Wednesday, April 22, 2009

UPDATED, APRIL 23: The high-powered lawyer and the token booth clerk

CASE #1: A high-powered Park Avenue lawyer who lives in a $2 million home in Scarsdale is driving through downtown White Plains in Westchester County. As first reported by the Westchester County, N.Y Journal News, her 12-year-old and 10-year-old daughters are in the back seat, arguing, as siblings often do. Mom stops the car, orders the children out, and drives off. The 12-year-old runs after the car, catches up and mom lets her back in. But the ten-year-old apparently isn't as fast. A stranger sees her crying, buys her ice cream and notifies police. The ten-year-old gives her home address and phone number. At about the same time, mom calls the police to report the ten-year-old missing.
CASE #2: This one has appeared on this Blog before. Here's what the mom in this case is like, according to the New York Daily News.
Her oldest eight have graduated or are in college or the military. The ninth is in high school. … Her older children, now ages 15 through 29, say they always received Christmas presents, went on vacations, participated in sports and arts programs and that their mother knew the administrators and teachers at each of their schools. "She does for 10 of us what some parents do for one," said [the mother's] 20-year-old daughter, a student at Sullivan County Community College. … [The mother] brags that none of her kids have criminal records, were pregnant as teens or abused drugs. "If I was dumb enough to have a large family, I owe it to myself and the world to produce responsible citizens," she said.
But this mother is no high-powered corporate lawyer. She lives in Co-Op City, in the Bronx, not Scarsdale. And she staffs a token booth in a subway station. To keep that job, she had to leave her seven-year-old son home alone, briefly, after school until an older child could get to their apartment to babysit. "My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son," she said.
We all know where this is going, right? Guess which case resulted in a child trapped in foster care for months, and which case did not. Hint (as if anyone would need one): After the Daily News publicized the Co-Op City case, the child was freed from foster care.
But no news account concerning the Westchester case mentions either child spending so much as one minute in foster care.
Yes, the Scarsdale Mom was arrested. But the judge quickly modified his original "order of protection" in the case to let her see her children again, apparently without restriction (as opposed to say, one hour a week, at best, which is what poor people usually get). Mom is free on $1,500 bail.
The two cases involve different child welfare agencies. In New York State, individual counties, and New York City run their own child welfare systems. So this is not a case of the same agency behaving differently. Rather, it's simply a glaring example of the double-standards that plague child welfare in general.
Some might argue that the Scarsdale children were not placed in foster care because they could simply remain with their father. But that's not how it's done with poor families when there's a father in the picture. Typically the father is treated as a suspect. He's not going to get those children until he's been put through the wringer. Didn't he know his wife was "unstable"? (If a poor person suddenly threw her kids out of the car at, say, 125th St. and Lenox Ave. you may be sure she'd be deemed "unstable." Isn't there a "failure to protect" issue here? At a minimum, one would expect Dad to have to go through a "psych eval" before CPS was sure the children would be safe with him.
I'm not suggesting that's what should have happened here, of course. On the contrary, were these children placed in foster care it would only make everything worse for them. I don't think the "poor person's standard" should be applied to rich people. I just wish that, once in awhile, the rich person's standard would be applied to poor people.
UPDATE, APRIL 23: It’s amazing how solicitous reporters can be when the story involves people like us.
NCCPR’s database of child abuse, foster care, and other child welfare news coverage now runs to more than 40,000 stories over 12 years. A lot of those stories involve criminal charges – including cases in which a parent was too poor to keep a home from becoming filthy, or a single parent was forced to leave a child home alone to keep her job and tragedy followed (a kind of tragedy analyzed with rare sensitivity some years ago by The New York Times.) A fair proportion of those stories include mugshots.
But never before have I seen a line like this in a follow-up story:
“Many sites posted her understandably unflattering Police Department mug shot.” The story containing that line was accompanied by a more flattering photo.
How considerate.
Of course the “alleged perp” in this case was Madlyn Primoff, that high-powered Park Avenue lawyer from Scarsdale who kicked her kids out of the car. The story appeared in the Westchester Journal News today.
It’s worth remembering that if, in fact, things happened as news accounts say they happened, Primoff really did harm her children. Not physically – downtown White Plains in broad daylight is quite safe. But effectively abandoning a ten-year-old by the side of the road, not for a few minutes to make a point, which is harmful in itself, but for much longer – has the potential to do a lot of emotional damage. (Fortunately, the Primoffs can afford the therapy.)
I’m not saying the Journal News was wrong to give Primoff this kind of a break. On the contrary, the kindness is commendable; just as Westchester child welfare authorities were right not to punish Primoff children for her mistake by throwing them into foster care.
But a lot of poor people who face child endangerment charges are guilty of far less than Madlyn Primoff, if accounts of the Primoff case are correct. Those poor people, in contrast, sometimes are guilty of no more than making a forced choice among bad options.
But no one worries about their mugshots, or gives them a chance to look better in the paper the next day.
Once again, it would be nice if we started applying the “Scarsdale Standard” to poor people.