Darren Wilson is a Missouri cop whose deeds have been dissected endlessly in the court of public opinion. Sarah Markham is "Vegan Mom," a Florida parent whose 12-day old baby was taken into foster care by Florida's child protective services. The case barely registered a blip on the public radar.
In both cases, government intervention changed lives, ending Michael Brown's and perhaps irretrievably disrupting that of Markham's newborn baby. In both cases, governmental actors believed they were duty-bound to protect public safety, and took dramatic action to do so.
Were their decisions good or bad, justified or indefensible? Did the government spend our tax dollars the way we'd choose? Did the government's actions comport with our values?
As a starting point, what actually happened?
Let's start with Wilson. Who did what to whom? Did Michael Brown grab Darren Wilson? Did Brown raise his arms in a gesture of surrender? Was Wilson callous or cavalier, or was he motivated by racism? Was he truly and justifiably afraid for his life? Did Wilson stay in the car or emerge from it, and what should he have done -- and when? We want to know about every moment, every move, every judgment made by Michael Brown and Darren Wilson during their fateful and fatal confrontation so we can assure ourselves that the guilty are punished and the innocent spared. We want to learn from the terrible incident lessons that might prevent its recurrence. We need to know so we can debate the significant public policy issues implicated here.
We also have questions about Markham, the vegan mom. According to news outlets, Markham was charged with child neglect for keeping her newborn on a diet of breast milk and soy. News reports indicate that the child was malnourished, underweight and dehydrated, and that Markham didn't seek medical attention as instructed by a doctor. Markham's lawyer is quoted saying that the baby was indeed underweight, but only because the infant, like many, was having trouble breastfeeding. Markham faced criminal charges and the newborn was placed in state custody, separated from his mother for five months. The lawyer also noted that the baby visited with his mother only once or twice a week during that time, and only for an hour each time. A newborn torn from his mother for five months? Seems like a long time. An hour or two of contact per week? Seems pretty draconian for a newborn. What made Markham such a danger to that kid, or... was she?
Questions, questions. Thanks to the release by much-maligned St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, of what is apparently every jot and tittle of information provided to the St. Louis grand jury, we can answer for ourselves questions about Darren Wilson and the grand jury which decided not to issue an indictment. Thousands upon thousands of documents containing witness statements, testimony, forensic and autopsy reports among other supplemental information. 254 different photographs. It is a veritable mountain of information.
To be sure, assumptions and biases influence the inferences each of us draw from all of this information. But the public debate -- "Did he or didn't he?" and "Who did what to whom?" -- is thoroughly informed, as well as impassioned. Reporters, pundits, commentators and social media users have put the evidence under a microscope. And with a click of a mouse, the public can pore over the very same information considered by the grand jury.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Markham. As with the incident between Brown and Wilson, we want to know whether the government assessed danger properly by protecting a vulnerable child, or inflicted harm by recklessly breaking his bond with his mother. We want vengeance if Markham mistreated her baby, and wish she'd been left alone if she didn't. We feel a need to prevent babies from being malnourished in the future -- if that's what happened -- but also want to prevent needless prosecutions and unnecessary separation of children from their parents, if that's what happened here. According to one news report, the baby was kept on a soy diet while separated from his mother, and reached the robust weight of 17 pounds during that time. Did Florida child welfare authorities tear apart this family unnecessarily, or did they heroically stand between this child and certain disaster?
Ah, but here's the rub. We can't answer those questions about Markham and Florida child protective services. Our debate may be heated, but it's grounded in guesswork, not evidence. Because in Florida, like most states, child welfare hearings take place in secret, and court records are hidden from view. We have thousands of pages of documents to digest and analyze regarding Darren Wilson, but as to Markham's infant son, "[T]he Seminole County Sheriff's Office . . . said it cannot speak on the outcome because of state privacy laws." A few, scattered news reports contain scraps of information from criminal proceedings -- which have been dropped -- against Markham. But we know nothing about why Florida CPS and a Florida family court judge believed Markham, and her dietary choices, posed a menace to her newborn.
What does it mean that secrecy is the coin of the realm of child welfare? Instead of deciding for ourselves, we're told to trust that the government got it right. A news story says that a doctor reported to CPS that Markham's baby lost 10 percent of his body weight. We might like to assure ourselves that the doctor actually made that report. Why was 10 percent a magic number for Florida CPS, setting off alarm bells and a process that led to separating an infant from his mother? Why did the family court judge affirm the CPS request to separate child from mother?
No information. No court records. No comment.
If we wonder why a malnourished baby couldn't be left with his mother, perhaps even with in-home feeding assistance or regular monitoring, we're met with stony silence.
The work of governing is tough business, and things go wrong all the time. You know the government isn't flawless if you've ever received an unfair traffic ticket, or waited endlessly for a snowplow to finally reach your street, or been rejected summarily for unemployment benefits. We know government isn't perfect when weapons systems are funded, but never reach fruition. We are reminded that the government messes up every time an innocent person is released from Death Row.
It is no different with respect to children, though some might say the stakes are especially high, and governments have little room for error. But the government makes grievous miscalculations with children, too.
On more than 100,000 occasions nationwide in 2012, children were placed in foster care but were not maltreated at all. Florida accounted for almost ,11000 of those mistakes. Oops. And we know that government-run foster care hurts kids more than it helps.
What does all this mean? If you think Darren Wilson made bad decisions and used excessive force, you might be right. Others believe he had no choice and did what he needed to do to protect and serve the community. Either way, you can explain your perspective. Our robust public debates over race and policing can be grounded in fact, in reality. We can learn from this incident and take steps -- such as use of body cameras -- that may curtail similar incidents in the future.
But with Markham, Florida child protective services, and the role of government in our families' lives, we're just guessing. Did Florida overreach? It wouldn't be the first time, but then again, perhaps this baby truly was endangered. Should the family court judge have pressed CPS to justify the removal? Expert commentators have noted that judges often "rubber-stamp" agency requests, but then again, perhaps this judge dug deep into the family's facts and circumstances and had reason to be satisfied that separation was necessary. Did Markham's original lawyer have enough time to meet with Ms. Markham before the court proceeding, or did the lawyer meet her a few moments before the most important court hearing of her life?
We'll never know.
Who deserves plaudits and who fell down on the job? Accountability and punishment are one thing, but perhaps most worrisome of all is that secret child welfare proceedings mean we can't learn lessons. Does Markham need more information to be a successful parent, and are there other vegan moms who'd benefit from pre-natal education? Or perhaps Markham's choices were appropriate, and Florida CPS needs better information and a more systematic approach to assessing danger. Again, we'll never know.
Will there be more Michael Browns and more Darren Wilsons? In light of Wednesday night's announcement that a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, it appears so. But the abundance of information available about Wilson's interaction with Brown gives us grist for the mill, gives us the chance to sort fact from fiction, and the opportunity to base our judgments and plans on information rather than assumptions and stereotypes. Sadly, we can have no similar hope regarding the government's interactions with children and families. Just as Markham's son was separated from his mother, we too are separated by an iron curtain from information about Florida CPS' treatment of the Markham family, and the court's oversight of CPS.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously commented that "[S]unlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," referring to the benefits of open, transparent and accountable government.
It is time to open the doors and windows of the states' child welfare systems and let the sun shine in on all of our children.