Disability, Homeschool, Intercountry Adoption and Homicide: The Case of Hana and Immanuel Williams

In October 2016’s blog post I wrote about homicide victim Erica Parsons, and how adopted, disabled, and homeschooled children can be abused and denied a proper education when parents exploit loopholes in the law for their own gain. These parents do not provide disability accommodations to the child in need, even when they have received government funds to do so.

We also saw with that case how a lack of disability accommodations in a homeschool can be a tool of abuse and homicide, and also how abusive parents take out frustrations on and exploit disabled, adopted children. Erica’s story is not the only one like it. Sadly, there are many cases involving the murder of children like Erica.

Adopting disabled children from countries outside of the U.S. and bringing them to American homes gained popularity in the last decade, reaching heights in 2005-2007. Many children from the global South have been adopted into christian homeschools, as intercountry adoption was particularly emphasized within that group. Intercountry adoptions to the U.S. resulted in so many cases of abuse and homicide that certain countries have imposed moratoriums children being adopted to the U.S.

Disabled children are positioned by the adoption movement as being particularly in need of being adopted. And in many cases, they likely are. However, what happens when these children come to the U.S. and are expected to blend into a large, homeschooling, Christian Fundamentalist family? And is intercountry adoption the best way to address global disability?

The intersection of adoption, disability, homeschool and religion has resulted in many cases of abuse, neglect and homicide of children.

Christian Fundamentalist Patriarchy

Christian Patriarchy is a name given to an ideology found in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The main tenets are large families, traditional gender roles, modest dress and debt-free living. I have written about it before, here. I firmly believe in religious freedom and it is not my intent to disparage this movement, nor do I think all such families are abusive. This post is about those who do not follow the law.

duggar-familyTelevision’s popular show 19 Kids and Counting, featuring the Duggar family. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are the proud parents of 19 children, and identify as Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. They adhere to many of the tenets of Christian Patriarchy. The Duggar family is pictured in front of their house in Arkansas, United States. [image of a large family posing in front of their very long, pre-fab style ranch home which has 5 large gables on the green tin roof. To the far left are the parents, each holding children. The children who are standing are arranged from youngest to oldest. They are dressed conservatively and the girls have long hair. All of the boys have very short hair, polo shirts and khakis or jeans on. The girls have polo shirts over long skirts or denim jumpers.]

Part of the Christian Patriarchy movement in the United States has been a call from community leaders and ministers to adopt children from the global South; developing-world countries which are often perceived by the West as troubled. Above Rubies, a magazine and now website with a Facebook and Twitter presence, has long been a popular and respected publication among primarily women readers seeking to observe principles of Biblical Womanhood. Above Rubies was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding the perceived need for Christian families to adopt African orphans, using the daughter of editor Nancy Campbell as an example. Nancy’s daughter and her husband adopted six children from Liberia. Nancy Campbell was instrumental in pushing the adoption movement, telling readers that it was akin to welcoming “Jesus himself” into their homes, and a form of ministry.

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Countries in Africa were presented by ministers, Christian leaders like Nancy, and Christian adoption agencies as having millions of orphaned children in need of homes immediately. As a result of this and other factors, Ethiopia became one of the world’s top ‘sending’ countries of children to the West, second only to China for numbers of children adopted out. There are complex factors surrounding adoption from Ethiopia and other African countries, one of which is the trafficking of children to orphanages where they are declared “abandoned”, in order for human traffickers to make money when people from the West adopt them. Journalist Kathryn Joyce has written about this issue extensively in articles and her book, The Child Catchers. According to the National Institutes of Health, orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa numbered in the millions in 2007. There is a definite need to address this population, but it must be done correctly.

In a community which already stressed the importance of a large family, adherents to the Christian Patriarchy ideology were now being encouraged to adopt more children. Adopting older, disabled children was exalted as being particularly Godly, due to the perception that such children are unwanted and more in need of homes, and also, harder to raise. Christian Adoption websites often feature older, disabled kids in a special area titled “Waiting Children”.

In the United States, there is no central authority which oversees adoptions. However, state and federal funding can be received by families who have adopted disabled children.

Hana and Immanuel Williams

Hana and Immanuel Williams were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley,Washington state; a rural area close to the Canadian border. The Williams were a homeschool, Christian Fundamentalist family with seven biological children. A friend of Carri’s testified in court that Carri was inspired to adopt children from Africa by an Above Rubies women’s retreat the two went on. Carri wanted more children, but could no longer conceive naturally.

Initially, the Williams planned only to adopt Immanuel, a deaf little boy who was matched to them by an adoption agency called Adoption Advocates International (AAI). Carri had studied American Sign Language prior to getting married at age 19, and the agency thought it was a good match. After viewing a 60-second video of ten year old Hana, who resided at the same orphanage- Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, which is affiliated with AAI, the Williams decided to adopt her, too. Hana had family in Ethiopia, but they were too poor to care for her. Her father had died, her mother disappeared, so she had for a time lived with extended family until they gave her up for adoption due to poverty. At some point during her time in Ethiopia, Hana developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not unusual for orphaned or abandoned children to develop PTSD and other psychological and emotional disabilities. Also, once children are orphaned, which is traumatic enough, a following traumatic event can often occur since they are no longer protected by their parents.

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Hana Alemu with her extended family in Ethiopia. [image of a family gathered around a table with a pink and white striped cloth on it, with a large baked bread and candles. To the far left is a grandmotherly woman dressed in white, wearing a white head scarf. Next to her is Hana, indicated by a box over her image. She is about 5 and looks wide-eyed and shy. She has a light blue sweater on and a bun. She is surrounded to her left by family members, on is a young boy, the others look teenaged, and there is an older person at the end of the table.]
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From left: Hana Alemu (renamed Hana Grace Rose), and Larry and Carri Williams. [image is made of up three individual photographs. The first is of Hana when she is living in America, she is smiling, her hair is braided, and she is wearing a black T-Shirt with some hot pink lettering on it. Next to her is an image of brown-haired Larry, looking long-faced and pensive in the courtroom, wearing a red plaid button up shirt and a brown courdorouy blazer. Next to him is an image also from the courtroom, of a blond haired woman also looking pensive, this is Carri.]

 

Larry and Carri never went to Ethiopia, but had Hana and Immanuel flown to Washington state with an escort, a practice that the Ethiopian government has since outlawed as part of its ongoing attempts to curtail abuse of adopted children. One of the problems with this is that parents and children do not spend any time getting to know each other prior to adoption, and American parents do not visit the culture the children are from, which could be key to understanding and connecting with them. However, the idea here is not to understand another culture with these types of adoptions. It is to “minister in your own home”, as Above Rubies put it, and to save and rescue children from what is perceived as a negative place.

Once part of the Williams household, isolated in a gated community, Hana and Immanuel were both subject to abuse. Like Erica Parsons, they were singled out from the other children and harshly punished. Hana had a hepatitis B along with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was older than Carri thought she would be, starting her period soon after arriving in Washington, which disgusted Carri. Carri abused Hana severally, locking her in a four-by-two-foot closet, making her sleep in the barn and use a port-a-potty outside, and shower in the front yard with a garden hose. Reasons behind some of this abuse was due to Hana having hepatitis, which Carri thought would contaminate the rest of the family, so she therefore decided to quarantine and humiliate her.

Hana did not play with her adopted siblings, and was mostly kept in the closet, away from the rest of the family. Her hair was shaved as a punishment, and she and Emmanuel did not share meals with everyone else, and were made to eat outside, even in harsh weather. Hana was also excluded from being homeschooled, according to law enforcement.

Immanuel was also abused, being hit by Larry Williams hard enough to draw blood. He was punished if he did not hear people, kept away from a Deaf church member who attempted to communicate with him, and often made to stay outside the house and in the yard, like Hana. The other children were forbidden by their parents to sign with him when he was being punished, and both Hana and Immanuel were punished frequently. It is a common misconception that sign language is easy to learn and that it is universal. Immanuel would not immediately pick up American Sign Language, but would have to learn it. It is unclear what type of language he used in Ethiopia. Even if Carri knew ASL before she was married, it is no guarantee that she understood d/Deaf culture, or was still fluent in ASL after not using it for a long time. Simply having some experience with ASL does not necessarily mean someone is a good match for a d/Deaf child. There are many things that factor into being a good match for raising a d/Deaf child, particularly one from a country which speaks a different language.

Larry and Carri Williams prescribed to the now infamous book that I have written about in previous posts, To Train Up a Child by Michael Pearl of No Greater Joy Ministries. Law enforcement found a copy of the book in the Williams’ household, and evidence that the children were switched with the type of plastic plumbing tube recommended by Michael Pearl. To Train Up a Child is a book well known in Christian Fundamentalist circles, and advocates corporal punishment of children and infants based on seventeenth-century Puritan childrearing. This was the method taken in order to blend Hana and Immanuel into the family and to deal with the challenges and disabilities they came with.

The abuse Hana suffered eventually resulted in her death on the evening of May 11th, 2011. She died from malnutrition, hypothermia and gastritis. She was 13. Her body was covered in scars from being beaten with the plastic plumbing pipe, and her head was shaved. Hana was once again forced to remain outside in the yard in the cold weather on this night. Carri called an ambulance when she found Hana laying face down in the mud. During the EMT’s attempts to revive Hana, Carri repeatedly told them that Hana was “passive aggressive” and “rebellious”. Kathryn Joyce wrote a detailed report of the homicide and trial for Slate.

Larry and Carri Williams were both arrested in connection with Hana’s death, and their surviving eight children were taken into state custody. Once he was able to see a social worker and doctors, twelve-year-old Immanuel was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his language development was noted as delayed, which is not surprising considering he was not properly accommodated for his hearing loss in the Williams home and likely not in the orphanage, either.He testified in court during the trial that he was unsure where Hana had gone, or what had happened to her, but he thought she was maybe dead. It is possible he was confused about what happened due to not being communicated with and not being able to tell what was going on due to his hearing loss.

Deaf children need specific one-on-one instruction and education around learning to sign, speak, read and write. They need speech pathologists, ASL interpreters, and instruction in sign language, and to be seen by an audiologist. It is impossible for one person to provide all of these services in a homeschool. The isolated nature of this type of homeschool also prevents a child like Immanuel from meeting and communicating with other Deaf children and adults. It is highly cruel and abusive to prevent a Deaf child from being able to communicate, and to use communication as a form of punishment, as the Williams did with Immanuel.

On September 9th, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams, who had tried to escape harsh sentencing by lying that Hana was older than 13, leading to her body being exhumed during the trial, were sentenced to prison. Each were convicted of manslaughter in Hana’s death, and Carri received an additional conviction of homicide by abuse. They were both found guilty of first-degree assault on Immanuel. Carri was sentenced to just under 37 years in prison, and Larry 28 years. The trial was attended by many from the local Ethiopian community, who sadly were all too familiar with this type of case. Immanuel and the other children were placed with family or in foster care.

As a result of this story, Washington State put emphasis on addressing issues with adopted children being abused, neglected, and murdered. From Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article:

Although the research was started before Hana’s death, her story became the focal point, and illuminated common forms of abuse that other children suffered: being locked in rooms or forced to stay outside, having food or access to toilets withheld, and social isolation, often including being withdrawn from school, that obscured the abuse. At least nine of the 26 school-age children were reportedly homeschooled, several because their mother “did not want the teachers feeling sorry for them because they are ‘all sad’ and looked like they are starved at home.” Abuse tended to spiral, as parents exaggerated children’s misbehavior, punishments increased in frequency and severity, and isolated children lost the possibility of reaching outside help.

The Role of Disability

Disability is an area that specifically needs to be studied with regards to cases of homeschooling in general, but also adopted homeschool children. Disabled children, and in particular d/Deaf children, are particularly prone to abuse. Disabled and d/Deaf children suffer from abuse at higher rates than able bodied children. There are many reasons for it. When a child is adopted, that can also add another layer of complexity in abuse cases. Parents can feel differently about adopted children than their biological children, and single them out for mistreatment. The presence of disability can serve to exacerbate an abusive situation due to the frustration it can cause parents.

Religion is another area where ableist biases can come to the forefront and facilitate movements where able-bodied adults seek to save and rescue children, thinking that any situation is preferable to the one the children were initially in. This is not accurate, and cases like Hana and Immanuel’s illustrate that disabled children need accommodations and services, and to be treated with respect and love. Disabled children do not exist to make adults more seem more “godly” to their religious communities. Disabled children are not commodities to exploit for government money. And they are not going to be “saved” simply by being adopted.

Conclusions

According to the World Bank, one billion people experience some form of disability, and levels of disability are higher in developing nations. Disability is not a bad thing, but a natural part of human biodiversity. However, much of the world is not built in order to universally accommodate all people. Disabled children like Hana and Immanuel are often put into orphanages and institutions globally, because there are limited services, infrastructure and education in their countries to support disability. Some disabled children grow up in institutions and never leave them. If there were services in their countries to support their integration into the community, that would be much better, as every person deserves to live in their community and in a home.

Just as institutionalization and keeping children in orphanages is a serious issue in disability rights, mass adoptions of disabled children from developing nations to the West is another side of the coin; and neither are optimal. The U.S. adopts more foreign born children than any other nation, so ensuring that disabled, adopted children receive their rights once on US soil is important, particularly if there are large movements, like the one written about above, to specifically adopt disabled children. In many cases, disabled children are adopted into families that are equipped to accommodate their disabilities and provide them with a safe and loving home, and this can be a wonderful option for a child in need. However, there are enough cases where the opposite occurs instead, and it is a cause for alarm. The fact that so many are in homeschools is also a cause for concern because as we saw with Erica Parsons, many states do not have disability rights law that cover homeschool, and homeschool can be used as a cover for abuse.

Further sources:

“Disability Overview.” Disability Overview. The World Bank, 21 Sept. 2016.

Hodson, Jeff. “Did Hana’s Parents ‘train’ Her to Death?” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 28 Nov. 2011.

Jordan, Miriam. “Inside Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 28 Apr. 2012.

Joyce, Kathryn. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. N. pag. Print.

Kathryn, Whetten et al. “More than the Loss of a Parent: Potentially Traumatic Events among Orphaned and Abandoned Children.” Journal of traumatic stress 24.2 (2011): 174–182. PMC.

Marczynski, Evan . “Court Affirms Convictions of Williamses in Adopted Daughter’s Death.” Goskagit.com. Skagit Valley Herald, 23 Dec. 2015.

“Washington Couple Gets Nearly 30 Years in Prison for Death of Hana Williams.” NY Daily News. New York Daily News, 30 Oct. 2013.

Wtffundiefamilies. “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.”Religious Fundamentalism in Pop Culture & Politics. Tumblr, 16 Apr. 2013.

Homeschool, Disability and Homicide: The Story of Erica Parsons

Erica Parsons, for those who have not been following the story, was a little girl from North Carolina who has been missing since 2011. In September, her body was finally found when her adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, led investigators to the site of her shallow grave on his family’s South Carolina farm.

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Erica’s Story

Erica Lynn Parsons was born on February 24, 1998 in Moorseville, North Carolina, to Carolyn Parsons and Billy Dean Goodman. Carolyn did not feel she could adequately care for Erica, along with her three other children, and Billy Dean Goodman had serious problems with substance abuse and was regularly in trouble with the law up to his recent death in January 2016 from natural causes.Wary of putting Erica in foster care, Carolyn instead agreed to have her ex-husband Steve Parsons’ brother Sandy, and his wife Casey, adopt Erika in 2000.  Erica was born with disabilities, including hearing loss, which was discovered when she briefly attended public school. Based on her features and reports of intellectual disability, it is likely that Erica also had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. According to the Charlotte Observer, Sandy and Casey Parsons received federal money to assist with Erica’s disabilities. They also received money from the state to care for her due to her status as adopted.  For unknown reasons, Casey, Erica’s adoptive mother, pulled the child from public school when she was little and registered her home as a “Christian Homeschool”. Due to the limited laws in North Carolina that govern homeschool regulations, it was not difficult for Casey to establish a homeschool at her rural home outside of Salisbury.

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Carolyn Parsons, Erica’s biological mother. 

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Sandy, left, and Casey, right, Erica’s adoptive parents, lying through their teeth on the Dr. Phil show. 

Erica was likely not educated at this homeschool, and certainly was not accommodated for her disabilities. Instead, she was routinely abused, starved and neglected up to her disappearance, often kept in a closet and fed dog food. Federal testimony from family members and those who knew the Parsons indicate that Erica was left out of family activities, and that her adoptive mother hated her and said she wanted to kill her. Casey Parsons’ sister, Robin Ashley, testified in court that Casey “couldn’t stand the sight” of Erica’s face, refused to let Erica call her “Mom”, and admitted to assaulting her. According to Robin, Erica reminded Casey of Carolyn Parsons, whom she did not like, and told Robin she was afraid she might lose control and kill her.

It is not uncommon in child abuse cases for one child in a family to be singled out for abuse, and often the reason is due to the child reminding the abusive parent of someone or something they do not like. Disability is a reason, as well, and can intersect with other reasons for abuse, neglect and homicide, or in some cases, be the sole reason for the abuse. In abusive families, the parents on occasion encourage everyone else to abuse the singled out child, which is what happened to Erica. Erica’s adoptive older brother Jamie testified that he had participated in abusing Erica from the time he was five years old to when he was sixteen and “could no longer stand it”. At one point, he said, he even broke her arm.

The abuse inflicted on Erica by her parents escalated to homicide, as we now know, but for years, no one outside the family was aware that Erica was missing, including her biological mother. After she was finally reported missing by her brother Jamie in 2013, law enforcement looked into her disappearance. Jamie reported to police that he had not seen Erica since 2011. Casey and Sandy maintained that Erica’s biological Grandmother Irene “Nan” Goodman had taken Erica to live with her in Asheville, and all was well. The FBI were not able to find evidence that Nan existed. There was no Irene in the Goodman family, as relatives from that side reported.

Since Erica was homeschooled, that was one way in which her disappearance was kept hidden. North Carolina homeschool law does not require the state to make sure that children in homeschools are necessarily being educated, treated well, or accommodated for their disability.

Homeschool and Disability

According to the North Carolina state government’s website, where one can begin the process of registering a homeschool, what is needed is proof that the parent, called the educational administrator, has a high school diploma or equivalent, an email address, intent to start the school, and a decision about whether it is religious or not. Attendance sheet templates are provided on the website, as are links to standardized testing which children are required to take every year. However, there is no minimum grade required to pass it. As far as receiving disability accommodations and therapies, that is up to the parent.

This is not to disparage homeschool, which, in optimal situations, can be very good, and in some states, there are options for parents to receive disability accommodations from their local public school. Homeschool law varies from state to state, but the type of lax homeschool regulations seen in North Carolina are not uncommon.

If Erica had continued in a North Carolina public school, state and federal disability laws would have covered her there, and the school would have to provide her with Special Education classes, speech pathology and other related disability accommodations. Instead, since she was homeschooled, the laws in North Carolina are not the same. It is entirely up to a parent whether or not they will provide disability related education, therapy and accommodations to a child. For Casey and Sandy Parsons, this was not a priority, in fact, it would have enabled Erica to potentially report the abuse and communicate with other adults about her life at home. Keeping Erica unaccommodated for her disabilities was a crucial factor to facilitating the ongoing abuse, as it often is in cases of abuse of disabled children.

I have a hearing loss like Erica’s, and I received speech pathology in school. I also received free audiology appointments and hearing aids, which were covered by the state, and my teachers were aware of my hearing loss and involved in making sure I received a good education, which is also important for someone with intellectual disability, as Erica had. Erica’s parents did not use the state money given to them to take Erica to an audiologist or a speech pathologist, and there was no one around to make sure it happened. They were eventually convicted of fraud for this, but by then it was too late. Erica was already dead.

According to the US Department of Education, there are over one million homeschooled children in the United States, a number which has been increasing since 1999. Disability has been  cited as a reason for parents to homeschool their children. In 2011, 17% of homeschooling parents said that their child having special needs was the reason for homeschooling, and 15% said the child having a “physical or mental health problem” caused them to homeschool. Incidences of parents citing disability as their reason for homeschooling have increased in the last decade.

Homeschool and Homicide

Along with rising numbers of homeschooled children have been reports of high numbers of homicides occurring within United States homeschools. Further research needs to be done on this area, but according to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children:

Our preliminary research suggests that homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children. This preliminary finding is based on an analysis of the cases in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC) database and on national government reports on child maltreatment.

If disability is one of the major reasons cited for homeschooling children, this is an issue, since disabled children are susceptible to abuse at higher numbers than able-bodied children. Deaf and hard of hearing children experience abuse at higher rates than hearing children, and intellectually disabled children are also victims of crime in high numbers. The combination of a vulnerable population (disabled children) with an area not subject to enforcement of their rights and protection (homeschool) is cause for serious alarm, and may be a reason behind the high numbers of homeschooled children being killed.Having a disabled child can cause parents to become stressed, overwhelmed, and to resort to violence, according to the CDC.

If we are going to try and reduce the number of homicides of disabled children, we have to look at homeschools. Erica was not just murdered, she was subjected to years of torture. She was starved, beaten, isolated, kept in a closet and neglected. Not accommodating a disability is also abuse. Erica was not taught sign language, she was not given hearing aids, she did not see a speech therapist, and she was not accommodated for her intellectual disability. This adds another level to her suffering and isolation.

Currently, an autopsy is being performed on Erica’s body, and Sandy and Casey Parsons, who are both in prison on fraud charges, are awaiting further sentencing for their roles in the homicide.

A Call for Humility in Criminal Justice: Dean Strang Visits Syracuse University

 

“Human endeavors are muddy. They are imperfect by definition.” Dean Strang

 

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Strang speaks at Hendrick’s Chapel as part of a Maxwell School Lecture. {image description: a man in a dark navy suit with an orange and blue striped tie stands at a white wooden podium with a sign affixed to it which says Maxwell School. He has dark brown hair and glasses with dark eyes, and is standing on a stage. There is a black speaker on a stand next to him, on the ground. A large door with a pediment on it is in the background. The architecture has a classical feel.}

Friday September 9th, 2016– Criminal defense lawyer and Wisconsin Innocence Project advisory board member Dean Strang, known for his role as Steven Avery’s defense lawyer in the Emmy award winning series Making A Murderer, spoke at Syracuse University’s Hendrick’s Chapel as part of the Maxwell School’s State of Democracy lecture series.

The Making a Murderer series, which first aired in December, 2015 on Netflix, highlighted police corruption and raised questions about how the criminal justice system treats people who are disabled, lower-class, and less educated, using the story of Steven Avery, wrongly convicted of rape, as a real life example of these issues.

Some background on the case, for those who may not have watched the show: Steven Avery was initially targeted by law enforcement in his home area of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, due to a conflict involving his cousin, who was married to the Sheriff. An incident in which Avery displayed anger and aggression towards his cousin, but did not hurt her, allegedly caused the cousin to seek revenge through her husband and his connections in local law enforcement. Avery had behaved this way towards his cousin due to salacious rumors she had been spreading about him, including filing alleged false police reports.

What began as a family conflict became something far more insidious as those involved used their positions in law enforcement to conspire against Avery, leading to him being wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a local woman, Penny Beernsten, in 1985, when Avery was 22 years old, and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Beernsten was part of the prominent local Beernsten family, who ran a successful and well-loved local candy store. Avery was eventually cleared of those charges due to DNA evidence, but not after spending almost two decades in prison.

After his release, Avery and the state sought to sue Manitowoc County, the Sheriff, and the District Attorney for thirty-six million dollars for wrongful conviction. Local criminal Gregory Allen, who appeared similar in facial features to Avery, and who had a long criminal history of rape and assault, was in fact the offender, proven by DNA evidence. While Avery was locked up, Allen committed another assault. The county knew, back in 1985, that Allen was dangerous and had even been monitoring him. It became clear as the case unfolded, that not only had the county wrongfully convicted Steven Avery, and seemed to do so on purpose because they didn’t like him, but they had also let a dangerous and violent criminal remain free. More details on the timeline and the case can be found here.

Steven, with his friendly, yet direct and honest nature, became a Wisconsin celebrity after his release from prison, and garnered respect and attention from many people in the state government, as well as the public, for his efforts to protect others from being wrongfully convicted of crimes. Penny Beernsten publicly apologized and the two had a tearful reunion. When asked by the press if he was angry at Penny, Steven said, “No. It was an honest mistake. And I think the Sheriff put in in her head.”

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Steven Avery speaks to the press in Wisconsin. {image description: a serious looking man surrounded by press microphones with news outlet logos on them, one is FOX 11, another is Action 2 News, looks to be answering a question from a person off-screen. He has short blonde hair, blue eyes and a goatee. Behind him is a suited man, with a red tie, whose head cannot be seen.}

The publicity combined with the civil suit resulted in alleged retaliation on the part of the county, and Avery yet again found himself embroiled with local law enforcement, who arrested him for the murder of photographer Teresa Hallbach, in 2005. Making a Murderer largely focuses on the Theresa Hallbach murder trial, which took place in 2007.  There are many reasons to believe that evidence against Avery was planted, and that he is innocent,  outlined in detail in the series. Avery was convicted and sentenced with life without the possibility of parole for the murder, which his attorneys continue to appeal.

Dean Strang was one of the defense attorneys on the Hallbach trial, and developed a cult following after the series aired. He is particularly popular among younger people, which may strike some as surprising, due to Dean’s button-down appearance and status as a middle aged, Midwestern man, traits which are not conventionally ones which propel someone to celebrity. However, Dean is very much admired by those who are aware of the inequities in criminal justice, and his work to draw attention to and change those inequities has won Dean consistent respect not just in his own field, but now with the American public. His warm personality and genuine nature are also traits which endear him to many, traits which were clear at his Hendrick’s Chapel presentation.

Disability and Class

Background given in the series mentions Avery’s intellectual disability and his diagnosis with an IQ of 70 as a child. He attended a school for disabled children. In disability culture, basing ability on a person’s IQ is considered outdated and erroneous, and it needs to be more widely understood that IQ is problematic, but it is a fact involved in this case that is important to be mentioned, because it indicates that Steven has an intellectual disability, even if it is not the best way of understanding his disability.

The Avery family were known in their small, rural area as being outsiders, and different. They were insulated from others, lived on their own road which bore the family name, and ran a salvage yard. They appear to be a close-knit, loving family, and Steven’s parents have always been supportive of him throughout his legal troubles. However, the family was perceived as belonging to a less desirable socioeconomic class, and were a target of local derision.

When Steven was a young man, he was often unkempt, his hands dirty from working on cars, and he had always struggled in school and did not go to college. The Averys were different from families like the Beernstens, for example, who were suburban and upper middle-class. The Averys were perceived differently, and treated differently, and Steven’s disability was a contributing factor in this treatment, as intellectual disability often is.

Another disability angle to this story is the interrogation of Avery’s nephew, 26-year-old Brendan Dassey, whom law enforcement accused of helping Steven brutally rape and murder Theresa Hallbach. Brendan, who also is intellectually disabled, was interrogated by police when he was a minor; he was 17 at the time of his arrest. Brendan did not have a parent or legal representative present during his four interrogations, and his mother stated that Brendan did not fully comprehend what was happening. No accommodation was made to ensure that Brendan could access and understand the information he was being presented with and asked to talk about during his arrest and interrogation. Brendan was convicted of rape and murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence which has recently been overturned.  However, the state attorney general quickly filed an appeal, prolonging the time Dassey has spent in prison even further. Without an appeal, he would be free in 90 days. He has spent almost ten years incarcerated.

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Brendan Dassey in 2006. {image description: a teenage boy wearing a black sweater with a leather belt around his waist which his handcuffed hands are attached to by a chain, hands crossed in front of him, is escorted on either side by two police officers in brown shirts and pants. The young man has glasses, short light brown hair and looks sad, his eyes downcast and his lips pursed. In the background is a sawhorse and two other men.}

Dean Strang, who did not represent Dassey, stated that he was “Not surprised” by the state’s appeal. “The state often is very interested in preserving the status quo. And the status quo right now is that Brendan Dassey is convicted, he is in prison and this sort of inexorable pressure to keep him there I think, makes it no surprise the attorney general’s office sought to appeal,” said Dean.

A Call for Humility 

A theme of Strang’s speech at Syracuse University was the need for humility in criminal justice. For those involved in the system to be able to admit when they are wrong, and to understand that the nature of being a human is imperfect.

Instead of having that humility, instead of being able to look back on their work and say, “I misunderstood this situation, I didn’t have all of the information I needed, I was wrong and this mistake needs to be corrected,” those in positions of authority in the criminal justice system all too often focus on upholding their decisions and judgments, Dean explained. Professor Lauryn Gouldin, from Syracuse University College of Law, who presented Dean to the audience and joined him on stage, added that empathy was also necessary.

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 Syracuse University College of Law professor Lauryn Gouldin and Dean Strang on Stage {image description: two people sit in brick red armchairs with a table with sunflowers on it in between them. The person on the left is a woman with a black suit, glasses and medium length blonde hair holding a paper on her lap and listening to the man, who is speaking. The man is wearing a white shirt, a blue and orange striped tie and navy suit paints with black shoes. He has glasses and dark brown hair, and on hand is gesturing in the air as he talks. Behind them is a screen with an orange Syracuse university print on it, and a vertical banner sign for the Maxwell School, grey and white with an orange top.}

 

 

During the Q & A section of the presentation, I asked Dean how humility and empathy can be practiced in criminal justice when there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about disability studies. How can one know they have made a mistake and used unfair judgment when their entire idea of intellectual disability is wrong, and their education on disability issues sorely lacking?

“The court system is very, very slow to accept changes in policy or to accept a new understanding of an issue such as intellectual disability”, Dean responded, “whether it is something like the science surrounding it, or a disability studies perspective. Those who work in the criminal justice system who tend to possess a better understanding of disability are the ones who work directly with disabled people, such as a parole officer”. But, Dean said, “by the time a person is working with a parole officer, that means there has been a conviction, and that is a problem. It needs to start with the police. Police must be trained to understand disability and a lot of cities have police departments now that are accepting this and doing work on it. It’s changing and that is very good, but it takes a long time.”

Life Without the Possibility of Parole

Another extremely pressing issue in criminal justice that Dean spoke about is the bias that marginalized identities and the impoverished face. Impoverishment, Dean said, is not just about a lack of money. It is often an impoverishment of education, of family or of support. People from this type of background end up embroiled in the criminal justice system at higher rates.

Increasingly, the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which was given to both Dassey and Avery, has replaced the death penalty, and this sentence has increased in frequency since the 1980s. Many inmates with a life without parole sentence were given it before they were 18 years old, and 40% of people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole were in a special education class growing up. Brendan Dassey is one of them; he attended special education classes for support, and as mentioned, Avery went to a school for disabled children. The United States is the only country in the world which sentences minors to die in prison, some as young as 13 or 14 years old.

Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirm  what Strang said at Hendrick’s Chapel. Data Collection: Survey Of Inmates In State Correctional Facilities (SISCF), as interpreted by the Prison Policy Initiative found that:

“..In 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.The gap in income is not solely the product of the well-documented disproportionate incarceration of Blacks and Hispanics, who generally earn less than Whites. We found that incarcerated people in all gender, race, and ethnicity groups earned substantially less prior to their incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts of similar ages.”

One thing that is crucial for intellectually and otherwise disabled people is having a good support network, and money can make this a lot easier. Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were surrounded for the most part by a supportive, loving family but that is not enough, unfortunately. Part of a support network for a disabled person has to be someone who understands law and civil rights, like a lawyer, as well as good teachers, social workers, and advocates. Having access to this type of information often comes with expense or difficulty, particularly in a very rural area.

Intellectually disabled people are routinely subject to discrimination in criminal justice, and are often victims of crime. According the the ARC:

“People with intellectual, cognitive or developmental disabilities get involved as both victims and suspects/offenders more often than individuals without disabilities. Individuals with this disability also constitute a small, but nonetheless growing percentage of suspects/offenders within the criminal justice system. While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000). 

Many individuals unintentionally give misunderstood responses to officers, which increase their vulnerability to arrest, incarceration and possibly execution, even if they committed no crime (Perske, 2003). ”

Further, those with Intellectual Disability are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit, due to confusion, and tell police what they want to hear. This is why it is important for law enforcement to be trained on how to work with people who have Intellectual Disability; as Strang said; “It starts with police”.

We have to remember that these cases are complex, that there is a complex human story behind every sentence, and it might not be what you think. Having humility and empathy can lead to a better understanding of the complexity of human life, and the reasons that people end up sentenced to life with out the possibility of parole. The justice system often offers simplistic solutions to very complex human problems, with a one size fits all mentality. It is not working, and is instead resulting in impoverished, disabled, often juvenile citizens from difficult backgrounds being harshly sentenced to overcrowded, abusive prisons full of infectious disease, gangs and other problems, which affect society as a whole. After the presentation, I met Dean at the reception. He was really nice and told me about a case to research about Deaf people in the legal system. We are very pleased that he came to Syracuse University!

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The author on the left, with Dean Strang and her interpreter and friend at the Maxwell Reception. {image description: Three people smile for a photo in front of a wooden paneled wall. On the left is a young woman in a black and white gingham dress, with long, dark hair, with her hands folded behind her back. Next is Dean, who is wearing a white dress shirt, orange and blue tie, and navy dress pants. He has square framed glasses, his hands are at his side, and he is smiling. Next to Dean is a young woman in a black sweater, smiling at the camera. She has a blond braid down her shoulder and her hand at her side.}

 

Further reading (trigger warning: violence, abuse and rape in first article, and in the books mentioned):

http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/1/sentenced-young-thestoryoflifewithoutparoleforjuvenileoffenders.html

https://www.amazon.com/Couldnt-Keep-Myself-Correctional-Institution/dp/006059537X

https://www.amazon.com/Disability-Incarcerated-Imprisonment-United-States/dp/1137404051/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1475093163&sr=1-1&keywords=disability+incarcerated

 

 

 

 

The Danger of “Me Before You”

Me Before You. I feel like I would be remiss in not covering this potent disability rights topic. There has been tremendous outcry from the disability community towards this film, in theatres now, which is a love story, if you want to call it that, between a man who uses a wheelchair and his caretaker. It is an old story, a romance between caretaker and patient, or nurse and patient, and it has happened many times in history. I am reminded of Peter Stuyvesant marrying his nurse after she cared for him when his leg was blown off by a cannon, in the seventeenth century. She cared for him for a full year, and during the course of that time, they fell in love. Peter healed, and wore a prosthetic leg afterwards, although he always had discomfort from his accident. Unlike the male protagonist in Me Before You, however, Peter went on to live his life, becoming the director-general of New Netherland, now New York City, and going down in history, his prosthetic leg apparent in many statues and paintings of him. I have never heard of anyone thinking Peter Stuyvesant was pitiful or weak because of his prosthetic leg, which is a disability. No one thought that maybe Peter should just give up and retire, or maybe even kill himself. While historic figures like Stuyvesant can be problematic, and this is not to exalt him, he is an example of a story in history that mirrors Me Before You.

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Peter Stuyvesant. {image is of a bronze statue of Peter in 17th C. clothing; a doublet and short pants. He has a skull cap over his shoulder-length,wavy hair, is resting on a walking stick, and one leg is a prosthetic. He appears strong, confident and somewhat cocky, which he was.} Poor Peter. Maybe he should just have died? What a sad burden.

In Me Before You, Will Traynor, a disabled banker, and his caretaker, Louisa “Lou” Clark, fall in love after she becomes his assistant, or caretaker, or whatever you want to call it. Of course Will is fabulously wealthy, and his family owns a castle, but he is a quadriplegic, so none of that matters, and Will wants to die. He also cannot have sex, another tragedy. Will decides to die by assisted suicide, or euthanasia, because clearly his life is just one tragic farce in which he can no longer do anything, and using a wheelchair to navigate around is a fate worse than death, and god forbid he be a continued burden on Louisa or anyone else. These are the ideas in the film, presented here with a dose of sarcasm.

For those who are unfamiliar with this trope, it is entirely too common and unfortunately is representative of dangerous ideas about disability, paralysis, and those who use wheelchairs. There are many out there who have not had any kind of considerable personal or intimate interactions with disabled people, or, in particular, a person who uses a wheelchair, at the peer level. Many people I meet have never interacted with a Deaf person before, for example, and often do not know how to treat me at first, if ever, and think things that are just astonishing about deafness. For this reason, a story like Me Before You can be very effective, as it plays into stereotypes held by those who do not experience disability, and the prevailing idea is that disability is a tragedy which prevents one from being able to live a full life. For many able-bodied people, the thought of becoming disabled is horrifying, and indeed, a fate worse than death. They believe that their lives will just stop, become meaningless, and they will be thought of only as burdens upon their families, friends and society, and they also can never have sex or a relationship. The human imagination, and a large influence on human imagination, the media, works to propel this notion rather than to dispel it, and Me Before You is just another example in a long line of ableist narratives. So is it just a fantasy, a harmless love story?

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Promotional image from Me Before You. {Image is of the smiling lead actress, looking off camera, wearing red lipstick. Picture is captioned “Push yourself. Don’t Settle. Just Live”. } Live, yes, but not if you are disabled. Then you should maybe think about dying, you total burden on humanity. 

For a story like this to resonate with able-bodied audiences, it must play to their fantasies and biases. It affirms their beliefs rather than challenges them, and unfortunately, has very real-world consequences, in particular, euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill, which is a huge issue in disability rights. Many disabled people, myself included, are aware that our lives are not viewed as being the same and having the same value as an able-bodied person’s, and in the medical community, we are thought of as defective. When I tell able-bodied people this, they are often stunned, and find it hard to believe. Well, it’s never happened to them. They haven’t experienced it. It’s like race; you’ve got to listen to what people are telling you they experience. If you are part of the mainstream and are not marginalized, you are just not going to have the same experiences. Any marginalized identity is going to experience stigma and biases which often threaten their lives, in particular those with intersecting marginalized identities.

Within the medical model, disability is something to be cured or fixed, and if it cannot be cured or fixed, then the idea becomes that we ought to perhaps humanely put disabled people to sleep. And it happens all the time. This dangerous belief also influences homicide of disabled people, in particular children by their parents, and the resulting sympathy for the murderer over their disabled victim, because the disabled victim was a “burden” and “defective” anyway, and did not have a good quality of life.

Disabled people are murdered at very high rates, they experience abuse and homicide more than other groups. A lot of people with marginalized identities understand that the mainstream is often trying to push them out, get rid of them, or kill them, or in the case of euthanasia, get us to kill ourselves, albeit with a little help. Because if you do not have a mainstream identity, then you are devalued. And there is nothing romantic about that.

Back to Peter Stuyvesant and his nurse, Judith Bayard. When studying history during undergrad at Hunter College in Manhattan, Peter’s story was one we were made to study, as we were living in a city full of things named for him. I was struck by it at the time, and it made my imagination wander. Prior to reading about it, I was certainly familiar with “peg legs”, because as a child, often pirates in the stories I read or cartoons I watched on TV had one. However, I learned that Peter’s injury almost killed him, took a very long time to recover from, and that his prosthetic leg was uncomfortable, and often his injury flared up. His disability experience became more palpable, and I thought at the time of the loving care he received from Judith after he returned to Holland to recover. I thought the story was very romantic. The two had spent a lot of time together, must have gotten to know each other as a result, and fell in love. I wondered about that process and wanted to know more about it. After Peter recovered, he and Judith, his new wife, went to New Amsterdam,  where Peter would go on to live his life as the man he always had been; irascible, steely, energetic, powerful, and poetic. The story is not any less romantic, and Peter’s disability did nothing to fundamentally change his life or who he was, and that is because Peter’s story is real; it actually happened. It is representative of a real disabled life. Real disabled lives are worth living. It is only within fiction that they are not, fiction based upon tired notions and biases. However, these tired notions have a way of seriously influencing the lives of disabled people who are not living in the realm of fictionalized fantasy, and that is where the problem lays. Me Before You is not just stupid, it is dangerous, and will have lasting affects over the lives of those with disabilities, as it contributes to already existing ideas on the quality of our lives.

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Protesters outside a showing of Me Before You, holding posters made by disability rights organization Not Dead Yet

 

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Historic Disability Rights protest with many famous disability activists.

 

Orientalism, French Romanticism, War and Terror

Orientalism, a concept which examines the phenomenon of the west being the lens through which the east is analyzed and understood in contemporary western academic, social, artistic and political societies; reaches back to European antiquity with ancient Greece and its representations of Persia in the plays of Aeschylus. There has long been a dissemination of ideas about the east filtered through western predispositions, and the impact and consequences of this have been enormous.

Western positionality towards the east has influenced imagination and has therefor caused a significant level of unconscious perception possessed by those who do not have eastern heritage, in regards to the nature of it. The perception is unconscious because it has been largely absorbed through media, art, education and social influences over time, resulting in the existence of a collective fantasy, dreamed concurrently by a group far removed from the actuality of eastern culture and heritage. 

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Edward Said, Palestinian Literary Theoretician 1935-2003

 

 

Edward Said, a professor of history, comparative literature, and English at Columbia University developed the academic concept of Orientalism in his book by that name, published in 1978. In chapter one, Said writes: “On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.'” Beirut is the capitol of Lebanon. When I first started reading this chapter, I realized that I had been thinking of the East in terms of the Far East, as many Americans tend to, which Said addresses in his book. I was thinking of China and Japan, my mind sort of automatically went there. The term “orient”, I realized, is one I am familiar with, but does not really mean anything in and of itself; it is a construct, and it varies how people envision or think of it. While it does include the far east, this essay focuses on what is now known as the Middle East. 

There are so many ways in which Orientalism is pervasive and has manifested in western society, and a major area in which this phenomenon is represented is in French Romanticism. The French journalist quoted by Said in the above passage references “the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.” Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was a viscount, or vicomte, which is an aristocratic title. His father was a slave trader, and the family lived in a mansion in Brittany. Chateaubriand is known, among other things, for his novella Rene, published in 1802, a semi-autobiographical work about a melancholy young man who is disillusioned with France and travels to North America to live among Native American tribes there. Supposedly, Chateaubriand lived among the Natchez during his own travels to America, although this has been disputed. It might make sense, due to his propensity to romanticize people of color and look to their cultures as an escape from his own, which he felt disenchanted by.

 

 

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French Romantic author and editor Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand

 

 

Chateaubriand was the editor of the Mercure de France, a magazine with a tradition dating back to the 17th century, and the first western publication to feature fashion. Among its pages were articles tailored to the elite, the elegant and refined, covering the latest in French artistic, literary and intellectual culture, and mentioning the names and activities of high society denizens, not unlike Vogue magazine today, which has its roots in the tradition of the Mercure.

Chateaubriand, as a leading member of the French literary scene, helped to define French Romanticism with writings about his travels to the east, which is what the French journalist in Said’s quote was referring to: “the Beirut of Chateaubriand”; the formularized theoretical enclave that exists only as a concept in collective western imagination, an incidence not started by Chateaubriand, but propelled along by him. What, exactly, is Chateaubriand’s Beirut, and Chateaubriand’s East, and did it ever exist?

France was a leading global colonizer from the 17th to 20th centuries and its territories included the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania; east, west, North and equatorial Africa, Antarctica and the Americas. During these centuries in the west, France was a leader in art and culture. Part of this colonial oppression was the extraction of certain cultural elements from what was for centuries known as the Orient; the countries of Asia, which were then reconfigured by Imperialist powers.

One way to understand the concept of Orientalism is to look at art from the era of Chateaubriand. A common theme is the Odalisque, based on the Turkish word for chambermaid, which under western interpretation became synonymous with a concubine or harem woman. Almost always a fair-skinned white woman, the Odalisque is represented reclining and presented as sexually available, an image constructed to invoke desire. The superimposing of the white, submissive, sexualized female body upon a scene effulgent with eastern architecture, the ubiquitous hookah, and the ever-present slave in the background, waiting to attend to any need the viewer may have, is representative of the superimposition of western values upon the east as a whole. The replacement of cultural values local to the region with sexual fantasies of white women and dark-skinned slaves, the creation of the Orient as a place where forbidden, hedonistic desires, free from the confines of Christianity, can become real, has nothing to do with what the countries of the east are really about. It is merely a fantasy created to serve the needs of those in power. This fantasy is not just represented in art, but in all spheres of interaction from west to east during the era of Chateaubriand and continues today.

 

 

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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Odalisque with Slave, 1842

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Grande Odalisque also by Ingres, 1814

 

Romanticization of the east continues, an historical thread that has winded its way through centuries and continues to manifest in contemporary western fetishization of eastern cultures. Another aspect to this of course, is war and violence.

While fantasies of the east may serve to support and fulfill western desires to feel cultured, empowered and sexually titillated, the supremacy inherent to these feelings has also culminated in another fantasy of the east that fulfills western ambitions: a Middle East, as this part of the world is now called, full of religious extremists who must be subdued by war and the imposition of neoliberal values.

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While eastern cultures serve to satisfy romantic notions, they ultimately must stick to that, as the only other role the Middle East can occupy in regnant western consciousness is a desert full of machine gun toting radicals who want to destroy everything that is beautiful, particularly western culture. Orientalism continues today with the denigration of Muslims and Muslim Americas, painted in yet another type of collective picture as threatening and malicious, without any culture that is of value; stone-age people who only seek to destroy and oppress. In order to maintain western neoliberal supremacy, to continue to exalt it and prove that it truly is ideal, to continue the dream that it really works, that it is so valuable others must be murdered in mass numbers in other countries, these fantasies must remain in place. Because any usurpation of such fantasies threatens not western democracy, but western racist and sexist supremacies.

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Theoretical Infographic by Kate Pollack (c) 2016, based on Said’s Orientalism. Image must be used with permission. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

“When the Area Was Redlined, We Took the American Dream With Us When We Left.” Poverty in Syracuse, NY

Stories and experiences from different groups of people are important to collect and put together in order to understand the whole of what has happened to cause such devastation in the city of Syracuse, New York, and to connect people who have been driven apart by decades of racist policies. In this article, it is not my intention to speak for anyone but myself, and in doing so I wish to contribute to dialogue about Syracuse by writing about my family’s history here, and my experiences.

Recently, a few articles, including one from the Atlantic, have been making the rounds on the internet, as Syracuse has been declared the number one city in the United States for concentrated poverty rates in its inner city among black and latino people.

I grew up in Syracuse, mostly, with some time spent also in Oregon, and now I am a student of Syracuse University after also having lived in Utica and Brooklyn. I have noticed recently  that my professors and fellow academics have been discussing the Syracuse poverty issue in emails, on social media, as well as in person.

The attention the city of Syracuse is getting, now, feels surprising to me. For so much of my childhood it seemed as if no one really knew about what happened here except my family or those who lived in the city, because they were the only ones I ever heard talk about it. And Syracuse University, well… it seemed like another universe to me. I used to think of it growing up as the castle on the hill, almost like a medieval fortress beyond highway 81, always in the distance. Certainly it was never a place I ever expected to end up. I regarded the university somewhat disdainfully, because everyone knew it was for the elite. Other than the disdain, I didn’t think about SU very much at all. It is surreal for me to experience being on the other side of the discussion now, and hearing about the issues that have tried to destroy the soul of this city, for decades, from within the university. 

I was born in Eugene, Oregon, but my parents moved back here to Syracuse, where my mother is from, when I was an infant, because her father contracted cancer. I am an only child, and our little family lived at first in Elbridge, which is in the country side near Syracuse. When I was three, my grandfather passed away, and my mother inherited his house, in which she had spent some of her teenage years growing up. It was located on Stanley Drive in the Syracuse suburb of Fairmount, in a housing division modeled after Levittown and built by Stanley Westfall. Our house belonged to Mr. Westfall, and he lived in it with his wife and children when the subdivision was being built in the 1950s and early 60s. Many years later, we found some of the plastic 1950s toys that Stanley’s children had hidden in the attic; miniature yellow cowboys and red plastic cars.

There was a neighborhood near Fairmount that my parents and I often returned to for visits, and that was the West End; the Irish and Ukrainian neighborhood, where many of our family members lived, located about five minutes from downtown in a working class area. And adjacent to that, there was the neighborhood where my mother grew up, the Near West Side. When I was a child, for about as far back as I can remember, I heard the story of what had happened to our family house on Rowland Street.

My mother was born in 1952, a first generation Scottish and second generation Irish child from an immigrant family. When you are from an immigrant family, there is a certain narrative that you may hear growing up, and for me it was about how my ancestors escaped famine and hardship in the old country to come here and toil and make a better life. Everyone worked, there was no other way about it. I remember asking my mother why her mother and grandparents came here from Scotland to live in Solvay, by way of England in the 1920s. She said that they never would have graduated above the level of maids and servants, and they never could have had a single hope of owning a house, because of the rigid class system in England and the poverty in Ireland and Scotland.  When my mother’s parents were married, they lived in the house on Rowland Street in Syracuse in the 1950s,  which my great grandparents and my grandparents all  worked to pay for, and all lived in, along with my grandfather’s brother, Edward Corbett, and his wife, Ethyl, who both paid rent. In those decades, many immigrants lived in the neighborhood. My mother spoke of Polish and Ukrainian neighbors, part of the influx of immigrants escaping occupied lands leading up to and after WW II.

“When my parents finally paid off the mortgage,” my mother would tell me as part of the oft-repeated story I heard as a child, “they threw a BIG party. It was such a big deal.” And, inevitably, her sense of pride would be followed by tears of heartbreak and despair, because my family lost that house they worked so hard for shortly after they paid it off. The area was red-lined.

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011809firescenegw photo by Gary Walts 1-18-09 Burned house at 203 Rowland St., Syracuse, NY.

My grandmother had a friend who worked at the bank, and she heard of the illegal action the bank had taken to red-line the Near West Side, so she told my grandmother of it. It is rare that anyone I tell this story to knows the meaning of red-lining, which always strikes me as odd, because to me it was absolutely a term I grew up hearing. Red lining, as it was told to me, is an illegal activity when, in essence, a bank takes a red pen and draws a circle around a neighborhood on their map and refuses to approve loans for anyone who lives there. That means no mortgage loans, no small business loans, no car loans, no college; nothing. This filled my grandparents with terror and they seemed to be acutely aware of what this meant. Because they were white, they were able to buy a house in Fairmount, and leave the old one behind.

For my mother and grandmother, this was a positive change. My mother was suddenly in a class of suburban people that did things like go to college after high school. She says her girlfriends that remained behind in the city all worked in offices upon graduating high school.

Part of the story of our old family house was accompanied by drives to look at it. My mother would take me, over the years, on a drive down to Rowland Street, which was still only about ten minutes away from our suburban house. She would relate the story to me again, of my immigrant relatives working for decades to pay it off, the party; and the red lining. And she would cry. I remember sitting in the car outside the house on Rowland Street at night, and my mother breaking into sobs that as a child, I could not understand. The house looked so different; it had been carved up into ramshackle apartments by some slumlord who didn’t love it or care for it the way my family had. The street lights were mostly out, the street was dimly lit. People were murdered there. It had become one of the most dangerous, impoverished and violent parts of Syracuse. When you look up the news for Rowland Street now, it is murder after murder.

My mother never blamed local black and latino people for the crime in her old house, or on her old street. She knew what happened, she knew that they had also lived in that area and in the nearby SouthSide and she knew that the poverty and subsequent crime was created by racism and redlining, and that some, unlike her, could not move into Stanley Westfall’s house. It was never a question, there was never a wonder why it had all happened. The only thing to do was cry. “It was like the heart had been ripped out of the street,” my mother said recently. I asked her why she thought that the street and the house had deteriorated so much, she responded,  “When you do not own, or have a stake in the place that you live…where you raise your family, you have a different outlook on the property.”

“I also think that the concept of future goals is different. If you do not feel good about yourself, where you live, what your opportunities are, you are not putting energy into where you rent.” I asked her if she thought the future goals were different when she was growing up on Rowland Street. “Yes!” she said. “It might not have been my idea of a great future, but it was a future. One where your children were doing better than you, or at least as well. Get a job, have kids, the American Dream.When the area was redlined, we took those dreams with us when we left.”

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Gothic Cottage, 19th C. South Side. Recently torn down.

The Atlantic article says that things in Syracuse have gotten much worse in the last ten years. My experience differed from my mother’s. I spent about two years going to high school at Westhill, which is where she went, located in the suburban Fairmount/Westvale area, and I got a good education, one that had not been available to me in Oregon, which is a story for another time. From there, however, I was on my own, and at age 18 moved to Utica to attend community college. I had not been sheltered up to that point, but the culture of the west coast is very different from the east. In Utica, I lived in neighborhoods very much like the one Rowland Street has become. I was somewhat used to dodging crime as a teenager, and I knew children who were addicted to drugs and all of that kind of thing, without getting too much into it, back in Eugene. But Utica involved gunfire, which I was not used to, and constant murder and arson. The problems were severe. I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem to scare or upset me as much as it probably should have. Some things certainly did, like the looks of utter hopelessness on the faces of some of the children I knew who lived on my street; I was really not much older than they were and it struck me. These children would often come and sit on the stoop with me and talk. There was also a terrifying homicide of a sixteen year old girl that occurred right around the corner; her body lay in an abandoned house for weeks; a house which I used to walk by every day on my way to the corner store. I was very bothered by that. Things I had seen were definitely upsetting in Eugene, but I did not know children who had been murdered. I also had not felt too much fear of being murdered myself, and that was certainly something that became palpable in Utica. When I was 18, I was tiny, and many people driving their cars around the area where I lived and took the bus thought I was one of the many child sexual trafficking victims (aka “prostitutes”) that worked Oneida Square. The looks on the faces of men who drove by me in their cars, leering, was truly terrifying, and I learned not to stand in one spot for too long. I worried taking the bus to campus through neighborhoods where teenagers like me were shot every week. I was worried that gunfire would hit the city bus, as happened in Syracuse very recently, to the South Ave/OCC bus, a bus that many young people take to Onondaga Community College, one that I took almost daily for about two years myself.

I mention Utica because for me it seems very similar to areas of Syracuse. It seems like the same kind of thing, only with a different history of how the crime and poverty came about. Like Syracuse, it has a concentration of abandoned houses which dot each street.

I think for a long time, I became somewhat resigned to that kind of thing, but also felt like I had to work very hard to not stay in those areas. I tried to make a go of it in Eugene as a young adult, but it was way too expensive and there were no jobs. So I moved back to Utica. I had friends there, and it felt like home. I found the old houses and the decay to be somewhat beautiful and comforting. I did not feel much hope at the time and had no idea really what I could do other than try to get by. Being poor was ok there, because everyone was. Eventually it just got too hard, and I moved back to Syracuse and tried to make a go of it there for a few years in my young twenties. It was an absolute nightmare of hardship and I had a total breakdown of my health. There was nowhere I could afford to live other than the worst areas, and I tried very hard to avoid them. Most of my friends and some of my family were falling into heroin, which again has become a serious problem here. One of my cousins was almost murdered. The crime at that point in Syracuse had spread into most areas of the city, including the old Irish neighborhood. Heroin and gunfire. I left. I went to college in New York. I saved up as much as I could and drove the moving van myself, straight to South Brooklyn.

Now I am back, going to graduate school at SU, after a few years of trying to make a go of it working here, which did nothing to lift me out of poverty or keep me off of food stamps. I got sick in New York, so I came home. New York is a hard road, but it wasn’t as grim as upstate, not for me. I didn’t see the type of horror-show, Nightmare on Elm street type bullet riddled, boarded up houses you thought only existed in Detroit or Flint, Michigan, in New York. When I moved back, I moved about two minutes away from the poorest neighborhood in the state of New York, worse than Brooklyn, worse than Bronx: the near west side.

I would wait outside in the wind and snow, in twenty degree weather outside the Civic Center in downtown Syracuse, lined up with the mothers and infants the welfare office made stand out in the cold until the church bells struck eight o’clock am, a grim reminder of the beggars we were.

I didn’t know if I would ever escape any of that. Every day, I would take the city bus through the Near West Side, marveling at the influence of Syracuse University’s Near West Side Initiative, which resulted in new side walks, probably for the first time in over thirty years, curb cuts for wheelchairs, fixing up the falling-down houses. I had, at that time, which was only a few years ago, that same feeling of hopelessness which I had had for so long. I told my best friend at the time about how scared I was that I would be stuck down there, end up in that area, so near to me, the poorest neighborhood in the state of New York. It didn’t feel very far away from my more working class area at all, and I knew my Deafness prevented me from many ways to make money.

The best I could do was a part time, $8 an hour job, even though with my New York education. When I was laid off from that job, I went to the welfare office yet again, because I was so fearful of how I would pay rent or eat on the $100 a week unemployment benefits that were offered. Attempting to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (aka welfare) was an almost worthless endeavor; they gave you nothing for forty days, and made you apply to twenty jobs. A man in the office said that he had trouble reading and writing and it hindered him from filling out applications, and they told him to use a dictionary. He had just gotten out of prison and state mandated rehab, and I thought to myself at the time, there is so much incentive for him to just go back into crime. There was incentive for me to become involved in it, too. It often seemed like the only way to make money.

Luckily I did not need to keep begging for scraps at the welfare office, and I got hired at Syracuse University. I made twelve dollars an hour and worked full time. It raised my standard of living a little bit, but not much. Getting accepted to graduate school at SU made me feel that I had finally managed to tether my grasp to something that would likely result in me finally, for real, being able to escape what I felt had loomed so close to me for so long.

There is no better representation of all of these decades of racial and ethnic hatred foisted upon the city of Syracuse by those in charge than the abandoned house pictured in the banner photo of the Atlantic article. A house that once was beautiful, that someone owned and lived in, and washed the outside of, and swept the sidewalk. Perhaps their elderly parents lived upstairs, and they had a job in one of the long vanished factories, factories which moved to the developing world once labor movements in Syracuse demanded and got a living wage. Or maybe they ran a local store, a neighborhood shop that didn’t primarily sell lottery tickets and cigarettes, in an age before corporate chains were allowed to take over and funnel money out of the city.

Reform is cyclical, and there always must be vigilance. The marginalized win small victories here and there, only to be horrifically quashed again by fear and hatred, violence and greed. Racist policies affect everyone, even those who make them, and they destroy cities like this one. Segregating people of color and those with disabilities, who are impoverished in high numbers, into the worst areas, areas with no resources, is a negative for the city of Syracuse and this has become evident now to others in the world, that our city is impoverished and racist. The big, beautiful houses that line the streets of every city neighborhood, the West Side, South Side, North and East sides; they’re falling to decay and there was a time when they were beautiful, and the people who lived in those houses owned them. Why shouldn’t people own their homes?  There are those who have come to blame the poor for how their lives are, ignoring the decades and centuries of oppressive policies enforced by those in power. They do not want to see anyone given “a free ride” in the form of social support programs, so social services is routinely underfunded and policed, subjecting the poor to drug tests, or refusing to help people in desperate need for 40 days, a long time when you are hungry and looking at becoming or are homeless.

So here we are. I am still hopeful, however. Out of the rubble of a vacant lot can grow a garden full of food, chipboard can be torn away and houses refurbished and built again. Industry can come back. Maybe Syracuse can be beautiful again in every area, because we have the infrastructure; we have the lovely old houses and buildings that still stand in this city, and downtown is starting to look much better. Moving forward, we cannot be racist. We cannot segregate. And we have to make housing accessible for the disabled. Discrimination and segregation have manifested in the ultimate symbol: the once beautiful, once cared for, abandoned house covered in rotting chipboard, falling to decay because of hate.

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Beautiful old houses in a West Side area neighborhood, restored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes its OK.

Awesome new blog from my social justice friend who is also a mother! She loves elephants and works hard at her job, which we all know can be stressful. I love Mo’s reminder to enjoy the simple things.

the mo you know: pages on social justice, life and elephants

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From where I stand…things are going to be OK.

Sometimes your day doesn’t go like you planned it…you forget about an 8am meeting with the administrators at work, you have more work to do than will fit in the 4 hours that you usually work on Fridays, hell, you have more work to do than would fit in a regular, 9 hour day.

But sometimes, that’s OK.

Today I forgot a meeting. I was late. I hate being late. It ended up being OK because I’m not usually late – they were understanding. Once I got back to the office, I was supposed to go over talking points for Monday BUT I had to finish getting the Federal grant ready for signatures of alllllll the people. Of course, because I’m on a deadline, the link that I was given didn’t work. AGAIN. SO it took a whole lot longer than…

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