A tip to the police led officers to a Motel Six in Youngstown at about 6:15 p.m. on Thursday night. The 10-year-old explained that her mom was working and would be home at 10 p.m.
The officers went to the pizza shop where the mom, Shaina Bell, 24, told them she usually has someone look in on the kids every hour. She was booked into jail on two counts of child endangerment, and the kids were sent to their father. She got out on bail.
Now, look: It's certainly not ideal for a mom to have to work at night while her 10-year-old babysits her little sister.
But the facts — the motel room — seem to suggest the family is under serious financial strain, yes? And when that is the case, and there is a pandemic, and you are a mom trying to earn a living, it does not make your kids better off if you are under arrest or in a cell or possibly now contending with custody lawyers and the courts to get back on your feet.
We don't know any more details about the case. The comments section on the local news story is rife with folks trying to figure out her relationship to the kids' dad and his family.
But having the police and probably child protection authorities in the middle of this family's drama — all because Mom had to go to work an evening shift — is not going to make life easier for the kids or teach them any lessons we would want them to know.
Think about the moral of the story from the viewpoint of the 10-year-old. She answered the door responsibly, gave the information requested and seemed to be managing fine at the time the police were called. Now the lesson may be: You should be afraid when Mom asks you to watch your younger sibling. Or even: Don't trust mom.
In the name of protecting kids, this intervention may not be protecting kids at all. And in a country busy rethinking whether it really makes sense to have cops handling cases involving mental illness, this seems like a good time to also consider the mismatch between the usual law enforcement responses and parents in poverty.
Instead of arrest, charge, jail, bail — nothing that actually helps the family and plenty that puts it even further behind the eight ball — the cops should first, like doctors, do no harm.
"This case is far too common — so common that Congress has started to get the message that family poverty is not neglect," says Diane Redleaf, co-chair of United Family Advocates and Let Grow's legal consultant.
"Instead of punishing parents for being poor, we need to start building up community responses so children can be safe and supported. And when children are not in obvious immediate danger due to real abuse, it might be time for authorities to stand back. Ask the mom what help she needs, but don't make poverty a crime."
That sounds sensible to me.