The grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by order of his country’s de facto head of state, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, caused me and many other Americans to finally recognize the horrific genocide occurring in Yemen, also by bin Salman’s order.
One dramatic event can shed light on a greater, if not systemic, problem.
Here in Summit County, the sentencing of Wynter Parker’s parents for her accidental death is such an event. Her parents’ felony convictions and prison sentences will not bring Wynter back. Nor will they vindicate her tragic, but absolutely accidental death.
My last column responding to Tierra Williams’ and Dariaun Parker’s prison sentences generated more responses from readers than any other column by fourfold. More than half of them wrote “There but for the grace of God go I” letters like this one:
“I once returned home from a doctor’s appointment to find my naked toddler walking down the street. My son, who is now 54, had unlocked the door and went on an adventure while his father, who had worked the third shift, sat sleeping in a chair. Had he intentionally abused or neglected his child? NO … though he did get quite a lecture, he was devastated. I pray the court will rethink their awful sentence and allow this family to reunite and gather their lives after their terrible loss.”
Many readers saw institutionalized misogyny in the charges and sentencing. Like me, they surmise that if the situation had been reversed — had the mother been home when Wynter slipped outside, and the father had returned from errands and then done everything he could to save his child — the father would not have been charged.
And many readers saw institutionalized racism, as do I. I don’t believe that if my daughter wandered outside and died of hypothermia, my husband and I would ever be charged with a crime, because we are white, middle-class professionals.
It is tempting to vilify Judge Alison McCarty for her egregious sentence and finger-wagging, telling the parents, “That’s an untenable situation,” referring to Williams driving to clients’ homes to style their hair while Parker worked on a musical career for which he had yet to earn income. “Not a lack of love, a lack of attention. Not all of the time, but some of the time, which put both of the children at risk.”
Untenable is what America expects of its working poor. On the same day my last column was published, the New York Times ran a piece by Katha Pollitt, who believes universal affordable day care would create more economic mobility than universal free college tuition. The Economic Policy Institute’s recent state-by-state analysis of the annual cost for infant care found it is often comparable to, if not more expensive than, annual tuition at a state college.
Pollitt states that parents “on tight budgets may be forced to seek informal, cheaper care. A neighbor … might be a godsend — or she might just plunk her little charges in front of the TV, take too many children or not know how to handle an emergency.”
Last Sunday, Catherine Rampell’s column in this paper pointed out that women’s issues are economic issues, including affordable child care. However, “policies that affect mothers’ ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.”
Wynter Parker’s parents, like all working poor and middle-class families, could use policies that extend fairness and family bonding while also making good economic sense.
Finding a job
Also untenable is a legal system that makes gainful employment for working poor families nigh impossible. Thanks to the folks at Community Legal Aid and the University of Akron Law School’s Reentry Clinic, I’ve learned much about felony convictions in the past two weeks.
Felony convictions substantially limit opportunities for employment after release. As one reader wrote, “I was in retail management for years. When looking at applications, the minute our eyes went to ‘felony conviction’ the app went in the dead file.”
Williams and Parker first pleaded not guilty to the charge of child endangerment, a third-degree felony. That seems reasonable, as Wynter’s death was accidental. But before sentencing, they switched to guilty pleas, presumably on the advice of their attorneys.
A person with a felony conviction for child endangerment is legally ineligible to work in 616 types of employment in Ohio. Some convictions are eligible to be expunged, or to have the records sealed a year after the sentence has been served. But not child endangerment.
The prosecutors, knowing the lifelong effects, sought a felony conviction not only for the father who was with the child when she wandered, but also for the mother who was not, and who did everything possible to rescue her daughter when she found her.
Effectively, the felony conviction of Wynter Parker’s parents has probably sentenced her two siblings to childhood poverty.
Williams and Parker could have been convicted but not sentenced to prison. That they were likely gave Wynter’s siblings additional life sentences of poverty. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “two factors influenced by parental incarceration — family income and children’s educational outcomes — have direct implications for children’s future upward economic mobility. The growth of incarceration in America has intergenerational impacts that policy makers will have to confront.”
Plight of the poor
Last Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pastor Jon Hauerwas reminded congregants that, “Jesus was a poor man. He was one of them. And so, he spoke empathetically about the plight of the poor.” The prayer of confession that day included, “We have not stood by those who are hated, bullied or excluded. Comfortable with the way things are, we are too complacent, even complicit with injustice and prejudice.”
In response to American outrage at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Congress is now reconsidering America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as it relates to Yemen.
For those who are outraged by the sentences given to Williams and Parker, I encourage you to no longer be complacent, lest you be complicit in unjust sentencing of life in poverty and limited opportunities, not just for this family, but any family who tragically loses a child to an accidental death.
We as a society can support families rather than seeking a pound of flesh. In some cases, Children Services may need to supervise after an accidental death, until it believes affected families are appropriately able to care for their remaining children.
We can seek sentencing reform. I petition my state representative, Emilia Sykes, and my state senator, Vernon Sykes, to craft legislation that would limit, if not eliminate, felony charges for the accidental deaths of children. Rather than seeking retribution, guidelines should be crafted outlining appropriate measures to take, and services to provide, when a family loses a child due to an accidental death.
And we can advocate for affordable, quality child care, so poor parents have the support they need to lead productive lives, which has the potential to lift them and their children out of poverty.
As for Williams and Parker, they can petition Gov. Mike DeWine for clemency, and I strongly hope Williams does. Beyond that, a year after they complete their full sentences, including parole, each can apply to the county courts for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE). In theory, if granted, this certificate would prove to potential employers that the parties have been fully rehabilitated and should be considered for employment.
To find your state legislators, go to https://openstates.org/find_your_legislator. Write to them for change and you’ll feel better than you have since learning of Williams’ and Parker’s convictions and sentences.
Question: Why do amusement parks, fairs, even some shopping malls have “Lost Child Centers,” essentially child recovery offices?
Answer: Because in the blink of an eye, any child can and often will wander out of sight.
This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 24, 2019.