The Washington Post
Single D.C. mother talks parenting obstacles during ‘juvenile crime emergency’
The mother was exasperated. She had been unable to stop her three adolescent sons from sneaking out of the house at night, after she went to bed. Then, last summer, two of her boys were shot and wounded while walking the streets at around 12:30 a.m.
“I woke up and saw them coming to the front door and there is blood coming out of one of my sons’ thighs and the other had lots of blood coming from his hand,” she recalled. “One of them was saying, ‘Mom, I’ve been shot.’ I’m trying to process what I’m seeing because I had just put them to bed. Then it felt like the room started spinning and what happened after that is all a blur.”
The mother and I were seated at a conference table inside D.C.’S third district police station in Northwest, where she’d agreed to meet on the condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy. We were discussing the challenges she faces as a single parent, raising boys in a city struggling with a “juvenile crime emergency,” as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) calls it. Last year, roughly 1,400 juveniles were arrested; 56 percent of them were carrying firearms.
There were 16 juvenile homicide victims and another 88 shot and wounded — significant increases over the previous year.
Politicians, from the D.C. Council to Congress, along with many community activists, have weighed in with solutions that span a spectrum — from providing more rehabilitative services to juvenile offenders to mandating more jail time.
The ones we rarely hear from — the ones about whom the most questions are raised, and the most aspersions cast — are the parents of these kids. Particularly the single mothers who are raising nearly half of D.C.’S children, roughly 57,000, according to the 2021 American Community Survey. These children typically do not have the same advantages as those growing up in two-parent families, and the disadvantages can have deadly consequences.
In January, 13-year-old Karon Blake — considered the “man of the house” by his single mother — was shot and killed by a man who came outside his home after hearing cars being broken into. The shooting occurred at 4 a.m.
Where were the parents, many wondered? Including the father.
The mother I interviewed sighed when speaking about the father of her boys. “He’s not a participant,” she said. “We tried, off and on, for eight years to make it work. But we couldn’t. And I’m not going to chase behind anybody to be a dad. At the end of the day, I can’t make a grown man do something he doesn’t want to do.”
Looking back, she thinks her notion of “love” might have been misguided. But the fact is, she said, “the kids are here now. There is no putting them back. The only question is how best to help them.”
She gets up early, sends the children to school and then
commutes more than an hour — by Metro rail then by bus — to an administrative job on the far side of town. “Every single mother is not out here on crack, drinking and partying and forgetting about the kids,” she said.
She added, “When a mother is doing the best she can and the kid goes out and carjacks somebody, you don’t get to say ‘Let’s lock up his mom.’ You have to hold the youth accountable, too.”
A 2018 study of how much you need to make to live in D.C. found that a single parent with two children needed an annual income of roughly $96,885 or an hourly wage of $46.58 to make a go of it in the District.
The mother’s job pays $16 an hour.
The report also noted that,
“The existing social safety net is robust enough to allow a prototypical extremely low-income single parent with one or two children to meet their families’ needs, assuming they can access all the public benefit programs to which they are eligible (including a housing voucher). It is important to note that eligibility for a safety net program does not guarantee receipt of the benefit.”
The mother summed up her financial situation this way: “It is stressful beyond what you could imagine.”
The boys are growing fast, especially their feet. All of them are wearing man-sized shoes. And their appetite is also growing.
James M. Boteler, commander of the police department’s third district, recalled being on patrol at about 3:30 a.m. one morning last year and seeing one of the woman’s sons hanging out with other kids by a fast-food restaurant. Turns out that youngsters congregated there because the store gave away day-old cheeseburgers and other items an hour before stocking up and reopening.
So he started organizing grocery giveaways to the families of those hungry kids. He also noticed that if the restaurant had no food to give, some of the boys would start throwing rocks at it.
“I hate to say it but some of these kids are just goofballs,” Boteler said. “But then they get into groups and start making decisions they wouldn’t otherwise. And the next thing you know, throwing rocks at somebody turns into ‘Gimme your iphone,’ and then they are looking at robbery charges.”
The mother says she is looking for programs that will help keep her children out of trouble. She also wants to find programs that help single mothers learn to cope with the stress.
But the search often turns up nothing — except more stress. “Sometimes, I think I ought to leave this city,” she said.
But why? If the city intended to solve the crime and poverty problem by simply getting rid of poor people, then why allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to programs aimed at helping them?
Besides, the boys who got shot are on the mend and may have learned their lesson.
“After the shooting, they stopped sneaking out late at night,” the mother said, tapping on the table and adding, “knock on wood.”