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The Mamafesto: Why race and class matter when it comes to parenting

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

A tale of two parents, but only one ends up in jail

Despite all our progressive advances made since the 1960s, it would be foolish to suggest that racism isn't still a daily issue for many, one woven into the fabric of our society. This is clear in many facets of society, and just this week, we've seen — yet again — how differently families are treated based on their race and class.

You may have heard of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, Maryland parents who are being investigated for allowing their 6- and 10-year-old kids to play together unsupervised at a nearby park and then walk home a mile alone. The children were picked up by a concerned police officer, who drove them home and then lectured the parents on the dangers of allowing kids to walk home unsupervised. A few hours later, the family received a visit from the Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate the Meitivs for neglect. As of now, no arrests have been made, and the children are still living at home with their parents.

Contrast this with the story of Debra Harrell, who, after having her daughter accompany her to work daily during summer vacation, allowed the 9-year-old to play in a nearby park, only five minutes away. Harrell's daughter checked in repeatedly, had a cellphone on her and returned to her mother's work for lunch. At some point the police were notified by a concerned citizen, and they ended up arresting Harrell for neglect. Harrell spent 17 days in jail and temporarily lost custody of her daughter.

Why such a striking difference in the way these two families were treated? Let's look at all the details. The Meitivs, a white family, live in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a nice, suburban neighborhood. The father, Alexander Meitiv, is a physicist with the National Institutes of Health, and mother Danielle is a former climate scientist for the Clean Air Task Force. They said they practice free-range parenting and felt the Montgomery County CPS's visit to their house felt like they were being "bullied."

Debra Harrell, on the other hand, is a single black mother living in North Augusta, South Carolina. She works hard to make ends meet at a local McDonald's. As opposed to the Meitivs, who consciously allowed their children to play unsupervised as part of their parenting philosophy, Harrell's decision was made because she was unable to find or afford child care. She did not have the luxury or circumstances for this to be about a trendy — though heavily debated — parenting philosophy. For her it happened as a consequence of her daily life.

One family — the white, educated, middle-class one — receives hardly a slap on the wrist beyond the inconvenience of having CPS in their lives. The other — helmed by a single black mother working a minimum wage job — is arrested, jailed for over two weeks and had her daughter taken away from her temporarily. In both cases, the children were happy and safe when picked up by the police. So why was one family treated a hell of a lot worse than the other?

If you think privilege, race and class had nothing to do with the difference, then you're sadly mistaken. This isn't about whether or not it's OK or legal to allow your child to play or walk home unsupervised. This is about how law enforcement and those in child protective services treat the families involved. Why should there be such a vast difference in how Debra Harrell and her daughter were treated and the Meitivs? There shouldn't be. And yet, odds are, families of color and those in lower socio-economic situations will continue to be targeted, where the consequences will be much more severe. While I feel for the Meitivs and their frustrations, I also hope they realize just how "lucky" they are and how their privilege protected them from more dire consequences.

More from The Mamafesto

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The Mamafesto: Top 10 feminist TV moms of all time

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