Homeless School Theft Case: No Winners Here

04/28/2011 07:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2011

I smell a "made for TV" movie coming soon.

With local taxes rising, municipalities are looking everywhere to make cuts to trim their budgets, and that includes the Norwalk, CT school system. Actually, many school systems employ the means to weed those non-residents out of their systems, but seldom does it get blown out of proportion into an arrest.

What made national headlines recently wasn't that a child had been sent to a school, which may or may not be "legal," but that a 5 year old boy's mother, Tanya McDowell, was arrested and charged for theft of services and a felony.

McDowell is accused of placing her son in a school system he had started in pre-school, while she was homeless in the same city, and using her babysitter's Norwalk, CT address to enroll him in Kindergarten. And yes, she is still homeless as they currently sleep in Bridgeport, CT. This is a cautionary tale that should strike a knife into the heart of anyone who is within two paychecks of homelessness -- it can happen to anyone.

Here is where the story gets weird.

This tale began in January 2011 during a public housing hearing against the babysitter. It was revealed that Tanya McDowell, 33 was not living at the same address; hence the babysitter and her two children were evicted. And for reasons not known, the Norwalk Housing Authority's attorney "gave" the information to the state prosecutor, bypassing the school system. Tanya was charged with a larceny for the theft of more than $15,000, which is a felony, and faces up to 20 years in prison.

Tanya McDowell was arrested, processed, and strip searched by the Norwalk Police Department on April 15th as she was walking near the Norwalk Homeless Shelter. A call was made to Sgt. Lisa Cotto of Norwalk PD's Community Services to confirm this information had not been returned by Huffington Post's publishing time.

On the walkway outside the Norwalk Courthouse prior to arraignment, the predictable media storm ensued. Supporters of the mom, NAACP, education advocates, a full flank of TV cameras and media came to a hastily called press conference.

Gwen Samuel of CT Parents Union, an educational lobbying group, stated: "This is overzealous thinking, they don't understand, you can not arrest parents for educational issues." Intact families are becoming homeless and school districts need to adhere to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (full text):

"Each State educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate education, including a public preschool education as provided to other children and youths."

Samuel continued: "We are concerned about the child, and the now an additional family made homeless while helping Tanya McDowell, first there are two homeless, now there are five."

We have to put the brakes on this; we must assure every child has access to great education, that the McKinney-Vento Act is followed appropriately and that government can not be so pressed for financial dollars that arrests this this occur. The bottom line is we need to hold school boards accountable.

Connecticut NAACP President Scot Esdale said NAACP has been fighting for equitable education for all, and has assigned Attorneys Darnell D. Crosland and Michael B. Thomas to represent Tanya in her defense. He called out to the Norwalk Mayor, Richard Moccia, who had previously defended the arrest in other media outlets to "lift them up, not stomp" them on the ground.

Mr. Esdale wanted to make sure there was sunlight on this arrest and the procedures leading up to her arrest. He pointed out that the larceny charge ($15,000 or more) was for a whole year of education. The child had attended school from September through January, when Tanya received a message that her son could no longer attend Norwalk Public Schools.

This is a case of the have and the have not; not a racist issue, but a socio-economic class issue.

I asked Tanya McDowell how her son was doing. She said, "He is not able to understand and asks 'Mommy, why are they saying you stole?'" She was not able to make any other statements regarding the case.

Stranger than fiction, the prosecutor is the Mayor's relative

Tanya's attorney, Darnell D. Crosland, who is also active with the NAACP Norwalk chapter, pointed out that she is facing Larceny First Degree, a felony and faces up to 20 years in prison. He is hoping to have this case dismissed, and more importantly, change the venue out of the Norwalk area, since Mayor Moccia's stepdaughter, Suzanne Vieux, is the Norwalk Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney.

Mr. Crosland made clear he believes Ms. Vieux would be impartial and professional. Meanwhile the mayor has voiced his support of the arrest and his contention that Ms. McDowell is not homeless. The bigger concern for Mr. Crosland is the tainting of the jury pool if the case continues within lower Fairfield County.

Supporters and onlookers came out as well. Shirley Mosby, a former Norwalk Board of Education member, questioned 'why this person at this time?' And, how much is the prosecution of a homeless person with very limited resources going to cost the City of Norwalk?

"I believe the children should come first," she said, and then mentioned that she thought the republican mayor was playing to his base. Mosby continued: "Since when did other agencies dictate to the Board of Education? They were overstepped." To everyone involved, she said "Stop covering your tracks and start trying to help the mother and child."

Supporter Jere Eaton, of Communications for Black CT, is concerned that although there are a number of agencies between Norwalk and Bridgeport that are there to support families in this situation, and with the exception of the job training agency NEON, there has been little in the way of support for Tanya.

Eaton questioned, "What is going to happen after the media parade leaves, what are they going to do to implement services and resources for Tanya and her son?"

As we were leaving, Jere told me she is going to make sure that Tanya gets court appropriate clothing before her next hearing on May 11th.

Several representatives from ConnCAN also came in support of Tanya. The ConnCAN message is: Every student should have access to a great public school regardless of where he or she lives, but barriers like our broken school funding system stand in the way of that promise. If every child were funded based on his learning needs at the school of his choice, there wouldn't be a reason to break the law.

"It is shameful that in 2011, the differences in educational opportunities among schools in our state could be so vast," said Alex Johnston, ConnCAN's CEO.

"We need to turn the funding system on its head so that it is focused on meeting students' needs, no matter where they live or what public schools they attend. If we had such a system, parents would not have to risk arrest and 20 years of jail time for doing what every parent wants: choosing the school that best fits their child's needs."

Pushing a baby stroller was Nedra Rutherford, mother of seven children ages of three months to 13 years. She was so moved by the news headlines that she picked up the phone and called CT Parents Union president Gwen Samuel to find out what she could do to get involved. This was a first step.

Homeless children will change schools one or more times within the school year, adding to the instability of homelessness and future dropouts. The McKinney-Vento Act is supposed to assist in assuring continuing education for some of the most vulnerable children. It's not like the kids have a choice of being homeless or not. Where a child lives should not determine the level of education he or she receives, bottom line. Each child should also be eligible to receive an excellent education, isn't that what No Child Left Behind was to address?

In the end, this arrest of a homeless woman is a political ploy that backfired; backfired on the child, the parent, the school system, Mayor Moccia and the city. Everyone loses.