On Patricia Allen and Why We Must Stop Criminalizing Black Motherhood

by Altheria Gaston

I can only imagine how 30-year-old mother Patricia Allen must be feeling after losing three of her five children in a drowning accident at an apartment complex in Irving, Texas only three weeks ago. On June 24, 2015, Allen took all five children to the pool. After going under water, three of her children were removed from the pool by a maintenance man and first responders. August, 10, died shortly after being removed from the pool. Her brothers Anthony, 11, and Treshawn, 9, died five days later. Allen’s two younger children, ages 4 and 6, were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services.

Although initially investigated as an accident, witnesses told investigators that Allen was texting on her phone and not properly supervising her children who were not wearing floating devices. On Friday, July 10th, Allen was arrested and charged with injury to a child, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. This grieving mother is being characterized as irresponsible and reckless whose negligence should be punished.

When I saw Allen’s mugshot, a Black woman with tears streaming down her face, I immediately recalled a similar image, that of Shanesha Taylor, who was recently sentenced to 18 years probation after leaving her children unattended in a hot car while she went to a job interview. Taylor’s case brought much-needed national attention to poverty, homelessness, and the challenges of single motherhood. Perhaps Allen’s case will bring attention to the ways Black motherhood continues to be criminalized and the need to support poor and low-income Black mothers and their children.

While I am not arguing about whether or not Allen’s actions on June 24th were irresponsible, I do contend that the criminalization of Black motherhood makes it far too easy to accuse well-intentioned mothers of crimes against their children. When Black mothers are arrested and faced with what are oftentimes questionable charges, we need to ask ourselves about the oppressive contexts that oftentimes give birth to their actions and about the consequences of separating mothers from their children. Black mothering is and always has been contextual undertaking, and instead of trying to understand this context, outsiders are quick to perpetuate the stereotype that Black mothers are lazy, unengaged in their children’s lives, and unfit to be mothers. These stereotypical images create an ideology that makes it easy for the judicial system to inflict criminal charges for non-criminal actions. Not only do Black mothers face possible imprisonment, they also lose custody of their children. This is especially true for low-income and poor mothers who cannot afford competent legal representation. Dorothy E. Roberts makes this observation in her 2012 article, “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers.”

“The prison and foster care systems are marked by glaring race, gender, and class disparities: The populations in both are disproportionately poor and African American, and both systems are particularly burdensome to poor black mothers. About one-third of women in prison are black and most were the primary caretakers of their children. About one-third of children in foster care are black, and most have been removed from black mothers who are their primary caretakers.”

Instead of punishment and abandonment, Black mothers need support and assistance as they navigate a world that is multiply oppressive to them and their children. Allen’s tragic experience is evidence of the criminalization of Black motherhood. Roberts argues, “As a result of the political choice to fund punitive instead of supportive programs, criminal justice and child welfare supervision of mothers is pervasive in poor black communities.”

Of course mothers (and fathers) should be held accountable for the welfare of their children, for parents have been entrusted with great gifts in the form of their children. But I object to the ways that Black mothers, especially those who are poor, are overpoliced. This unfair surveillance means that these mothers are more likely to become part of the criminal justice system.

There are those who believe the focus should be on Allen’s parenting instead of on the responsibilities of the apartment complex owners whose pool had murky water. Some believe that Allen should be punished through the penal system. I believe that she needs to be supported by her community in the same way we would support any mother who has tragically lost three of her five children. Instead of making her out to be a criminal, let’s participate in generative conversations and actions that can help her be the mother her two remaining children need her to be. Sure, some of our sisters need help with the enormous task of mothering. Government funding should be directed proactively to prevent tragedies: community programs that teach water safety, child care for overburdened parents, and free summer enrichment programs. Funds used punitively do very little to encourage positive parenting and to preserve Black families.

Photo: Shutterstock

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She’s a doctoral candidate working on a dissertation focused on single, Black mothers in poverty. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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