It Takes A Village...
11-year-old Sandra recalled watching her mother leave their
modest home in South Jamaica Queens to travel across town to her evening job
that consisted of cleaning medical offices. Her mother would routinely
turn around as she exited the gate and reminded Sandra not to open the door for
any strangers. Sandra nodded in agreement to the all too familiar
instruction that she received from her mother. She and her other five
younger siblings, ages 10 to 3, would stare out the window until their mother
would fade from view in the night darkness. This nightly ritual was part
of the awesome load that young Sandra had to carry as a child. She
reminded me of those days when she called and shared her concern for Mrs. Kim
Brathwaite, the Brooklyn mother who lost her two children, 9-year-old Justina
and 1-year-old Justin, in a Brooklyn fire. Sandra told me during our phone
conversation that she and I knew all too well the difficult decisions that a
mother has to make in providing for a fatherless family.
The reality of the moment struck me and I quickly recalled the many days of
looking out the window and wishing my mother did not have to leave on those cold
and dangerous nights. If my oldest sister Sandra did not sacrifice her
childhood to embrace the nightly duties of surrogate motherhood, I don't know
where our family would have ended up. Each one of us had to also take upon
the dual roles of being a child and a responsible individual. In Sandra's
absences the next child in age order would take over the leadership role. We
all knew our tasks. Although many would look at my mother's actions and
retrospectively state that she jeopardized her children's safety, I know a
different story. And it does not start with child endangerment. The
story begins with the fact that as a first generation New Yorker from the corn
fields of Cecil Alabama, mother brought with her many southern values.
They included the normal chore of an older sibling assuming part of
the supervisory task of taking care of their younger brother or sister.
This form of family values was also prevalent for those in our community that
come from the West Indies, Central America, South America and other areas of the
globe where the culture embracing the concept of childhood roles include
sharing the responsibility of raising younger siblings. The only difference
between then and now is the role of the community in the equation.
The absence of community participation should be part of our dialogue when we
discuss what Mrs. Brathwaite did correctly or incorrectly. If this is not
done, then we are failing to acknowledge the important role that the community
support mechanism plays in this entire scenario.
Community involvement was not omitted from the family environment. We knew as
children that if a problem occurred in the home, we could go to anyone of our
many supporting neighbors to get assistance. If help was not there, then
we could call any member of our small store front church to get emergency
assistance. All of these phone numbers were readily available for our use.
It appears that somewhere along the line this support system has been regulated
to wishful conversation. The countless number of times that we hear those
in and outside our community talk about it takes a village to raise a child.
The death of young Justina and Justin must inspire those words to become a
reality. We can start by using our houses of worship to screen young
students who are looking for part time work and pair them up with a system of
emergency day care service. Senior citizen centers that housed capable
women and men who successfully raised families can be used to field telephone
calls from those young parents that are having emotional difficulties. The
ideas are endless and there are many grants that are available to help fund
these endeavors. In cases where the funds are not readily available then
we must find it within our own excess. This is what our organization has
done for the last 11 years as we donated $12,000.00 annually to small community
This case is now in the hands of the Kings County District Attorney's office.
They have the awesome task of balancing between setting the tone of zero
tolerance for child abuse/neglect and understanding the difficult decisions that
a parent must make in a one parent household. I know the Assistant
District Attorney that is in charge of the District Attorney's office Crimes
Against Children Bureau. The Bureau Chief Ama Dwimoh is a compassionate
competent professional that takes her job serious. I believe that she
would do what is best for all parties involved. Now it is time for us as a
community to do the same.
Co-Founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care
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