been criminalized for this act. But I’m late to weigh in here at Beyond Baby Mamas regarding her case because I suspect it’s more complex and individual than I know, more complex and individual than the public is engaging it.
I hesitate to develop a hard and fast “take” on Shanesha Taylor’s actions and how they fit into our larger discourse on poverty, public childcare options, and homelessness. In as much as I’m able to take any real stance here, I can say with certainty I don’t believe “child abuse” is an appropriate allegation. But I do believe “child endangerment” is. Were her children older– even as old as six and two (as I’d originally misread when this story was first reported), I’d be less likely to call it even that. A six-year-old left unsupervised for 45 minutes could at least be taught to feed and soothe a younger sibling and to crack open a door if the car got too hot. A two-year-old in a similar situation is helpless. He is not being actively abused, per se, but his life and that of his infant brother have been endangered.
Something very significant has broken down in a parent’s ability to reason when a job interview takes precedence over shade and air for her toddler and an infant. I think we should be more closely examining that breaking (and our society’s complicity in it).
The police who responded to a report of Shanesha Taylor’s children crying and sweating in her car would have better served her by ordering a medical/psychological evaluation for her. And rather than felony charges for “abuse,” she should have been offered pro-bono family counseling and/or parenting courses. These are things I still believe would benefit Taylor and her family.
In the meantime, here are the single mothers, rising to support her. Here are the advocates for low-income parents, doing their independent investigation of the facts in her case and in her post-jail progress. Here is the help single mothers in peril have been waiting for.
It turns out that help wasn’t found in editorial-writing or policy-passing. Many single parents learn early to keep their heads down, their challenges quiet, their desperate moments secret. We are taught that work must take precedence over everything else, that self-reliance may have to come at the expense of a sound mind or safety for our children. We are taught not to look up for help, once we’ve been denied it by people who attached accusations to their “No”s. Our government responds to our needs either by ignoring them, by reducing the limited aid it once offered to help us address them, or by allowing political candidates to make us the scapegoats in debates about the national deficit.
And so we get busy. Very busy. Busy enough to believe that we cannot be helped; we are our only recourse. We haven’t had time to wait to be proven wrong. As it turns out, we needn’t have looked any further than each other. Perhaps this is the start of a larger community care movement — and if it is, we have Shanesha Taylor and her generous supporters to thank for that.
* An earlier version of this piece erroneously identified Amanda Bishop as a single mother. She is not.