Parents Arrested in California for Being Too Poor
On March 1, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy arrested two parents living on their own land just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. The charge was suspicion of willful cruelty to their three minor children.
Authorities discovered the family of Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, living in a trailer next to a handmade shelter. That shelter’s roof was made of plastic pieces from an old children’s pool and metal pieces scavenged and assembled to give it rigidity. The room was protected by mattress padding and stuffed with twigs. The total size of the box-shaped place was only 200 square feet, and it was just four feet high. The trailer was also used as a shelter.
The three children living with their parents were 11, 13 and 14 years old.
The property was apparently owned by the parents.
The land and facilities there had exposed human feces and garbage. There was no running water, so there was no provision for cleaning anything on the premises. There was also no electricity there.
The shelter did contain a camping stove and canned food as provisions. Bikes, children’s books and some toys were stored in the shelter.
In commenting about the arrests, Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said: “Children should not have to live like that. As parents, they have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities for their children to grow up and be healthy and safe.”
That may be true under the law, but Captain Trevis Newport of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, Morongo Basin Station, quickly stepped in to make some clarifications. He said that the children were not being held captive and that there was no evidence of abuse other than because of their extreme poverty. “They’re homeless. It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like,” he added.
In contrast to what the initial reports said, those who know the parents said the couple appeared to be taking care of the children as best they could. Despite their homelessness, they were responsible parents who took care of and had an interest in their children, and they provided home schooling for them because of their lack of access to the public schools. That schooling included taking them to the local library and the Hi-desert Nature Museum, according to neighbor Linda Klear in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. The home education was successful to a point, apparently, as Klear also said the oldest boy was an avid reader.
The parents also regularly took their kids to community gatherings and supported them by being part of Scouting.
The family had a small fixed income and unfortunately could simply not afford anything better than where they were living. Neighbors reported that the couple had intended to build a home on their land but medical bills and other expenses ate up the house budget. They also actively refused assistance out of pride, apparently, something that those who know them hope will change now that they risk prolonged prison sentences and losing their children.
Leanna Monroe, who has known the parents and children for nine years, agreed that the parents had been doing their best and that they were not intentionally creating problems for their kids. “The Sheriff’s Department is punishing these kids for being homeless,” she said.
This is not a case where a charge of willful cruelty should apply.
Homelessness has become a major problem for the region and indeed the entire state of California. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, a calculation that includes the costs of housing, food, utilities and clothing, plus non-cash government assistance as a cash-equivalent adder, California has the highest poverty rate in the country.
Approximately one out of every five residents in California is poor under this measure.
Part of this comes from the slow disintegration of what used to be called the “social safety net.” After the experiences of the Second World War and the Great Depression before that, numerous support systems were rolled out to cover everything from education (remember the G.I. Bill?) to health care, food and lowincome housing. Education was supported for those in need by many states and by the federal government.
Since the 1990s and starting with the welfare reform movement under President Bill Clinton, that safety net has all but vanished. Cutbacks in medical care, education programs, housing allowances and food stamp benefits have continued. There was even the paradoxical requirement that in order to get benefits in some areas, one had to work first. This followed the irrational logic that those who were homeless or in dire need were lazy and just wanted a free handout.
In the Inland Empire area, where San Bernardino is located, the average monthly apartment rental cost in 2017 was $1,393. In Orange County, Calif., the overall cost of living is 43% higher than the national average. Those costs are so high that often even employed people cannot find affordable housing.
This is part of why more than 1,000 homeless people had taken up residence in a major encampment near Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., up until a short while ago. That group even included former IT employees, some perhaps victims from past tech-company layoffs, and public-school staff who could not afford anyplace else to stay. Unfortunately for them, they, too, were evicted from their own makeshift surroundings in February by local authorities.
On March 2, parents Daniel Panico and Mona Kirk were arraigned at Joshua Tree Courthouse. They could not afford an attorney and asked for the court to appoint one for them. The court entered “not guilty” pleas for them as part of the proceedings.
The parents are now being held in Morongo Basin Jail because they could not afford the outrageous $100,000 bail requirement the court levied for their release.
Child and Family Services is currently taking care of the three children as the case proceeds.
While California cannot (or will not) provide affordable housing, it always seems to have the money to imprison the poor and is able to maintain the world's largest prison system, and the U.S. federal government always has plenty of money to wage senseless wars.
The real “willful cruelty” in this case is not what the parents were doing. It is the criminalization of poverty and the gross inequality as the rich become ever richer and everyone else becomes poorer.
To read more on this subject, please see “Making America Poor Again” and “UN Exposes Rising Inequality in America,” both published January 9, 2018, in Trillions.