I just read the news about the case of Shania Bell, who lost custody of her children for trying to feed them.
Her mug shot is all over the news, looking shocked, with a tear glittering in one eye. I can’t blame her for crying.
Her story is very simple: Bell left her two daughters, aged two and ten, alone at the motel they lived in for a few hours so she could work a shift at a pizza restaurant. She didn’t leave them alone so she could go partying or do drugs. She left them alone so that she could work, so that she could feed them and pay the motel to keep them sheltered. It’s the middle of winter, it’s very snowy in Ohio and going to be abnormally cold for a week, the county is Code Red for Coronavirus, and they had nowhere else to go. In this circumstance, NOT going to work would have been putting her children in danger. They needed to stay in that motel or they’d be dead. Hotels aren’t free so she went to work. The ten-year-old had instructions to look after the two-year-old, and Bell also had asked a friend to look in on them every so often while they were alone.
For this, Bell was arrested on a charge of child endangerment. She’s out on bail right now, but she has another hearing in April. She’s lost custody of her children, who are now with their father.
Personally, I was seven when I was left home alone for the first time– not all day, just for a short time because I was home from school with a mild fever, my father was at work and my mother had to run out unexpectedly. I watched The Sound of Music and nibbled crackers for an hour. Nobody called the police on us.
I know a lot of people who had to look after younger siblings when their parents were away, when they were about ten. Nobody called the police on them.
In fact, there is no law in the state of Ohio stating a minimum age when children can be left home alone for short periods. Some states have that law, but in the state where this supposed crime was committed, there isn’t one. The decision on whether a parent who leaves a child home alone gets reported to CPS if the police are called is entirely up to the responding officer. Which leaves me with a serious question: if this is the case, that means that whether you get reported to CPS by the cops for leaving your children alone in the state of Ohio has nothing to do with whether what you did was legal. It has to do with whether you happen to be a person whom the police officer likes when he gets there. Does this sound like a just or safe way of running things to anyone else?
Considering that police officers in Ohio have shot people in the back for open carrying deli sandwiches, I guess I should be grateful that this situation didn’t end in an even worse way.
Ms. Bell did not lose her children or find herself charged with child endangerment because she committed a crime. There’s no crime in this situation at all. This happened to her simply because she was poor. Because the children were being kept warm and safe in a hotel room while their mother worked a shift at the pizza parlor, instead of being kept warm and safe in a house while their mother popped out to run an errand and Dad was at the office with his briefcase. No one would have called the police on her in the first place if she hadn’t been homeless. The police might have reacted quite differently if they hadn’t been called to a motel.
I am overwhelmed at the cruelty of our society.
None of this should have ever happened in the first place.
In a civilized society, a single mom with two children shouldn’t find herself having to shell out money for a motel during a pandemic in the first place. We are the richest country in the world. We can afford to provide housing for moms and kids, we just choose not to. Even if we’re ridiculously parsimonious, we ought to be providing space for them to take shelter during a pandemic. We’ve been hearing for eleven months that COVID-19 can only be kept under control if people stay home as much as possible. Ordering people to stay home while not providing the means for the poorest to have a home is worse than absurd. It’s genocidal, genocide of the poor.
Even in a society as ruthless as this one, I’m shocked that someone’s response to Ms. Bell’s predicament was to call the police, and I’m shocked that the police charged her with child endangerment. Imagine if the busybody who called the police had offered to help Ms. Bell instead– to pool resources with their church or their circle of friends and pay for a week at the motel and to bring her a cart full of groceries, for example, or to work with a local charity to get her into housing. There’s no reason in the world the community couldn’t have found someone to help. There’s no reason the police officer couldn’t have done something to help instead of arresting her. Other police officers have responded to desperate poor mothers differently. It did not have to be this way.
Everyone, at every level, failed Bell and her children.
All we can hope for now is that the judge is lenient at her hearing– and, considering there doesn’t seem to be a crime here in the first place, that’s not too much to ask.
Our cruel, heartless excuse for a system endangered Shania Bell and her children, and then had the audacity to punish her for it. We should all be deeply ashamed.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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