Crystal Byers was arrested after refusing to allow a social worker to take her children away, despite the fact that the state services worker was unable to provide any paperwork supporting the removal. Then there was the father arrested, charged with child cruelty, and banished from his family home after he spanked his 3-year-old daughter once for talking back to her mother, pushing the screen out of her window, refusing to pick up her toys, and throwing a belt at him. The father was also ordered to undergo 52 weeks of parenting classes and two monitored visits with his daughter each week.
These manifestations of the criminalization of parenthood are worsened by what journalist Josh Harkinson more broadly refers to as the “criminalization of the working poor,” oftentimes targeting parents “struggling to make ends meet with no better child care options.” As Harkinson points out: “Is the seven-year-old son of the janitor in Jacksonville better off now that his dad is in jail? How about the baby left in a car at 8 a.m., shielded from the sun, with the windows cracked and sunroof open, while her mom took a final exam for cosmetology school? Or the mother who left her two kids in the car while she donated blood plasma to get gas money?”
Indeed, in the rush to cast judgment on these “negligent” parents, arresting them, jailing them, and sentencing them to outrageous prison terms, there is little concern shown for the hapless kids who in one way or another contribute to their parents’ arrests and are then left to grapple with feelings of guilt, abandonment, etc., not to mention the trauma of foster care. It’s estimated that 2.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in prison, whether it be a local jail or a state or federal penitentiary, due to a wide range of factors ranging from overcriminalization and surprise raids at family homes to roadside traffic stops.
Despite the arrest-driven uproar over what constitutes negligent parenting and the government’s attitude that it—in concert with Social Services—knows what is best for your kids, it turns out that kids aren’t really in any greater danger today than they were 40 years ago, at least not from abductions by strangers. “What has changed over the last 40 years,” note journalists Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin for Slate, “is our sense of community. Mothers work, neighbors talk less, and the divorce rate began to creep upward in the 1970s and has remained at around 45 percent…. Over the years, parental fears have also translated into the view that children are fragile, too tender to handle tricky emotional or physically risky activities.”
Having allowed our fears to be codified and our actions criminalized, we now find ourselves in a strange new world where just about everything we do is criminalized, not just our parenting decisions. Even so, how did we go from enacting laws to make our worlds safer to being saddled with a government that polices our social decisions?
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