What We Can Learn When a Tragic Case Defies our Stereotypes

Something Beyond the obvious tragedy troubled me about the case of
Peter Bos, the 31-year-old Jamaica Plain father who left his infant to perish in his car instead of taking her to day care. That something, I realize, is the role of class.

The community reaction was appropriately appalled but surprisingly compassionate: Those poor people. How could he have just left the baby in the car? How can he live with himself? Will the mother ever forgive him? What harried lives we all lead!

The press coverage was subdued and respectful. The district attorney has chosen to go slow, waiting for the autopsy report before deciding whether to take any other action. No child protection agents are snooping around, investigating the parents' suitability or threatening to take away their other child. The story has pretty much dropped from the papers, and there is general respect for this family's terrible grief.

Some of this, it pains me to say, has to do with the fact that all the signals in this story point to a nice, middle-class family. The father is a Web page programmer. He drives a Saab. Father and mother are happily married homeowners.

They Could Be Us.

I have to wonder what the community reaction would have been if, say, a welfare mother had left the child to die in a car.

You can just imagine the indignation. What's wrong with these people? Why do they go on having babies they can't take care of? What incredible stupidity. A baby died! Because a father forgot she was in the car? And drove all the way back to day care with the dead baby strapped in the back seat after his wife called to remind him to pick the baby up and still didn't realize that he'd never dropped the baby off? If this doesn't sound like a prima facie case of neglect, what does?

The Globe was sufficiently respectful of this married father that it did not harass the family with photographers. Instead, as a follow up, the paper featured a large photo of an African-American grandmother who reminisced about once having mistakenly left a grandchild in her van for only a few minutes, with no harm done.

Why was this woman's picture in the paper?

The angle was that she was sympathetic to the Bos family. But the follow-up story almost felt like subconscious stereotyping.

Please understand. I'm not saying that the child welfare authorities should harass the grieving Bos family, much less take away their other child. Nor am I saying that the press or the DA or the citizenry in general should be any harsher than they have been. I am saying that the poor are often much more vulnerable to welfare agencies, courts, and public opinion than People Like Us in such circumstances.

If we can identify with the people in stories like this one, we tend to be kind. If the people seem to be Other - other class, other race - we assume the worst.

In fact, Peter Bos is black, and perhaps it's a sign of progress that class more than race influenced the public perception.

Further, a lot of what ends up in family court as abuse or neglect also reflects class. Computer programmers driving Saabs may be harried and distracted when they juggle work and family responsibilities. But their distraction is nothing compared with what confronts households that aren't so affluent.

A single parent often has no back-up system, no car, no plan B if a child gets sick or if the school calls with some kind of emergency. Often the only day care that poorer people can afford is also a prima facie case of child neglect.

These are the kids, disproportionately, who end up being left with latchkeys around their necks, injured in fires, molested on the way home, getting caught in bitter parental crossfires, or just being neglected. And these are the families that end up in court (or don't and should). Now welfare reform is trying to hold parents more tightly accountable when bad outcomes with children occur, even as the same welfare reform demands that a single parent hold a full-time job while failing to provide the necessary supports.

In the Bos case, public opinion seemed eerily mature. If only this maturity could extend to people who don't seem so much Like Us, who are struggling amidst much harsher circumstances and who desperately need our compassion.

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