THE BLOG

Lighting a Candle Is Not Abuse

11/27/2013 10:02 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

The deaths of three young children in a Bronx fire last month exposed the harsh living conditions of many impoverished New Yorkers, but the family's treatment by city authorities in the wake of this tragedy deserves equal scrutiny. The tragic loss of these children is grief unimaginable for their parents. But New York City's response will require an unfathomable resilience that only the poorest parents in the City are asked to bear.

Though the October 25 fire is still under investigation, early reports suggest it was caused by the use of a candle after the electricity was cut off due to unpaid bills. Instead of a compassionate response calling for safer housing conditions for the city's children, the Administration for Children's Service, known as ACS, charged the grieving mother and father of the three young brothers in Bronx Family Court.

The parents were forced to leave the hospital bedsides of their recovering daughters to attend meetings with ACS and appear in court to respond to allegations for failing to extinguish the candle. The parents were allowed to keep their three surviving traumatized children in their care only if they submitted to mental health evaluations and opened their home to constant surveillance by state officials as they mourned their lost sons.

Earlier this year, the prosecution and court supervision of a poor Bronx family whose son fell to his death from their apartment rooftop ceased only after the parents had been supervised by the child welfare system for more than a year. In that case, the family's older son was taken from his parents for over a month after his younger brother's death despite the fact that his father had been at work when the tragedy happened. Though that family was ultimately reunified -- as almost always happens after several months or so -- they suffered irreparably beyond the indignities associated with their treatment. They can never recuperate those precious weeks and months when they needed each other's love and support the most but were forced to stand in the Family Court dock.

To those of us who represent parents in New York City's Family Courts, these are but examples of the frequency with which parents of color are brought before a judge not because they have abused a child but because they are poor. The neglect with which too many parents are charged is indistinguishable from poverty. Often, they are held responsible and subjected to massive invasion that never occurs on the other side of town.

Nothing at all like this happens when tragedy strikes privileged families. The Upper West Side parents who left their children in the care of a nanny who murdered them weren't prosecuted by child welfare authorities: they weren't interrogated while grieving about whether they had seen, and ignored, any signs that something was wrong with the nanny. None of the accidental deaths of children suffered by well known celebrities -- think Eric Clapton or John Travolta -- leads to the harsh intervention that too commonly follows tragedies when children live in public housing.

No one doubts that poor parents and poor families could use support. But assuming that poor parents somehow love their children less, suffer less pain than their wealthy counterparts, or strive less hard to raise them safely adds more than insult to injury: It substitutes costly, poorly tailored interventions -- few of which have been shown to improve the care of children -- for systemic and lasting investment in our poor communities. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars to involve dozens of caseworkers and lawyers in the family's lives, New York City could be footing the bills that might really help: access to safe housing and assistance with the utility bill.

Blaming poor parents for what are the predictable consequences of poverty is not just unfair. It allows the rest of us to ignore that economic inequality led to the tragedy. It permits state officials to appear to be helping to keep children safe, while ignoring the well-understood threats to our children's well-being, such as unsafe housing, dangerous neighborhoods, and the other deficits in poor communities which poor children routinely are forced to endure -- such as having to light candles to avoid living in a dark apartment.