Food Insecurity… or Child Neglect?

by James A. Bacon

We read today in the Times-Dispatch about the trials and tribulations of one Ashley C. Williams, who recently tested positive for cocaine last month while awaiting trial in Richmond for the death of her two-year-old son.

The boy died of starvation and dehydration on May 30, 2009, weighing only 14 pounds. Prosecutors charged Ms. Williams with child neglect and felony murder. Her attorneys say the death was not her fault. The lad, they assert, died from a failure to thrive — a medical condition beyond her control.

Undermining her case is the fact that Ms. Williams appears to have a drug abuse problem. She had been released free on bond after her son’s death but she was soon re-arrested on a drug charge, in which she pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. After serving her sentence for the drug charge, she appeared in a custody hearing to determine the fate of her three other children. Toward the end of the hearing, she was given another drug test. Testing positive for cocaine, she was sentenced to another six days in jail.

Her attorney has since disputed the result of the test, suggesting that Ms. Williams might have tested positive for cocaine without actually having used it. “Did she touch a dollar bill that someone used who may have been snorting cocaine?” the attorney asked.

Meanwhile, it transpires that Ms. Williams is enrolled in mental-health counseling and searching for a job. A pastor is trying to find her a “nursing-type job,” avers her attorney.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let us set aside the question of whether a substance abuser who permitted her own child to starve to death, whatever the circumstances, is a suitable candidate for a “nursing-type job.” I would not want to engage in what Peter G. refers to as “Calvinist” sermonizing. Let us focus instead on the public policy questions that arise from the incident.

When we compare the health metrics of the United States with those of other developed nations and the U.S. falls short, who are we really indicting — the U.S. health care system or the rampant scourge of drug abuse and its horrendous medical consequences for both drug abusers and the children entrusted to their care? If a cocaine addict allows her child to die of malnutrition without ever seeking medical treatment for the child, does that really justify tighter government control over… health care providers?

Likewise, if a Richmond child dies of malnutrition, do we accuse an uncaring capitalist system of failing to equitably distribute food to all sectors of the population? Do we blame the miserliness of a welfare state on the grounds that existing programs for food stamps, free school breakfasts and lunches, Women, Infant and Children (WIC) nutritional benefits, and USDA food distribution to soup kitchens are insufficient?

Or do we shake a finger at the woman who attributes her child’s death not to her own actions but to a “failure to thrive?”

If we’re looking for “root causes” for why malnutrition persists in the wealthiest country in the world, perhaps we should focus on the problem of substance abuse. How many parents starve their children to feed their addictions? We should assume Ms. Williams’ innocence until she is proven guilty in court. But there are other cases like her’s. How many? What programs does Virginia have in place to address substance abuse, how well are they funded, and what mechanisms have we put into place to ensure that the money is well spent? Few people are asking these questions, it seems to me, but they are fundamental.

5 Responses to Food Insecurity… or Child Neglect?

  1. the entire story is seriously undermined by this inconvenient fact: “….she appeared in a custody hearing to determine the fate of her three other children.” how come here other kids did not also die of “abuse”?

    bonus question: if this woman was not poor but middle class or rich, would she have just as much “enjoyed” the “help” of the criminal justice system?

  2. I don’t know how old the other kids were but if they were school-aged, they might have qualified for free school lunch and breakfast.

  3. so they survived through infancy and the 4th did not?

  4. “Peter g?” Why bring me into this?

  5. Your conclusion paragraph about “Root Causes” could not be more accurate and spot on. Over a half of a million people battle substance abuse in Virginia; that does not include the families, children, law enforcement, businesses, and communities that are also effected.
    Did you know that addiction is medically classified as a DSM4 (which stands for diagnostic and statistical manual, which codes and classifies diseases and disorders) disease. Other well-known illnesses classified as DSM4 include hypertension, diabetes, and asthma. When people diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes or asthma take their medications as prescribed and follow a healthy lifestyle, the majority of subjects do well. Addicts who become involved in treatment/recovery and engage in healthy lifestyles (strictly abstaining from drug or alcohol use) tend to do as well as those being treated for other DSM4 diseases. Further correlation with similarly classified diseases includes the need for prolonged treatment. For example, individuals with type-one diabetes require insulin for the remainder of their lives. Hereditary hypertension is treated similarly with medication prescribed for life. Like diabetes and hypertension, addiction recovery is dependent upon life-long treatment to stop drug or alcohol use.
    However, whatever your thoughts are on addition, no one can den that it is a serious problem in Virginia and in the United States and costs us billions of dollars each year. So, as you said, “what programs does Virginia have in place to address substance abuse, how well are they funded, and what mechanisms have we put into place to ensure that the money is well spent?” It’s a huge question that needs a lot attention! Strides are being taken, but there’s much more to do – if you are wondering, spend some time in the jail talking to addicts and it will be clear what should be done!

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