Poverty, Jail, Media Harassment: The Worst Year of This Mother’s Life

Lowered boot, red carnation(Illustration: Lauren Walker / Truthout; Adapted: Boot lowers, red carnation via Shutterstock)

2014 was the most traumatic year of my life. I was tested mentally, physically and emotionally. The year began as the previous year had ended. My unemployment benefits had run out. My endless job search was yielding nothing promising. But I kept persevering. I was the mother of three beautiful children who needed me.

They did not know our struggle, even though they lived in the midst of it. We lived from place to place, taking advantage of the generosity of friends and family. I made sure my children slept under a roof every night. I did not always have that same fortune. But that was okay. My primary task was to take care of them. It was a cycle of poverty I was determined to break.

As mothers, especially single mothers, we often tend to suffer in silence, shouldering the burden of care for our young, doing all we can to provide, crying at night for the things we feel we should provide but cannot. We do this only to dry those tears in the morning and go back out in the world with our heads high and shoulders back. We are determined, every day, to make the world a better place for our children.

I was bringing in less than $50 a week at that time, just enough for gas and diapers.

My chance in a lifetime came in mid-March 2014. I was invited to interview with a reputable insurance company that promised a salary guaranteed to end our struggle. I’d also been approved for Section 8 housing. It had been a four-year wait, and it came not a moment too soon. I was told by the person living in the home where the children had been sleeping most recently that their finances had become so strained they needed to move within 30 days. I was facing my own financial worries: I was bringing in less than $50 a week at that time, just enough for gas and diapers. I could do little to help them out. My daughter would ask me every week if she would ever have her own room again. I would reply, “Very soon.” That was my job as their provider: to make sure they had enough. It may not have been the best, but they always had enough.

I prepared the entire week of March 20 to be ready for my interview. I picked out the perfect business casual outfit. I borrowed a pair of black pumps. I collected cans and babysat all week to make sure I had the gas money to make it there and back. I made arrangements for my sons. I even spoke to the babysitter the day before to confirm my arrangements. That interview meant a new life for us. I called the recruiter a few days before the interview also to inquire how long the interview would take. I wanted to make sure my babysitting arrangements would be enough to cover the time. I was told the interview would take about 15 minutes. In my mind, I had 15 minutes to change our lives.

On that fateful day, my babysitter was nowhere to be found. No answer to my calls. No answer at her door. I was devastated. What would I do now? The interview of a lifetime was on the line. And I had no babysitter. I drove in a daze across town to the interview, trying to come up with a fabulous story I could tell my interviewer in order to allow me to reschedule. My two boys were sound asleep in the back seat.

I arrived at the location completely beside myself. I needed this job. We needed this job. We needed this chance. Something had to change! Something had to give! We were at the end of our rope and I was not sure how much longer I could hold us together.

My mind flashed to the recruiter saying the interview would take 15 minutes. My boys were still quietly napping. I sat in the car with them for an additional 25 minutes trying to compel myself to do something, anything. But what? We needed this job. I looked to the backseat, thinking, “They need me to get this job. They deserve this job and all it will mean for us.” I exited the car. I had to make this the best 15 minutes of my life – and the clock had just started.

When I exited the interview I was on cloud nine. I had sold myself to the best of my abilities and walked out with the job.

It’s the most desolate feeling in the world to struggle to have the means to care for your children.

All that changed in a matter of 130 steps. I rushed back to the parking lot to find my car doors wide open and the area surrounded by police. My children had been taken to the hospital. I was arrested for two counts of child abuse for leaving my boys in the car alone. The boys were released the same day with no injuries by the hospital. Records show they were administered juice and grahams crackers, and their body temperatures had rose to 99.3 degrees. I was put in jail for 10 days with no hope of getting out. My bond had been set at $9,000. For me, that was an astronomical amount; I did not have $1 to my name.

It’s the most desolate feeling in the world to struggle to have the means to care for your children. The cycle of poverty is very difficult to break. Many tend to blame the individual for being poor, not realizing that it’s not a choice. They demand the poor get a job and stop living off the government.

Many poor mothers, particularly single mothers, lack the proper experience to deal with police or the legal system. Even worse, they lack the resources to build a proper defense in cases targeting them for the offense of being “poor while Black.”

However, while I was incarcerated, unbeknownst to me, my world was changing. A Good Samaritan in New Jersey saw my story and started an online fundraiser that went viral. Thousands of people donated more than $114,000 to help us. My name and story had become a nightly headline on news stations around the world. Another Good Samaritan in Arizona rallied her church to come to my aid and post my bail. I was released on my 11th day in jail. I thought the worst of it was behind me.

Instead, it turned out, I was just beginning my fight against the State of Arizona for my freedom and to regain custody of my children. The media inquiries were pouring in. Local reporters were beating down the door, all promising their coverage would help with my online fundraiser. I received hundreds of emails, cards and letters from supporters empathetic to my situation. It was all so overwhelming to go from a quiet struggle to the center of a world debate over whether my actions were right or wrong.

I went from being portrayed as the face of the poor to being portrayed as one of the worst mothers in the United States.

This rosy time didn’t last for long. I went from being portrayed as the face of the poor to being portrayed as one of the worst mothers in the United States in a matter of months. What I thought were funds donated to re-establish my family became a point of contention. False media reports alleged the funds were used for rap albums, spent on designer clothes and bags, and wasted on trips to the nail salon and hairdresser. Some allegations claimed a majority of the funds were used for drugs, even though I’d completed eight months of random drug screens with all tests being confirmed as negative for any usage. I’d even provided a hair follicle test to prove that six months prior to the incident there was no drug usage.

There was not a shred of proof to any of these allegations. However that didn’t stop the media hounds. They caught wind of the story and once again my name went viral. My story went from being featured as an “economics” story to being run alongside stories of heinous crimes against children such as rape, murder or extreme physical abuse. I was labeled as having no regard for my children and only caring about myself. The courts used the public scrutiny derived from the media reports to tighten their grip. They asked me to prove where the funds were spent and attempted to court order the release of my financial records. They labeled me as irresponsible and incapable of making sound financial decisions in the best interest of my children. They attempted to order me to turn over all remaining funds to the state for them to designate its use.

I’ve been asked, again and again, how I spent the money donated to my family. While I find the question belittling, I will answer it. As a mother, my first obligation is to provide for my children, and the funds were used to do that. I paid past due bills and two parking tickets. I paid a year’s worth of rent. Many people have questioned this decision. However at the time, I was uncertain of my fate and with the possibility of jail time still on the horizon, I needed to make sure my children had a secure home.

My children may not have “the best,” but they always have enough. They are and will always be my world.

I paid my child care for one year in advance. This was a decision made to ensure my children would receive proper care in the event I had to be absent for an extended amount of time. Guaranteed child care would ensure their father and my parents could work during the day and work together to care for them in the evenings. I furnished our home through bargain pricing and sale shopping. I also spent money obtaining proper clothes, shoes and toys for the children as well as appropriate business casual clothing for myself to attend court hearings, legal meetings and job interviews. I maintained my legal fees, retaining up to five lawyers at a time. I attended several legal consultations in search of attorneys who would suit my needs. It was an exhausting search. Many failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. They only wanted the publicity associated with the case. I attended mandatory evaluations, drug testing, parenting classes and substance abuse classes in order to comply with court orders. (My legal fees exceeded $10,000 by the time they concluded in December 2014.) During this time, I’d also maintained my household bills, including car payment, car insurance, utilities, transportation costs for the children, medical insurance and food. I also contributed to the household where the children were living while under Child Protective Services (CPS) supervision. The monthly cost to maintain everything necessary to keep us afloat added up quickly, but this spending was very important to make sure the family had all we needed.

There were leisure trips as well – ice cream twice a month, McDonald’s Happy Meals twice a month and day trips to the park for picnics. I had to acknowledge that as traumatic as my life had been, my children’s lives were equally affected by the chaos. I had to make extra efforts to reinforce that they were loved. These expenses were always kept within a frugal budget. I often take advantage of local discounts websites, use coupons and seek out free offers.

My children may not have “the best,” but they always have enough. They are and will always be my world.

My original plea deal included establishing a trust fund in the amount of $60,000. That amount would have tapped all our remaining funds. There would have been no money left for household bills, my remaining mandatory classes or the maintenance of the children. At this point, there were still no employment prospects, so to turn over all we had would have put us back where we were when this all began. Except this time around, there were no government safety nets to make sure at least their medical and food costs were covered. The home we lived in would have been a shell, with no lights or running water. I could not let this happen.

After many negotiations, the trust fund amount was reduced. I was offered in writing, by the county attorney’s office, until November 15, 2014, to fund my trust account with $40,000. My trust account was funded with $45,000 on November 8. However, the county attorney pulled out of our arrangement on November 6 and my case was sent to trial. I was told, “the court had run out of patience.” Interestingly enough, my interactions with the court prior to and up until this point were very limited. The only new information they’d received on me was derived from media reports.

The trust fund is still active today. However, the terms are slightly different from the structure originally ordered by the court. (I had requested these terms be added in the original trust fund agreement, and my trust attorney submitted several revisions to the state for approval, but every attempt was denied.) First, there is an emergency clause in place. This clause guarantees that, in the event something catastrophic happens, such as pending eviction or extreme medical emergency, the funds can be accessed. (The courts adamantly declined this emergency clause in the trust terms they attempted to force upon me.) The emergency must be verified by a judge and the release of funds must be court approved. But ultimately the trust assets are protected and designated for the best interest of its beneficiaries, the children.

The media onslaught has been the most difficult thing to deal with.

Second, the account, as I established it, allows that the funds be used by the children as they see fit. Its intended purpose is to pay for college or university (continuing education in general), however with the changes in the world today, I understand my children are their own people; they get to decide how to live their lives. It’s reasonable to expect that at least one out of three may not continue on with a college education. In the event this is the case, the funds will be released to that child on their 18th, 21st and 25th birthdays. Third, the trust fund is established so the amount available is allowed to grow over the years to come as opposed to being frozen at only $10,000 per child. The amount in the trust at its time of fruition will be divided equally amongst the children. (The court also immediately declined to include these last two clauses in the previous court-ordered trust agreement.)

I wanted to empower my children to spend their money as they saw fit, upon reaching adulthood. This position resulted in intense scrutiny and punishment.

Over the past year, the media onslaught has been the most difficult thing to deal with. There are always new media reports, articles, blogs and social media posts based on lies. I have not been approached by one news agency attempting to verify the validity of the claims, nor have any of them completed an investigation or published the proof of their allegations. This lack of proof has not kept the general public from rendering and often voicing their very negative opinions of me.

At a point in December 2014, there were five to 10 articles per week being written or shared, with false information being quoted. I received, at that time, 15 to 30 hateful emails a week, telling me how horrible a person I was, how I did not deserve my children, how I should be in prison for the rest of my life, how my children would fare better in foster care, how I should rot in hell, how I should have my womb burned out. It was as if the whole world turned against me.

During this time, I had just come out from under the CPS umbrella. My children had been joyously returned home to me in August 2014. My case was closed, with the charges of child abuse being found unsubstantiated. I was still feverishly seeking a job, attending job fairs and job interviews as often as I was invited. My search was hopeless. Employers would invite me to be an unpaid intern. They wanted me to host job fairs, press conferences and other public events exploiting my notoriety to advertise for their company. I was invited to be a seasonal company spokesperson, only being paid per appearance – paid to be a public spectacle. And under these arrangements, when my publicity wore off, they would be free to release me from their service.

Others invited me to interview only to ask about my case, its progress, the publicity or the media allegations. Still others would immediately end the interview once they found out who I was. Eventually, the interviews stopped being offered.

If I had other options that day, I would have chosen differently.

I was offered a position as a waitress and another as a clothing store attendant, both at minimum wage. Both promised consistent night and weekends work. Still living in the shadow of CPS, I could not chance accepting a job without guaranteed child care. I was living my life walking on eggshells. My only guaranteed care was during daytime hours; my daycare is open from 5 am to 6pm. So any position I accepted would have to offer work hours (including the commute) that would fit in this window of time. Coupled with that, I understood eventually I would need to pay for my child care again. At $266 a week, I knew a minimum wage job would not be enough to cover child care plus our monthly expenses. My day-to-day schedule as primary provider does not afford enough time for me to work two jobs in order to make up the difference in wages by working a second job. In addition to the minimum wage jobs, I was offered one other position at $12 per hour. The company, however, was located an hour and a half east of my home with a shift beginning at 6 am. This would require someone being available for my children at 4:30 every morning, as well as being able to transport the children to school. I did not have anyone available to do this.

My children’s father, accepting the difficulty of my situation, works 15 hours a day for the Phoenix Transit System. He works five days a week to support us. He contributes his paychecks to assist with the household bills, and spends his weekends with the children, allowing me time to myself. He does not ask me to support him financially.

This entire experience has left me self-conscious and very withdrawn. I’m still often recognized in public. In an effort to protect my children from scrutiny, I don’t attend my daughter’s school events, so others won’t identify me as her mom. She suffered from bullying when my story first hit the media. I won’t subject her to that again. I shop only when the children are in daycare or school so they are not seen with me.

I limit my time in public as much as possible. I make my trips to the supermarket short, getting only the essentials. I’ve been asked for money in public, followed through the grocery store and heard my name yelled while I shop. Those not bold enough to say anything simply point and whisper. Others just stare.

When I feel I’ve been in any particular place for too long or that others are judging me, I break out in a heavy sweat and find myself shaking uncontrollably. I’ve been told by a therapist that I have anxiety issues and mild depression. I visit only close family and friends. I still look for jobs, but I’m easily discouraged by the lack of responses. I don’t sleep most nights. I feel stressed out most days, as I see the balances in my accounts decline and no hope of a job on the way. I have to remind myself to eat – I sometimes only remember to eat late in the evening when I feel lightheaded. I don’t intend to not take care of myself, but I feel so overwhelmed at times that my only thought is to make sure the children are secure. I take care of myself later. I suffer from constant migraines. I used to cry at the constant media reports and articles, so I’ve learned to stop reading them.

At no point have I attempted to say I did nothing wrong. I made a bad choice out of a set of bad options, which included much worse options than the one I chose. If I had other options that day, I would have chosen differently.

I often come across stories of those with privilege receiving lesser consequences for much more detrimental actions than mine, and I find them very difficult to read. They only reinforce the fact that my being a poor, Black, single mother is counted against me.