Here is the headline from the front page of today's Lawrence Journal-World (Fri., 23 Feb. 2001): "Disappearance of Brothers Baffles Relatives, Police."
The children--one two years old, the other four months old--have been missing since Tuesday morning, when Natasha H., their seventeen-year-old babysitter, drove off in a van with them. Lawrence police are investigating the boys' disappearance as a probable kidnapping, though Natasha's family can't understand why she would do such a thing and insist that, no matter what, she would never hurt the little boys.
On Monday, no doubt, they would also have been certain that she would never kidnap someone else's children. Natasha's family's assurances are probably not very comforting to the little boys' frantic mother, Ms. Turner. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Turner is, as her own mother says, "distraught." According to Ms. Turner's mother, "She more or less went crazy. . . . She's just out running around, looking for that van."
This story is already horrifying, but there is more. Natasha had moved in with Ms. Turner and her children on Sunday. She had told Ms. Turner that she needed a place to stay, so Ms. Turner agreed to let her stay with them, in exchange for babysitting. But Ms. Turner had "known" Natasha for only a couple of months, and not well at all! Basically, the teenager was a stranger with whom she had only a nodding acquaintance.
I am going to pause for a moment to let that sink in. Ms. Turner not only allowed a stranger to move in with her and her young sons, but she did so with the intention of having that stranger regularly take care of the children.
Now, if a seventeen-year-old girl were to tell me that she needed a place to stay, I would immediately have all sorts of questions that I would want answers to. Why is she not at home with her own family? What circumstances led her to be on her own without a place to stay at an age when she should still be in school and under the care and protection of her own family? What sorts of emotional or substance-abuse problems might she have?
I have taken other people's teenagers into my home when they became impossible for their parents to deal with, as teenagers often do, but these were kids that I had known for years, not ones that I had just met. And when you have small children, your duty to protect your own children should take precedence, no matter how much compassion you might feel for an adolescent stranger.
Besides, even if the seventeen-year-old girl was not a stranger or in any way a threat to the children, I would not let her babysit a four-month-old unless I knew for certain that she had enough experience in infant care to know how to handle a baby that young. Not everyone can take proper care of a four-month-old.
And this particular four-month-old has asthma severe enough to require his being given special treatments by machine every three hours. I have often had to use such machines with asthmatic children and infants. They can be difficult to deal with when the child is very young.
But even a four-month-old who does not have a potentially life-threatening condition needs to be cared for by someone who knows what she is doing.
I remember the first time I tried to give a bottle to a four-month-old. I was twenty-three at the time, but I had never had any contact with children under about the age of three. I had always had jobs other than babysitting as a teenager, so I had no experience with babies, and to be quite honest, back then I had no interest in any child who wasn't already potty-trained.
But my sister Carol had babysat so much that she had more experience with babies and small children than most mothers do. At the time, Carol was a college sophomore, living with me and my husband. One evening she was babysitting for our neighbors across the hall.
I had made dinner for her, so she brought the little guy over to our apartment and handed him and his bottle to me while she sat down to eat. As I tried to give him his bottle, he kept stiffening in my arms, thrusting his little legs out and waving his arms around, while biting down hard on the nipple and making odd grunting sounds.
Fearing that in my inexperience I had choked him with his formula, I called Carol into the living room, "Carol, come quick! Something's wrong. I think he's having convulsions!"
Carol raced in from the dining room to see what was happening. She arrived just as the baby went into another of his "convulsions." Then Carol went into one of hers--convulsing with laughter over the hopeless ignorance of her over-educated big sister.
"Tina, he's just playing!
"That's playing? How is that playing?"
"Well, for heaven's sake," she responded, "he's only four months old. There isn't a whole lot he can do yet. He's playing with what he can do!"
Infants are different from older children, even from toddlers. They need to be handled differently, and they have different needs. They are also more fragile in many ways, and if improperly handled, they can be seriously hurt even if no one means to hurt them.
Even at the age of twenty-three, I would not have been able to properly care for a four-month-old infant, though I would never have deliberately done anything to harm the child. In fact, the only reason I let Carol hand me the baby that time was that she was right there, so I had expert guidance near at hand. I would have been afraid to care for him without such guidance, at least until I had made an effort to gain some information and experience. And my fear would have been wholly justified!
For some reason, everyone seems to assume that any teenaged girl is competent to care for infants. That is not necessarily the case.
So even if I knew the girl and trusted her completely, I would not leave her to care for an infant unless I also knew that she was experienced and skilled in infant-care.
But Ms. Turner scarcely knew this girl at all!
Before you start thinking what a terrible mother Ms. Turner is, though, please note that she obviously loves her sons. She is frantic over their loss, and according to the newspaper article, neither she nor her mother or grandmother have slept since the children were taken.
A few years ago, an author whose name I no longer remember (I think it is something like Brian Beckwirth) published a book entitled Protecting the Gift. In it he deplores the fact that everything in our society is directed toward training women (men, too, but his focus was on the fact that mothers are naturally, instinctively, tigers when it comes to protecting their young) to ignore all the alarm bells that go off when their children are potentially endangered.
How many mothers leave their children with babysitters who are not even fit to care for their own children? More than we like to admit. In my article, "The Stories I Could Tell You!" I tell about a neighbor of mine who left her own young son and three children she was babysitting in the apartment when her jealous lover (who also happened to be her son!) burst in and threatened her with a large knife.
When I warned the mother of those three children that her current daycare arrangements were not safe, and explained what had happened, it did not seem to have any effect. Her three children were back in my neighbor's care the very next day!
Part of the problem is that so many mothers have to work, but there are not enough decent daycare positions available for their children, and often even lousy daycare is more expensive than families can afford. Thus, they have to take what they can find and what they can afford, and they persuade themselves that everything is fine, because if they didn't, they would simply go insane with grief and worry over the environment they were putting their beloved children into.
Several years ago, Prime Time Live, the ABC television newsmagazine, ran an undercover story in which they secretly videotaped the horrendous conditions at a licensed daycare center and then showed the tapes to the parents of a five-month-old who had just started at the center.
The parents were aghast, and the devastated mother couldn't stop crying at what she saw.
Other parents with children at the center were also shown the videotapes. One set of parents watched a tape showing that during a nine-hour day at the center, their three-month-old daughter was never once taken out of her infant seat, except for a last-minute diaper change just before the parents arrived to pick her up.
The infant seat was left by a couch, and the baby was repeatedly kicked in the head (accidentally) by a toddler who was lying on the couch with his restless legs swinging over the side.
One eighteen-month-old boy was so ignored that the daycare workers forgot to feed him when they fixed lunch for the other children. He wandered around hungry, lonely and neglected, until finally he managed to open the bottom drawer of the stove in the kitchen and pull out a box of 12-inch matches! Eventually, he fell asleep by himself on the floor in the kitchen. He never was fed that day.
This was a state-licensed daycare center, mind you.
I bet most of you remember the story about the woman who could not find daycare for her four-year-old daughter, so she fixed up a blanket and pillow in the trunk of her car, and put in her child's favorite toys and a snack, and then locked the little girl in the trunk to keep her safe while she worked! Of course the young woman was reviled in the news and by pundits, but she was guilty of ignorance and desperation, not a lack of love for her child.
She understood that she must not leave a four-year-old child alone at home during the day--there are too many ways that she could come to harm if allowed to roam freely like that. So the woman did the only thing she could think of to do--she put her child in what she though was a safe and relatively comfortable place while she worked.
Sure, tell the mother to stay home instead of trying to work. But welfare reform has made sure that is no longer an option for most poor women with young children.
Ironically, the same society that blasts middle-class women for working instead of staying home and raising their children also blasts poor women for not working when their children are young.
Always it is the mother's fault, but where are the systemic support structures that would enable her either to work while her children are properly cared for, or to stay home and care for them herself?
I am appalled at the fact that women have so many kids they don't have the means to support, but often these are women in situations where choice in the matter is more illusion than reality. And for some reason, the men who father all these unsupported children are not held to the same standards of responsibility.
So let's go back to Ms. Turner. Was she horribly mistaken to leave her very young children in the care of a troubled young woman whom she did not even know? Obviously she was. And yet, without knowing any more about her situation than what the newspaper has provided--and which I have already conveyed to you--I am willing to bet that she is in a situation where finding steady, reliable daycare has been a constant struggle.
Before I decided to start my own daycare, I had to work for a three-month period while my son was still an infant (7-10 months old). I was very careful about screening his babysitter, but at least twice a week something came up that prevented her from watching Michael. Perhaps she was ill, or her own little boy had a cold. Or she had to go to the doctor with him, and couldn't transport both children, because Lawrence had no bus system, and she had no car. Every week I found myself scrambling at the last minute to find alternative care for my son, even though I had a sitter who was wonderful with him.
The problem was not quality of care, but reliability. I never knew from one day to the next whether my daycare arrangements were going to fall through.
Like many of today's mothers, I didn't want to work outside the home while my child was so young, but I had been high-pressured by my then-husband, who bought into current societal norms, to get a "real" job, even though with some care we really could have made it on his salary as a college professor.
I cannot help but think that Ms. Turner might have been in a situation where she needed to have reliable daycare for her sons in order to keep her job. Since the story in the paper does not mention a husband or either of the boys' fathers, I assume she is on her own with these kids and therefore has to work. And Lawrence only has about two-thirds of the daycare slots it needs--and almost none for infants under eighteen months of age.
She probably thought that by taking this girl in and trading room and board for babysitting, she was making the best possible arrangement for her sons and performing a compassionate deed at the same time.
But I wonder how much effort it took for her to stifle the alarm bells that must have been going off, at least subconsciously, at the thought of leaving her precious children in the care of a stranger. And I wonder whether other mothers, hearing stories like this, also have to repress their own fears about how little they really know the people who are taking care of their children.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this story, there have been some new developments in this case. The two little boys have been found, and both are unharmed, though I feel certain that is more a matter of good luck than of goodwill, good intentions, or good sense. The infant was found in the van with the babysitter and an unidentified man. The van was parked outside of a bar, and the girl was clearly intoxicated. The two-year-old was found later in an apartment, where she had left him with a man that, according to reports thus far, she had met only the night before. At first she was uncooperative and refused to help the police find the little boy, and even when she did, it took a lot of driving around, because she was not at all sure of where she had left him!