A Mother's Day Reflection

by Patrice James

This was our first Mother’s Day here in North Tulsa since the opening of Still She Rises. As friends and neighbors showered the mothers in their lives with attention this past weekend, I found myself thinking about the mothers we represent and what it means to celebrate motherhood as a society when we have criminal and family justice systems that often choose to punish it and criminalize it.

I think of women like my client Tay.

Tay (pseudonym) is mother to five wonderful children. Her youngest is only three years old. As I write this, Tay is sitting in David L. Moss Center, the Tulsa County jail, on $25,000 bail. 

Tay’s ‘crime’? She allowed her 10-year-old son to remain around his stepfather after an incident where he spanked his stepson.

Based on this incident alone, Tay was arrested for ‘permitting child abuse’ and her three children (ages 14, 10, and 3) were removed from her care, placed in foster care with strangers, and forced to transfer schools. 

Everyone who knows Tay will tell you that she’s a loving mother who deeply cares about her children, yet her very identity and ability as a parent are currently being questioned and scrutinized by the criminal and family justice systems as the result of this one incident. Rather than addressing the actions of the stepfather or asking Tay what she needs to provide for her children, the decision-makers in Tay’s case chose to criminalize and punish her. 

For the last eight years, Tay has held steady employment, working her way up at a restaurant to become a Shift Manager. However, because she has spent the last two weeks in jail, Tay is almost certain to lose her job, as well as her house. 

When courts look at the potential of reunification for parents and their children, having stable housing and employment are two positive factors that play heavily in favor of family reunification. But Tay is at risk of losing them both, putting her ability to maintain her parental rights in jeopardy. By jailing Tay and destabilizing her and her children’s lives, the system goes directly against what it purports to do--consider the best interests of the children and prioritize keeping families together

And so I think about what it means to celebrate the love and labor mothers give to our society when a mother like Tay was forced to spend this Mother’s Day in jail without her children because she cannot afford bail. 

I think about what it means to celebrate motherhood when Tay’s children are forced to spend Mother’s Day in a stranger’s house, instead of next to their mother.

Tay has a long road ahead of her as she defends her rights to her children in both juvenile and criminal court. And we will stand by her at every step of the way. 

This Mother’s Day I want to honor mothers like Tay and so many of our clients, women who muster the strength to stand up against a system that seems intent on dehumanizing them. This Mother’s Day I recommit to standing next to them and all the women of North Tulsa and centering our legal practice around their needs and hopes.

Patrice James is a staff attorney at Still She Rises, Tulsa.