How Poor Parents Are Being Criminalized For Being Poor Parents

March 12, 2012  |  

It seems like parenting is getting a whole lot tougher these days. Not only do you have to make sure the youngins’ are fed, clean and clothed properly but you also have to worry about going to jail over getting your child an education.  Glad I have pets.

First is the story of a homeless Black mother in Connecticut, who was found guilty of stealing $15,000 in educational services. Tanya McDowell, who was living between her van and homeless shelters, was charged with felony larceny last year after she lied about her address to make her six-year-old son eligible to attend kindergarten in a better district. McDowell pled guilty to the accusation and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. While the sentence also includes a seven year bid for four charges of drug possession McDowell is also required to pay a $6,200 fine in restitution.

McDowell’s case has attracted lots of support from education and civil rights advocates who argued for compassion for a homeless mother. However the school district, the prosecutor of the case and finally the juror believe that she should have been required to send him to school in the city of her last permanent address.  The case is also reminiscent of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who too was convicted last year of lying about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district in Ohio. Williams-Bolar was sentenced to two consecutive five-year prison bids. However after public pressure, that sentence was reduced and William-Bolar only spent 10 days in jail, five years of probation and was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service.

Both cases involved the so-called illegal falsification of residence in order to obtain thousands of dollars in educational benefits. However both stories also illustrate how increasingly hostile our public school system is, which presumably is supposed to be free for all American children (paid for by federal funds through our taxes dollars).

More and more, we are seeing stories about how Black and low income parents have been criminalized. Like how last year, more than 400 Baltimore parents had received notification that they would face a District Court judge as a result of charges filed by the school system’s Office of Attendance and Truancy.  And in my home state of Pennsylvania, where the NAACP and the Public Inter Law Center of Philadelphia filed a federal lawsuit against the Lebanon School District for imposing excessive and illegal fines of up to $300 per incident on truant children or their families. One parent in particular was ordered to pay $27,000 and a 17-year-old student was fined more than $12,000.

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  • R2dsk

    nothing to do with race or income. has all to do in ms. black’s case about sending kid to school. forget the tardies. in last 2 months 7 unexcused absences, almost one a week. since she knew she was being prosecuted in nov. above 20. If you can’t bring your kid to school, let the school know. If you need help, let the school know. don’t ignore a problem for 4 years until it gets to court in the first place. 

  • Jen

    It’s because Blacks have multiple kids thoughtlessly. They have kids when they’re in high school or soon after they get out of high school with no well-paying job, no education and no one to help raise their kids. 

    Obviously, in this society, you need a degree to get almost any well-paying job and most seem to not understand that. Mothers need to be responsible and get involved in their children’s education and future so that they won’t end up as criminals.

    • Jen

      This comment is unrelated to this article…

      I FAIL to understand having your children go to another school is costing tax payers money.

  • Rlewis762

    “There are lots of reasons why children could be delinquent from school including bullying to just being flat out rebellious. Likewise, there are a number of underlying issuesre lots of reasons why children could be delinquent from school including bullying to just being flat out rebellious. Likewise, there are a number of underlying issues that could conceivably cause their parents to be absent from being involved they way they should (long, inflexible work hours, drug problems and improper education themselves), none of which could be solved in the criminal justice system”

    Toatally agree. .


    My property taxes (which primarily fund the schools) have risen sharply yet the first cuts to be made in the state budget are always schools.  I could make a stink about how I don’t have kids so why should I pay for others’ kids to be educated HOWEVER I’m smart enough to know that I benefit indirectly when our future leaders are educated.  My wish is that politicians would regard children as more important even than their careers.  

  • Okay if they lied and falsified documents, like others have said make them pay back the tuition and have them go to the school in their district. What is not necessary is jail time for these actions. I understand the jail time for the drug charge (noting that she wasn’t set up or anything like that), but jail time is just ridiculous. With real criminals getting slaps on the wrist, treating people like criminals who are just trying to get a better education for their children is just something that I cannot agree with. I wish they would go after true criminals as harshly. Are these school districts hiring private detectives to prove they don’t stay where they claim to stay and if they do how do they choose to investigate? It seems to me that all the people who are being charged with this are Black; I’m stating what I see in the news, if it is other races out there being prosecuted, I don’t see it. Ijs

  • Mizzlady140

    I truely agree. LET me say this i moved to a southern state..i wont name, names..but when i moved closer to the city the schools were deplorable! i was shocked! I lived in a mostly black city.I was dismayed at how they even thought that our kids could learn and grow in a school with no air conditioning , leaky roofs, sub par teachers..I left and moved as far away from the city as i could..My niinth grader went to this brand new state of the art high school..i felt good about of the line public education, but i also had two young ones in elementry..and it just so happened there was a top of the line elementry school right across the street where my 9th grader would be attentending high i went right across the street to enroll my younger kids and to my suprise i learned about zoning ..and my kids were not abe to attend that sidity school becuse it just so happened, to move one street light passed the zone for that school..and in the end my kids ended up being bused to the same district i tried to remove them from. To this day is was raciest because it was a so called higher class nieghbor hood but they found a way to keep the blacks and the hispanics out! White people know what they are doing you better believe it.They are afraid very afraid …because if a balck child could truly learn what they know..the world will never be the same that is why they continue to oppress us and devide our familys..enough is enough!

  • s3rp3nt

    I guess I have questions specific to the jurisdictions, i.e., how long is the so-called “last address” valid? One year? Two years? Five years? What if the family suffers from chronic homelessness and for several years (3 to 5) doesn’t have a permanent address. Are they still forced to try to use the last “address” for the purpose of school enrollment? What if they are parking their station wagon in another, more affluent part of town – you know, because the street busking is better?

    On a very serious note, how can you steal a free public education? Were other children displaced from these schools due to these other children using those resources? If everyone is paying taxes – and yes, we ARE ALL PAYING AT LEAST SALES TAX, don’t even start with me tonight – why should there be such a disparity in facilities, in teacher qualifications/certifications/success, class sizes? I don’t get the funding policies; and I guess they must be different from state to state, and probably county to county in some places.

    These arrests and fines (I’m torn re: the charter school fines and take the author’s point on the matter) seem counterproductive. What happened/what will happen to the homeless woman’s child while she is incarcerated? If she’s homeless and unemployed, what use levying the fine? It just deepens her spiral of poverty and mischance. She is even less likely now to become employed, with this on her record. It’s tragic. Unbelievable. Befuddling.

  • This is the kind of s**t that pisses me off.  Some dumb f*** behind a desk in a white shirt pushing a pen all day and probably making a six figure income has no idea of what its like being poor.  

  • FromUR2UB

    I find it peculiar that the punishment for sending a child to a school district where the parent doesn’t reside, is so much harsher, and the fines and sentencing so much steeper, than when a parent doesn’t send their child to school at all.  Doesn’ t that tell you something?

  • Jen

    The need for a better education for your children comes at a high price. 

  • tiffanysince1987

    All if not most of our systems are broken (i.e. judicial, economic, healthcare, eduacational etc.) Drastic changes need to be made to change the displacement of wealth throughout America but it probably will not happen because many are ignorant so everyone will continue to play their “role” in society.

  • Xmclee

    The first part of this article is truly sad…but as far as getting fined for truancy….TAKE ‘EM TO COURT BABY!

  • No laws for liquor or cigarettes, but there are laws for marijuana and other drugs. I never understood this. Can someone help me with this matter.  Liquor kills and cigarettes kills just like marijuana and other drugs. So why make some a law and other drugs not a law.  Place certain ages to this as well. Like the laws does on cigarettes and liquor. Oh I forgot “money.”

  • just saying

    i don’t see anything wrong with them wanting to better educate their kids by providing them a better educational system. we live in the ghetto and my mother also lied about our address because she wanted  us to have a better chance at learning. (what’s so wrong with that?) someone ended up telling the schoolboard office of her actions and my little brothers had to start going to the school in our district and have since been in many fights and all they come home talking about is drugs and sex. I don’t fully blame the school but the students there. some of the teachers try to help the students but most of them are lazy and don’t teach anything to the students. they don’t work with the students as they are supposed to. so why is it wrong that my mom wants a better education for her kids? its not her fault we have to live in this area. my dad lost his job and its all we can afford. even if the mother is on drugs (which i do not condone) why should the child be punished? at least she was thinking about her child enough to do that. most parents in that situation don’t even care about their kids.

  • The rich won’t give so go after the poor…Wow!!!  No wonder God is angry with this evil world.

  • Akena Allen

    Good artical.

  • Tonias

    “…but you also have to worry about going to jail over getting your child an education.”

    Noooo. They are going to jail for not ensuring their child receives his FREE education. 

    Parents have to make sure their child attends school everyday.  It’s not only the law, but one of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child.  Our ancestors fought for this right.  At the rate we’re going, soon parents will expect teachers to come wake up their children and drag them to school.  And it’s quite shameful that the NAACP and other organization are taking up this battle.  Especially since many former NAACP members fought for our right to an education

  • Daniels

    I have little to no sympathy for those you have chosen to use as examples in this article (seriously, a homeless mom with 4 charges of drug possession!). The bottom line is that there are laws in this country and we, as citizens, are to abide by those laws. Choosing to falsify an address in order to send your child to a school in a better district sounds noble, but what if every one were to flout the law and falsify an address? The trickle-down effect is that students with an actual right to attend a school in a particular district may suffer in the end, in the form of lost opportunities, higher student-teacher ratios and so on.

    There is no constitutional right to an education. The states created the public education system in order to better its citizens. As a result, they are allowed to set the laws and if we would like to participate in the state issued PRIVILEGE of a free education, we must follow the laws the states have set out.

    • CBall

       “There is no constitutional right to an education” Except that schooling is mandatory. With exception of home schooling and private schooling, you can not opted out of education without running the rest of being accused by the state of child neglect aka child abuse. So while education is not constitutional right it is certainly the law in all 50 states including D.C. So why not ensure that school districts across the country are equal, safe and fair for all?

      • Andrea

        “So why not ensure that school districts across the country are equal, safe and fair for all?”
        In the mean time, parents still have to send their children to school.  I can guarantee you that the parents who have been given truancy fines were not keeping their children out of school for equal, safe, and fair reasons.

        • CBall

           Okay, Let’s compare stats on the lowest performing schools, school violence and the amount of funding spent per child and see if those stats matches the same places where parents and truancy are being fined for truancy. Are there parents, who are flat out neglectful in their children’s lives? Sure. But neglectful parenting does not tell the whole story.

      • Daniels

        In order to ensure that school districts across the country are equal safe and fair for all, we need parents to take responsibility for their children and their children’s education and that starts in the home. The fact that this mother has 4 charges of drug possession indicates to me that it is unlikely her child would have a better chance at life even if she snuck him into the best school district in the country.

    • FromUR2UB

      Either way, taxpayers are going to pay regardless of whether their taxes are spent on educating a child who belongs in another district, or housing the child’s parent in jail.  Do you find the latter preferable?  Yes, there are laws.  The school districts could have enforced them simply by asking the women to remove their children from the schools, and let that be the end of it.  The threat of billing them tuition would have been enough to make them comply.  The inconvenience they would have experienced finding another school to accept their children, would have been punishment, enough.  But some people are so motivated by meanness and spite, that they’d rather devastate the lives of these women and their children, for an infraction that should be deemed minor.  When are people going to realize that there’s a societal benefit to providing quality education to poor children?  The very people who insist upon jail time because they “broke the law”, are likely the ones who are most fearful of the people these kids will become, if they can’t gain access to quality education.  

      • Co signed.

      • Daniels

        It is not out of meanness and spite that these people are charged tuition. They are charged tuition because they have wrongfully used services that were not theirs to use. Simply asking someone to remove their child from school results in a lack of meaningful consequences. What is to stop them from doing this again in another school district? A lack of meaningful consequences is what puts many of these people in the positions they are in to begin with.

        • FromUR2UB

          But, they’re not charging the people for tuition.  They’re sending them to jail…to serve long sentences.  Clearly, the women made some bad decisions, but the penalties are not fitting the offenses.  Had it not been for pressure from the public, Williams-Bolar would have gone to jail for ten years!  This sounds like the days of debtors’ prisons.  Lord forbid you forget to pay your electric bill, or  someone might decide that disconnecting your service is not enough to teach you a lesson.  Go straight to jail.  I’m only using this analogy as an illustration of how extreme the punishment is.

        • Rlewis762

          “Meaningful consequences”
          I agree with you on the meaningful consequences thing I really do. However the punishment should fit the crime. In this case I don’t think that it does. You get people that drive behind the wheel all drunk and stuff and they could kill someone and they only spend one night in jail and pay some fines. But a lady who obviously has a drug conviction but is smart enough to see that her Childs education is important hence she takes the child to the best school she can. Sounds like the smartest so-called “druggie” to me. Let’s talk about this drug conviction for a minute. Has anyone stopped to see what she was taking/smoking/in possession of…. was it weed? Now if it was any other drug besides weed then I am sorry but you are a druggie and should pay your fines and maybe some jail time as well. However Marijuana is becoming more and more legal in states because of its medical factor and honestly when have you heard of a pot head committing any kind of crime. So think about this for a minute. Just some food for thought.
          Forum guy up there makes another good point as far as money we are spending out of our tax $’s to prosecute these cases. Now do you think that this lady will ever pay back that fines she was imposed? Is it going to be paid back by the time she gets out of prison? I doubt it. We are spending way more money and exhausting sources that otherwise would not be needed. How much money in salaries alone do you have in this case? Well let’s see the public defender or as I like to call them public pretenders has his fees and he is paid by the tax payers for low income people who can’t afford a lawyer. Then the judge then the school district had to hire a layer. Bailiffs/secretaries/the recorder person/ the janitor who cleans up everything after court/the clerk’s office. All this is needed whether its one case or 100 still these people need to be paid and where do they get there moneys from? You guessed it the tax payers. So with all this being said do you still think that the district or their attorneys made the better choice for tax payers which equal how many hundreds of thousands of people or the better choice by prosecuting what I call a turnip.  yes turn up why do I say that well because you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip and you not going to get money out of this lady so in my opinion it was a waste of time money and material and was nothing but another drain on our economy and at this time we really don’t need any more drains. Or is that why they are starting to prosecute these cases? ……… Just my 2 pennies

  • Quandra

    This is beyond sad.