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.