From Punishment to Love


From Punishment to Love

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen, Oct.31-Nov.6, 2010

Desperation breeds bad ideas. The latest bad idea comes from Wayne Country Prosecutor Kym Worthy who is suggesting jail time for parents who miss Parent -Teacher conferences. She is calling for legislation that would include up to three days in jail for missing a yearly conference.

Worthy’s proposal brought her national news attention and garnered some support at the Detroit City Council. In response to her presentation last week, Council President Charles Pugh said the proposal would “send the right message.”

“We know,” Pugh said, “that at some point there has to be a line drawn and people held responsible.” President Pro-Tem Gary Brown agreed, saying, “If you aren’t involved in your child’s education, and he or she is failing, it’s child abuse.”

When generally reasonable people start talking about jailing parents who skip Parent-Teacher conferences as a way to solve both the education and crime problems, we all need to stop and think.

Such a proposal comes out of despair and the belief that any action is better than nothing. Worthy traces her thinking back to a tragedy last July when she prosecuted a case in which a 12 year old boy shot and killed a 24 year old woman. In the course of the case, it became clear that the boy’s parents had no idea where their son had been on the night of the murder. At the time Worthy said that we needed to find ways to make parents more accountable. She said, “I have seen younger and younger children committing more violent acts, and we need to look at different approaches.”

Worthy argues that there is a connection between parental involvement and youth crime. She somehow thinks that such a complicated dynamic would be improved by locking up parents who don’t make yearly teacher conferences.

The most disturbing element of this proposal is the effort to find yet another simplistic, punitive approach to our problems. This is but the latest in a long string of efforts to punish the people of the city for some perceived failure or other. Worthy is saying that if we have a youth crime problem, we can fix it by punishing the wayward parents. So let’s put them in jail for skipping conferences. It is the same logic that punishes teachers, students and principals for low test scores by closing schools and firing people.

Satisfying as such direct actions may feel to public officials, they only create more chaos and pain.

Instead of responding out of a desire to “punish, ” we need to take seriously Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s challenge to learn to love more deeply.

Recently I visited a neighborhood in North Philadelphia where I saw the power of love transforming the lives of children. The Reverend Donna Jones of Cookman Memorial Church has adopted the Patch Program in her neighborhood. Facing high truancy, Pastor Donna brought together a team of volunteers. Police and school officials came to her with kids in trouble.

Instead of asking ” Who do we punish?” Pastor Donna asked, “How do we love and support this child? She and her volunteers then set up meetings with the child and the people who mattered in his or her life. Together they asked the child, “What do you need from us to get to school every day and do well?” Sometimes the answer was as simple as a neighbor knocking on the door every morning to awaken the child because mom was away at work. Sometimes it was far more difficult. But the success of the program has been undeniable, resulting in efforts by Philadelphia to expand it to other neighborhoods.

Desperation is understandable these days. But the desire to strike out and blame somebody is a destructive, dangerous impulse. We cannot punish our children into life. Only love will do that. ___________________________________________

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