Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Family’s tragedy shows need for sentencing reform, affordable childcare

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.

Lyra attempting to escape, yet again, last week.

To find your state legislators, go to 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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Prison sentence for child’s accidental death benefits no one

My daughter, Lyra, has become a runner. I don’t mean she’s racing fellow kindergartners in track, but like with many children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, she takes off with no regard to safety or even a destination.

I have written about her running and all that we’ve done to keep her safe, from making our doors impossible for her to open to strapping a GPS monitor belt on her that lets us know if she’s left our property.

Thanks to neighbors, strangers and the Akron police, Lyra has returned home safely each time she has run. But what if, God forbid, she was struck by a motor vehicle? Or wandered to a nearby pond and drowned? What crime would her father, Max, and I have committed?

Years ago, when a friend of mine was in medical school, she dropped off her two older children at preschool before driving her baby to daycare. When she arrived at the daycare facility, she discovered the baby was not in her car.

My friend, who went on to receive an M.D.-PhD., is very smart and extremely competent. But raising three small children while attending medical school was demanding, if not overwhelming. My friend had no idea where her baby could be that day. Had she left her in her car seat in the parking lot at the preschool?

Trembling, she returned to the preschool. She found the baby asleep in her car seat on the floor of the preschool classroom, a fortress of cardboard bricks built around her by the young pupils.

One winter’s evening, a friend of mine who is an artist put his 3-year-old daughter to bed before returning to his studio to work. While the studio was attached to the house, it also had an exterior door used by customers.

Much later that evening, my friend was shocked when someone knocked at the door. He opened it, and there was his little daughter in her nightgown and boots. No coat, hat or mittens. She’d taken herself to the swing set, played and then toddled to the studio door when she became very cold.

But what if my friend hadn’t gone to the studio that night? What if he’d gone to bed and hadn’t heard his child knocking? She would certainly have died before morning. What would have been his crime?

On Feb. 2, 2018, 2-year-old Wynter Parker wandered outside on a day when the temperature didn’t reach above 19 degrees. She had been at home with her father, Dariaun Parker, then 23, who had been up all night recording music. Sleep deprived, perhaps he nodded off because it was Wynter’s mother, Tierra Williams, who found her.

Williams, who was then 22, had been running errands with the couple’s 4-year-old child. When she returned home and found her daughter outside, she immediately wrapped the girl in blankets and called 911. Tragically, Wynter died from the effects of severe hypothermia.

In articles, including in this paper, county prosecutors state that neighbors called the police before because the couple’s children were outside unattended. But the authorities did not report the family to Summit County Children Services, which they are required to do when they believe children are endangered. Lyra has run three times, and the police have been called each time. Children outside unattended is not a crime nor, in all instances, necessarily negligence.

There are parents who brutally beat their children and some who murder their own babies, or murder the children of romantic partners. Those people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and prevented from ever harming a child again.

But what of a mother who leaves her daughter with the child’s tired father? Or the tired father who agrees to stay with the child? And that one time everything goes completely wrong and the child dies not because of any malicious intent on the part of either parent?

More than 36 children die each year in the U.S. from vehicular hyperthermia, or heat stroke, because a caregiver leaves them in a car on a hot day. Compared to a child who wanders away, the parent who leaves a child in a car is an active agent in the child’s death. It’s the parent who buckles a child into a car seat and then forgets to retrieve them.

The worst punishment a parent can suffer is the death of a child. Perhaps that is why the judge overseeing the case of a 6-month-old’s death last summer in Medina from vehicular hyperthermia sentenced the baby’s father, 22-year-old Christopher Lee Stewart, to two years of probation. Stewart did not intend to harm his child. That she died due to his actions will likely haunt him all his days.

Dariaun Parker and Tierra Williams, however, have been sent to prison for their daughter’s death. Two years for Parker and 18 months for Williams, neither of whom had a criminal record, nor, as far as any news reports reveal, did they have any reported history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Judge Alison McCarty, who sentenced the parents, told them she would consider granting them an early release, which they can request after serving 30 days because they received sentences of less than two years. The decision on whether to grant the early release will be up to McCarty.

There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had a heart-clutching moment when realizing if a situation had gone even a little differently, great harm would have resulted. My daughter who runs, my friend who couldn’t remember where she’d left her baby, my other friend whose daughter wandered outside on a winter night. And many more stories of my own and others.

Should Williams and Parker have received supervision from Children Services after Wynter’s death? Absolutely. But how does sending them to prison benefit society? We live in a country that does not believe in free, quality childcare for our working poor but now we will pay a total of three and a half years of prison costs, approximately $30,000 a year.

As for punishment, their daughter died.

And what crime did the couple’s other two children commit? For they, too, are being punished. According to Creasie Finney Hairston, professor and dean at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, “The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child’s life forces that child to confront emotional, social and economic consequences that may trigger behavior problems, poor outcomes in school and a disruption or severance of the relationship with the incarcerated parent that may persist even after the parent is released from prison.”

Judge McCarty didn’t have enough compassion for the remaining children to at least sentence the parents consecutively rather than concurrently.

So I ask, what crime did these parents commit that merits the additional destruction of their lives and the lives of their other children, not to mention the expense to the state, by incarceration?

This column will appear in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 10, 2018.