Jeannetta Maclin, 23, of St Louis, was at work trying to make ends meet when her children played with a lighter. When her neighbors learned the details of her case, they called for lenience from the court: ‘The system failed this mom’
The scene that confronted firefighters was harrowing. Two young boys who had been left home alone and found a lighter to play with had accidentally set the apartment on fire and now were unconscious due to smoke inhalation.
They managed to revive the children, and their mother was soon in jail, her police mugshot doing the rounds on local media in St Louis, Missouri, where the near-tragedy occurred in February.
But then something unusual happened.
When people in the city heard the young woman was a single mother, with no criminal record, who had left her sons at home in desperation so she could go to her low-paid job and make rent before the landlord evicted them, they took action.
Thomas Payton, an emergency medical technician who was on duty at the hospital when the boys were brought in, was just one of a number of concerned citizens who went to court on her behalf and begged for leniency for the mother, Jeannetta Maclin, 23.
“I told the judge I thought the system had failed this mom and I had come to plead for her, that she and her kids deserved a chance and this bad decision she had made should not be the one that defines the rest of her life,” Payton said.
They are stuck between a rock and a hard place and they need help, not punishment
He told the court he knew other single mothers who had faced the dilemma either of leaving the kids home alone or losing their job when they ran out of limited childcare options.
“They are stuck between a rock and a hard place and they need help, not punishment,” he said he told the judge.
Other supporters – complete strangers to Maclin – argued in court that she was being held in custody unfairly with an unaffordable bail demand of $15,000 and an unjustified claim that she was a danger to the whole community.
And in what seasoned observers regarded as a rare outcome in such a case, the judge was swayed.
First Maclin had her bail sharply reduced, and then, after her newfound community advocates and ordinary, concerned citizens helped her raise the money, she was able to leave jail in March. Then, earlier this month, the judge agreed to dismiss the child endangerment charges she faced – which could have led to five years in prison – if the young mother successfully completes courses in parenting, job skills and therapy.
“I could have lost my boys and I thank God every day that he did not take them. I blamed myself, I did. I miss them right now. I’m putting on a brave face, but inside it’s killing me,” Maclin said.
By court order, the boys, aged five and two, are being looked after by their father for the time being. He had little prior involvement in raising them.
Meanwhile, those who rallied to Maclin’s cause have pledged to fire up a broader campaign across St Louis and beyond, to tackle the dearth of childcare services for striving single mothers.
Though Maclin’s case took place in state court, it has served to highlight a chronic problem more common in the lower municipal courts: the practice of jailing impoverished citizens in the equivalent of debtors’ prisons, in effect for being poor. People are often held, for example, over as little as $400 following a minor traffic offense.
“Many people understood the bind that she was in. Many have been there themselves. I was a single mother. No one is saying she should have left them alone, but we don’t have adequate child care facilities for the families who are most vulnerable. For $100 of babysitting, Jeannetta’s situation could have been avoided,” said Pam Ross, a prominent local member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
Ross heard about Maclin’s case in February and spearheaded the effort to enlist supporters to attend court and advocate for her. Now she wants to go further.
“We are unlikely to get public funds for universal pre-K from the [conservative] state legislature in Missouri, even though it’s critical to this whole situation and we firmly believe it saves the government money in the long run,” she said.
Instead, she plans to engage city authorities and companies with headquarters or large operations in St Louis to suggest new services such as sponsored childcare programs and more visiting public nurses for newborns.
“And we have got to do something about the system when women are jailed when they can’t raise cash bail, who have small kids and then they lose their jobs. It’s a national problem. We’re going to get volunteers to go into the municipal jails and speak to mothers there and shame the authorities with the details of what is going on for thousands of women,” she said.
When Maclin came out of jail, a city program that matches people with jobs helped her get work at the digital payment processing firm Square, which opened an office in St Louis last year.
A woman and her teenage daughter from a prosperous suburb bought Maclin, who had lost her belongings in the fire, an entire wardrobe of clothing and essentials such as towels. Other citizens from across the income, ethnic and religious spectrum sent checks and offered assistance, Ross said.
“I was so surprised that there were people who did not know me who heard about my situation and they stood up for me. I’m almost crying now just thinking about it,” Maclin said.
She had her first son when she was 17 and graduated from high school six months early while pregnant.
Jeannetta’s own mother had given birth to her when she was just 15, and the girl grew up “jumping from house to house” in one-bedroom apartments with different combinations of seven siblings and half siblings. She loved school, she said, but had moved between three middle schools. Her father was in prison from when she was five until she was 15.
“I wish I could turn the clock back to when I was 15. I wanted to enlist in the US navy, or go to the police academy and become a homicide detective,” she said.
What piece of advice would she give to her 15-year-old self now?
“Books before boys,” she said.
She described her relationship with her mother as rocky and said that after leaving high school she had an on-again, off-again connection with the father of her boys. She moved between low-paid jobs as she tried to find her footing.
Her grandmother often watched her children for her, but she herself worked nights, and despite her help and some babysitting from friendly neighbors, Maclin appeared to have run out of options on the day in February when she set out for her $8-an-hour job at a movie theater and left the boys behind.
While her case continues, she has been advised not to discuss the details of that day by her pro bono attorney, Stephanie Lummus of ArchCity Defenders, a local not-for-profit law firm.
But Lummus said: “I think people responded to Jeannetta’s cause because she was not making meth [methamphetamine] in her basement, or committing arson, or out at a bar – she was trying to work to keep her and the kids from being evicted and living in her car. This kind of dilemma is on repeat for hundreds of thousands of single mothers.”
She added that the judge’s re-evaluation of Maclin’s case was, in her experience, “rare”.
Payton recalls the two little boys being brought into the St Louis children’s hospital emergency room while he was on his shift as a paramedic. As a retired firefighter himself, he got talking with some of the men from the fire department who had rescued the children from the apartment.
“It’s always crushing when it’s the little kids. The firefighters were pretty worked up, asking, ‘What kind of person leaves kids in the house alone?’ They were frustrated,” said Payton.
He said his thoughts turned to trying to figure out why they had been home alone.
Maclin’s grandmother was at the hospital, utterly distraught, he said.
“I was hearing her saying, ‘I kept telling them she needed help, but no one listened.’ She was so upset,” he said.
He realized he had at least one friend and one family member who had gone through a similar experience of being faced with going to work or watching the kids and had left them alone, but without such disastrous consequences.
He is also involved in a church group that tries to prevent deprived kids from ending up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system so easily – the so-called school-to-prison pipeline , which has been part of the discussion about race relations in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and the resulting riots in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
“Kids, single mothers, they get the blame when they fall foul of growing up around poverty, poor education, poor housing, drug gangs, chaos, fragmented communities, politicians’ resistance to programs that can give them a chance, such as child care assistance, but are just dismissed as ‘handouts’. I felt that Jeannetta needed help, not jail, and I went to a bond hearing to tell the judge the system had failed her,” said Payton.
Jeannetta represents so many people in America. She’s 23, she’s smart and she should be in the prime of her life
Also at Maclin’s various hearings, alongside her mother, grandmother and an aunt, were Ross and other leading local members of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and community leaders.
One, Yvette Goods, a union activist and retired electrician, said: “Many people see cases like this just as: ‘She’s a young black woman, what does she matter?’ I sat in court and it was disheartening. Jeannetta represents so many people in America. She’s 23, she’s smart and she should be in the prime of her life.”
Lummus said that the limited child care assistance available in St Louis involved a parent spending between two and four hours at the family support division of the city authorities, waiting for their number to be called and “perhaps getting to talk to someone” about an application – during regular office hours, meaning a single mother who is out interviewing for jobs or working a daytime job cannot attend. She said a similar system of “bureaucratic hoops” stood in the way of those applying for food stamps.
She recommended the city adding staff and outreach services, while cutting down on red tape, to increase efficiency and increase access for working single parents.
Maclin is waiting while the court processes permission for her to have one hour of supervised visitation with her boys once a week, until she completes her 90-day court-ordered skills courses and, she hopes, regains custody of them.
She has not seen them since that February day and is currently living with her grandmother, while looking for a new apartment. At Square’s customer service division, she is in effect on probation until she proves herself.
“I’m working hard. I like it,” she said.
She had never been arrested before the February catastrophe. She said that being behind bars for almost a month in a St Louis jail nicknamed “the workhouse” was “a horrible experience I would not wish on my worst enemy”.
Now she is working nine to five and attending her court-ordered courses.
“I have to stay on it. I’m edgy because I know they could still lock me up. But I’m happy that in three months I can be free, if I do the right things. This is a second chance for me,” she said.
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