Black Mothers Under Siege

Shanesha Taylor (Scottsdale Police Department); Marissa Alexander (YouTube); Debra Harrell (North Augusta Police Department) 

If you didn’t know any better, you might think, based on a flood of recent headlines about parenting-related arrests, that all black women are unfit mothers. But the truth is, many of the women at the center of these stories were simply between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Some observers have gone so far as to wonder whether their actions would have even been flagged or deemed criminal had they been of a different race and socioeconomic background. These observations have been accompanied by calls for improved services for families with financial needs and better protection for victims of domestic abuse. Is the real problem these moms’ parenting choices, the social and financial realities that led to those choices, or law enforcement’s reaction? You be the judge.


Debra Harrell

North Augusta Police Department

The North Augusta, S.C., mom was arrested July 1, 2014, and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child after she allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park near the McDonald’s restaurant where she worked. Although Harrell gave her daughter a cellphone, and the park was just a short walk away, the South Carolina Department of Social Services removed the child from her mother’s care. Since her arrest, Harrell has returned to her job, and her daughter has been released back into her custody. The best news: More than $40,000 has been raised for her defense fund and the education of her daughter.

Moshimalee Johnson

Moshimalee Johnson/Go Fund Me

The pregnant Durham, N.C., mom was arrested in July after social service agencies were alerted that she’d placed an ad on Craigslist looking for housing for her children while she searched for work and a permanent home. A certified nursing assistant, Johnson had been out of work because of multiple doctor’s visits after her 6-year-old accidentally hanged himself (he survived). After she placed the ad as a last resort—Johnson said she had already reached out to social services and a local rescue mission, to no avail—Durham County Social Services removed her children from her care. On July 23, 2014, she told a local paper that she’d received two job offers and was hopeful that the children would be returned to her.

Betty Brunson

News 4 Jax

Brunson was arrested on July 23, 2014, for leaving five children alone in a car on a 92-degree day in Jacksonville, Fla., while she retrieved a job application from a local business. Although none of the children needed any medical attention, Brunson was charged with five counts of child neglect.

Shanesha Taylor

Scottsdale Police Department

Taylor was charged with child abuse after leaving her 6-month-old and 2-year-old in her car for 45 minutes during a job interview in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 20, 2014. Taylor said child care for that day had fallen through and she was desperate for employment. More than $100,000 was raised by strangers sympathetic to Taylor’s situation and outraged that she’d be criminalized for making what she thought was the best decision for her family. The charges against Taylor have since been dropped.

Marissa Alexander

YouTube screenshot

The Jacksonville, Fla., mom was originally convicted and sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot during an altercation with her abusive husband. That sentence was overturned, and Alexander was subsequently released on bond. However, she is now facing a second trial, and a possible 60-year sentence for aggravated assault. Her recent request for a “Stand your ground” hearing was also denied. State Attorney Angela Corey claims to be prosecuting Alexander on behalf of justice for—what else?—her children. It’s hard to imagine how her incarceration would benefit them.

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