Thursday, June 13, 2019

From a criminal justice tragedy, a child welfare hero

A postscript to Ava DuVerney’s searing Netflix drama about the Central Park Five EXONERATED Five.

Ava DuVernay (Photo by Sandra Moreno)

One of the few moments of hope in the first episode of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s searing drama about five boys falsely accused of rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989, comes when the mother of one of the accused confronts the lead persecutor (that’s not a misprint) and demands that the illegal interrogation of her son stop immediately – or she’ll contact The New York Times.

As a result, Yusef Salaam is saved from making a false, coerced confession – saved by his mother Sharonne Salaam.  (It does not save him from being convicted as a result of the appalling behavior of everyone from the police to the district attorney to much of the media to a certain sleazy New York real estate developer.)

Ultimately Yusef Salaam and the others were exonerated, but not before spending years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. 

But Sharonne Salaam didn’t stop with fighting for her own son.  She formed an organization, People United for Children. 

As David Tobis explains in his book From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York’s Child Welfare System, PUC originally focused on helping youth incarcerated in New York’s juvenile justice system.  But, Tobis writes,

Salaam soon realized … that problems for children in the juvenile justice system begin farther upstream in the child welfare system, which she saw as a main feeder for the juvenile justice system. She says that PUC “made the decision to take the preventive approach by stopping the cycle of children first entering the foster care system . . . ”  By 1996 PUC had become, as Salaam later accurately wrote, “the Harlem community’s best-informed advocates for foster care children.” …

Before the issue of racial bias in child welfare was on almost anyone else’s radar, PUC and the Center for Law and Social Justice sued the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) over the widespread needless removal of Black children from their homes.

Salaam’s fierce determination (portrayed well in the series by Aunjanue Ellis) and PUC’s militancy were critical factors in building the infrastructure of family advocacy that led to significant child welfare reform in New York City.

As Tobis writes, Salaam

recognizes that her militancy made other organizations demand more from ACS and made the positions of moderate groups more acceptable to ACS. The extremes define the center, and PUC was on the far end of the spectrum. Salaam says, “We were able to push CWOP [the Child Welfare Organizing Project], and they were able to seek out more.”

Sharonne Salaam remains a social justice advocate. She now runs a group called Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated.

As for the D.A. …

As for the District Attorney, Linda Fairstein, she did just fine in the years after the trial.  She became, as The New York Times put it, “a best-selling crime novelist and celebrity former prosecutor.”  She served on the boards of directors of several prestigious organizations including Safe Horizon, whose work includes running a network of “Child Advocacy Centers” in which police, prosecutors, caseworkers and “clinical forensic specialists” come together to interview and examine children alleged to be victims of child abuse.

Safe Horizon’s website includes a list of so-called “signs of child abuse” that include almost every possible negative change in a child’s behavior.  The website describes these as “common” signs of abuse.  There is not even the usual boilerplate note of caution that these could be  “signs” of anything other than child abuse.

In the weeks since When They See Us started streaming on Netflix, Fairstein has lost some of her privileges. She resigned under pressure from Safe Horizon.  But Salaam and the other accused were exonerated all the way back in 2002.  That same year, Sharonne Salaam’s confrontation with Fairstein was described in a critical story about the D.A. in The Village Voice.

That story cites a Newsday interview in which an appellate court judge who dissented from an opinion upholding the convictions of Yusef Salaam and the others said:

“I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. . . . Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care. She wasn’t a human.”

But that didn’t prompt any action concerning Fairstein. 

Then, the abuses in the case were exposed in a Ken Burns documentary in 2012.  That didn’t change anything either.

Why didn’t Safe Horizon act until now?

For her part, Fairstein has been all over the place claiming she is the real victim here.  She says she was portrayed unfairly in the series.  To hear her tell it, you’d think she was the victim of, how might one put it?  A miscarriage of justice?

For more about When They See Us, and the case on which it is based, see these excellent commentaries in The New York Times from culture critic Salamishah Tillet and columnist Jim Dwyer.