July 14, 2008

Hold That Self-Righteous Mob, Chicago, This Cage-Dad Coverage Sucks

"Nothing about the outside of Ricardo Gonzalez's deep blue Land Rover tells there's a homemade jail inside, where his two young daughters were completely immobilized in tight seats covered with straps, just like an electric chair."

cage_dad_truck_wgn.jpg

Can you ever imagine the paragraph above being published instead of the actual lede from the Chicago Sun-Times' Southtown Star report?

Nothing about the outside of Ricardo Gonzalez's rusting navy-blue pickup truck tells there's a homemade jail inside - where he encaged his two young daughters.

Inside the 1995 Chevrolet S10 truck, Gonzalez erected a wire cage behind the driver and passenger seats to hold the girls, ages 2 and 5, while he drove around as a scrap hauler, Posen police said.

All the facts aren't in, so I'm not ready to absolve Gonzalez completely for putting fencing across the backseat of his truck to keep his daughters safe while he worked, but so far, the only actual potential crime here is not attaching his kids' car seats according to manufacturers' instructions.

sstar_cagedad_carseat.jpg

I know a smug media railroading when I see it, though, and between police and the local media, Gonzalez is already being convicted for being poor, Hispanic and driving an old car with tinted windows. State attorneys leak that they're considering upgrading the misdemeanor charge to a felony, while police officers take TV news crews on a tour of the cage ["'I wouldn't put my dog in that, said Cpl. William Alexander"] and the elaborate concealment techniques on Gonzalez's truck--i.e., tinted windows and a big sheet of plywood in the back, which couldn't possibly be used to increase the amount of scrap he carries--or to keep it from coming through the window and, uh, harming his kids.

The Tribune's report, which I linked to Friday, provides a little more sympathetic context, along with more evidence that seems to show the kids were in little or no actual danger:

Whenever Ricardo Gonzalez went to a job site in his pickup truck, he never let his small children out of his sight. So protective was the 35-year-old south suburban man, he kept his daughters in a makeshift cage inside the truck, officials say.
They also quote a DCFS report where the older daughter tells state officials, "My dad tightens both of us with his belt by my leg and my sister was [on] the other side of the cage tight with another belt." If the kids were in their seats all the time, there'd be no need for a fence, so presumably he built it to keep the kids in the truck but out of the front seat while the truck is parked. Which, if it's not optimal, at least sounds responsible, even reasonable.

Considering a neighbor told the Tribune that the girls' mother works long hours as a dental assistant, and that the couple couldn't afford a sitter [what, on a scrap hauler's and dental assistant's salaries?] it sounds like the best the dude's able to do.

But wait, this is a family with a history of neglect and abuse, right? It's in the DCFS system! You mean the report that the mom left her daughter outside on the lawn in 2006? That was called in by the next door neighbor, who was also outside, while their two kids were playing together. From another Sun-Times article:

[Kim] Chicoine said she reported neglect two years ago. She was playing outside with her son Jacob when she saw the girl's mother, Yesenia Mendoza, drive away, leaving behind her older daughter, who was 3.

"The little girl said her mom was going to the store," Chicoine said. "I guess she just assumed we were going to watch her. I gladly would have, but she didn't even ask me."

So instead of watching the kids, then mentioning it to Mendoza when she came home, Chicoine called the police.

She called again a few weeks ago, when she saw Gonzalez installing his fencing, and a Southtown Star editorial contains some more damning color that sounds like it could only come from a judgmental neighbor:

It seems someone calling DCFS must produce a specific time, date and place for an instance of abuse or neglect. Simply reporting that you fear your neighbor is hauling his kids around in a cage, that his house is a mess and his kids appear unkempt, starved for attention and constantly sick is insufficient.
Something for Chicagoland parents to be thankful for the next time their kid steps out of the house with a stained shirt or a runny nose.

Again, none of us knows the entire story here, and I guess it's still possible that these parents are an imminent threat to their kids. But what if they're just conscientious, but struggling parents with no resources? Just imagine what this story would be like if, instead of kneejerk media condemnation feeding public sanctimony, there were even an ounce of sympathy for these parents. I guess affordable child care for poor, working families seems beyond our collective imagination, but what about a society where the neighbors do more than just narc you out? Is there really no solution, organization, or resource for parents of limited means and experience to get a little support when they need it?


July 3: Two kids found caged inside dad's truck [southtownstar.com]
Midlothian father admits he locked daughters in cage in truck, cops say [chitrib]
July 4: Neighbor suspected girls would be caged [suntimes]
July 10: op-ed: DCFS's lack of action frustrating [suntimes]

17 Comments

I had a similar reaction to the story when it popped up. Poor parents condemned for their poverty. There indeed may be more to the story but seriously, this "burn them" mentality is neglecting the real issues.

Thank you so much for looking at this story with a more nuanced eye than the press clearly has.

This could be a great opportunity for "the media" to discuss the complete lack of affordable and safe child care options for families like this one. But, instead, we get headlines like "Two Kids Found Caged Inside Dad's Truck". Because that's what sells.

Sheesh.

Yes, thanks for taking the time to update this story. I agree with anastasiav about the opportunity to turn this into a genuine dialogue about the need for safe child care options. It's interesting to compare this with the recent NYTimes magazine article that described the great childcare in Northern European countries and the benefit it has had for working families' ability to have children. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/magazine/29Birth-t.html

Well, all those things you mentioned may not constitute abuse, per se, but I heard she formula-fed those kids!!

the truck was full of scoop wreaths; he was selling them on the median.

man, i guess i should stop locking my kids up in the house at night...

but you better not leave them on the lawn, either...

I can't wait for Nancy Grace to weigh in with her calm, well researched, ballanced point of view.

You're kidding, right? In what world is it OK to tie up two small children in a cramped space all day long while Daddy works? If this were a beemer, and the kids were in their car seats all day it would still be abuse -- particularly if it went on day after day.

There's no way their mental, physical and emotional growth isn't being negatively affected by being strapped into a tin can all day long, and
with all that fencing, you'd play the devil getting those children out of that truck at an accident scene.

Finding child care is the pits, and it really is a serious issue, but somehow I don't think that's the whole story here. Mom's spending long
hours as a dental assistant? In what world? Most dentists I know work a short 9-4:30 day, making Mama's day 9 hours max (if she happens to be
working for a more aggressive type). That would leave 15 hours a day for Daddy to spend sleeping and scrapping, with the kids safe at home with
Mama. That would be good use of available resources.

Come on, people -- these are human kids. If they were puppies, it'd still be a shame. The only difference is that the beemer driver usually (but not always) manages to keep this kind of stuff out of the papers.

Thank you Ajo! Finally, a voice of reason.

Good God, DT, you've got to be kidding me--keeping children in a car all day, locked up when the truck is parked--in a Chicago summer? Are you out of your mind? Did you have a good look at the photos? What's with the black plastic stuck in the gaps in the top? The structure is not only dangerous, but frightening, and as Ajo points out, damaging to mental, physical and emotional growth.

I fail to see how the photographs tell the story of a struggling, but good-hearted, hard-working father.

You ask, "Is there really no solution, organization, or resource for parents of limited means and experience to get a little support when they need it?"

YES YES YES!

I did a very brief search, and, like California, Illinois offers FREE or nearly-free child care for working families. If their program is half as good as the one here in California, there's no reason that these children couldn't be cared for in decent childcare facilities.
http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=31096

I'll agree that there's a slim chance that the family didn't know of these types of services, but I honestly find that hard to believe if they have been in the country for any length of time. This type of information shows up in multiple languages throughout the city--from the sides of busses to billboards, to brochures at city services locations, medical clinics...pretty much EVERYWHERE.

This is just wrong. There is NO justifying it. Get a grip, please.

i'm very pointedly NOT justifying or excusing it, and if you know the details of parking the kids in the car all day vs driving around with them, don't be shy with your sources. I'm just pointing out the extreme shit sandwich the parents have been fed by media coverage of the situation, seemingly because they're poor, ignorant, and brown and their neighbor doesn't approve of them.

If these people were getting visits from DCFS after the neighbor's seemingly unnecessary neglect report, wouldn't they have access or at least information about childcare? Wouldn't they be jumping at the chance?

Who knows, they could be total idiots, the kind of neighbors who throw beer bottles at you when you step on their driveway with a casserole. Or they could be undocumented, and thus paranoid about interacting with any official organization, I have no idea. I just don't see the how the dad getting sent to federal prison is any kind of helpful or positive outcome for this family, and yet that's the drumbeat I hear.

wow. somehow i am confused? after the crucifixion for the DIY crib on designsponge a few months back i am a shocked at your position. i might be wrong but i smell some liberal guilt here... had the maker of the "crib-of-death" been "poor" and "brown" then maybe the response might have been one of kudos, and adulation - for being green and using found materials to create this wonderful, albeit unsafe, design solution.?.?
honestly, i think you are right on about the medias sensational and biased reporting - but to strap your kids into their car seats day after day to ride along while you troll the alleys for old sinks and stoves is not providing your 3 + 5 yr. old with what they need. plain and simple. does it constitute abuse - maybe not, but it should be called what it is - neglect. i have lived in chicago to 7 yrs and i have a 2.5 yr. old and anyone who leaves their toddler in the front yard while they run to the store is an idiot and to me that IS endangerment. just today - an 8 yr. old girl was found in front of her home stabbed to death and raped. children are not protected in chicago - not by the community b/c its not the community's job - the responsibility falls solely on the PARENTS! fencing is to keep these kids from getting out of the vehicle - so if we use half our logic and consider a cage for a moment - it is to keep them in while no one is looking after them. no telling how long they were left unattended back there. not safe at all - you really should reevaluate your logic and world-view. "poor" and "brown" really have little to do with this!

maybe it's my world-view, but that makes no sense to me at all. Do I expect that a suburban, college-educated crib designer in some weblog contest should follow safety regulations that have been around for 30 years? Yes. Do I think she should be arrested and charged with a felony and have her kids taken away from her for building that crib? No. Did I call child services when I saw it? No.

Context does seem to matter, at least for understanding a situation, which is all I'm really arguing for here. I don't think there's anything kudos-worthy or wonderful about what the guy did, beyond the baseline of not abandoning his family. And as for what kids "need," I would bet that list of needs looks pretty luxurious from the front seat of a junk truck. Is it neglect to be stuck in a car all day collecting stoves, but not if you're going to stores? What about if your kid rides around in a stroller all day like a zombie while his nanny chats away on her cell phone?

As for the kid-in-the-yard thing, I'd say that a 2yo playing in a yard by herself is dangerous no matter where it happens. But again, in this case, the kid was playing with the neighbor's kid, and the neighbor was right there. Was it presumptuous to not say, "watch my kid for a few minutes"? Yeah. Was calling the cops on the mom instead of having a word with her pretty damn unneighborly, too? Yeah.

DT - you make a perfectly sound argument for a childs need for parents/minders to provide at least even the minimum of attention/care to ensure survival. but to parallel a shopping trip on a saturday stuck in a car seat to being fenced into your own backseat with a padlock is lame - and i think you know that. i call into question your quickness to "class-bait" the context by saying that college educated parents know better than to fence their children in and poor, latino parents just don't have the education to know better. i think that is a bigoted reaction. a basic, competent parent of any class or color knows you cannot do either of the things involved in this story. i am sorry to say that many college "educated" people today are completely bankrupt when it comes to good life decision making in nearly every aspect of life and the uneducated you speak of actually have more common sense in the smallest of decisions than our college graduate contemporaries.
i know how the media, especially local chicago media, can completely over-hype a story and play both judge and jury - but where i think you are guilty of the same is by using similar rhetoric in your post (from your title to "I know a smug media railroading when I see it" to judging someone for crib slats by saying, "Let's all celebrate with mom-to-be Melissa, whose hand-painted, death-slat-equipped, fallout-optimized, mini-crib won 3rd Prize in Design*Sponge's recent DIY Project Contest").
you spun and judged as much as any chicago media outlet toward whom you point the finger.

uh-uh, again, no equivalency.

Should a college-educated crib designer be expected to know the basics of crib design, and should she be called out when she publicizes her flawed design? Yes and yes. Should she get arrested and lose her kid for it? No and no.

Should every parent--from college professor to FOB amigo--who takes on the responsibility of driving around with his kid in a car know the proper use of a car seat? Yes. Should he get arrested and lose his kid for not following the regulations? No. Should he get a ticket and be made to take a class, and maybe even have his car impounded so the kids don't leave the scene in unsafe seats? Hell yes. Would that ever happen to anyone besides a Latino driving a rusted out junk truck with fencing and laundry cart parts strung across the back? Un freakin' likely.

Lame, DT, lame.

Jennifer and jm have got it right. There's a lot more going on here than "not following [car seat] regulations". And no, being "poor" and "brown" doesn't automatically mean that a person is too limited to understand that tying up his children is not an acceptable way to care for them.

Your own post was just as inflammatory (if not more so) than the media you criticize. Yes, you come off as a bigot (though from the purest of motives). Or at least as awfully patronizing.

The bottom line is that Daddy needs to be kept away from those kids by whatever means possible until he demonstrates an ability to care for them in some way that isn't going to damage them further.

BTW, at least one paper reports that a previous (unnamed) charge of neglect against these children was substantiated. That makes sense; it's not really likely that this is the only inappropriate child-rearing idea this dad has had. Something this involved usually isn't the first instance of neglect or abuse.

for this I kill an entire day fixing my comment server? to be called a bigot with a heart of gold?

the "substantiated" incident was the one where the neighbor called the cops on the mom while the kid was playing with her own. Maybe your inclination to jump to conclusions about what other abuse and neglect are going on here, based solely on the fragments of information reported and spun in the media, is the right one, the "safest" one. You're just "thinking of the children."

All I want to do is put out there the possibility that there are alternate, less menacing interpretations of the situation that don't require anyone to embrace some multi-culti Honduran tradition of baby-tying. And to challenge people to question the reasons the media dogpile on a story like this. And then to look behind the story--which is approximately 100% irrelevant to anyone not personally involved--to see how the hell a guy could be in a position where building a cage in the back of his truck seems like the only/best option for taking care of his kids.

But fine, you wore me out. I really don't care enough about this loser or his loser neighbors or his loser-to-be kids to expend any more energy on it. I'll let the enlightened citizens of Chicago take care of their own.

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