Earlier this month in Durham, North Carolina, Moshimalee Johnson was desperate after a year that began with a broken down van. Last year her unreliable 2002 Mercury Villager broke down again. She was using it to drive herself to the home healthcare job she worked where she was earning $10 per hour. A single mother with five children, she was working and getting assistance for housing. Unable to afford the necessary repairs, Johnson took public transportation, which made her late for work numerous times. She was then fired from her job.
Without income, Johnson fell behind on rent on the subsidized housing she was living in and was evicted. Even though she was getting some assistance from her children’s father, it was still not enough to get them a home. Late last year, she moved in with her mother and reached out to numerous agencies for help. The Department of Social Services simply referred her to homeless shelters, all of which were full. She then reached out to a rescue mission run by a faith-based nonprofit. She was also turned down there because of the requirement that she not work for six months, something she could not do.
Then in April, tragedy struck.
While making breakfast, her eldest son ran to tell her that her six-year-old was hanging in the closet. He had hanged himself trying to make himself a zombie. Paramedics were able to get his heart beating, and he was later revived at the hospital. Since that time, her children — which include the 6-year-old, a 9-year-old, and 2-year-old twins – have been in therapy to deal with the trauma.
Needing to be available for the doctor appointments, and eight months pregnant with her sixth child, Johnson continued to look for work and a place to live. On July 9, she posted an ad on Craigslist. In it she stated she was homeless and looking for a place for her five children temporarily while she looked for a permanent home. Two days later, the Department of Social Services, the same agency that had refused to help months earlier, showed up at her door and placed her children in foster care.
The case of Moshimalee Johnson is just the latest in a long line of unfair and overzealous treatment of single mothers trying to do all the “right” things under dire circumstances. The economic climate has been especially harsh for low income women of color, leaving them few, if any, options to provide for their family. They aren’t looking for a handout….just a job and maybe a little help.
In Arizona, single mother of three Shanesha Taylor had been dealing with a couple of years of rough times when she finally got a job interview for a good job for which she was qualified. With her eldest in school, she had arranged for day care for her two youngest, which fell through hours before the interview. Desperate to not miss the opportunity to help her family, she made a decision to take her children with her and leave them in the car while she went on the interview. She got the job, but she was also charged with two felonies for leaving her children unattended, ended up in jail and lost custody of her children.
In South Carolina, Debra Harrell already had a job at McDonald’s. A single mom with a nine-year old daughter, Harrell often took her daughter to a friend’s house, or let her play on the laptop while she worked at McDonald’s. One day after the laptop was stolen, her daughter asked if she could play at a safe park located just minutes from their home and the McDonald’s. Harrell gave her daughter a cell phone and a key to the house and let her play while she worked – something she had done several times before. After learning that the girl was there on her own, a person at the park called the authorities. The Department of Social Services placed the girl in foster care, and charged Harrell with a felony of unlawful conduct toward a child. Harrell has since lost her job.
These are just the cases we are hearing about. There are hundreds, if not thousands, like them that are facing dire choices. These women need help and compassion, not punishment or condemnation for their life choices or momentary lapses of judgment under desperate circumstances.
Public outcry led to Shanesha Taylor receiving more than $100,000 in donations, which she used to get a home and set up an education fund for her children. The pressure also convinced the prosecutor to drop the charges and allow her to be reunited with her children. Debra Harrell has received nearly $30,000 in donations and has been reunited with her daughter. She is currently being represented by an attorney pro bono to fight the charges.
As for Moshimalee Johnson, DSS says they believed that she was looking for a total stranger to take her children. They told her that the ad was inappropriate, noting a child molester or murderer could have taken the children. In an interview with the Durham News Observer, she admitted she may have been misunderstood.
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. I didn’t want to give the kids up. I wanted a place for me and my kids,” she said. She clarified that she was hoping to find a situation where they could live and have someone watch the children while she worked at night, leaving her free during the day to take care of her children.
In a strange note of irony, DSS stepping in is what she was asking for them to do months earlier.
“I got what I asked for,” Johnson said about her children being in foster care. “But I’m still looking for help. I am a certified nursing assistant. It’s not hard to get a job. It’s just hard to get a job right now.”
She hopes to be reunited with her children soon and continues to look for work. She says she has an interview this week.