“She was crazy.” That was the immediate reaction of one of Shemene Cato’s neighbors when he found out that she was charged with murdering her 9-year-old daughter, Shalom Guifarro, using an electrical cord among other things.
The girl, who had cuts and bruises to her head and bite marks on her back when she was found in her apartment on Sunday, was regularly berated by her mother in public. At least one neighbor saw her shoving the child in a laundromat. “She was always screaming at her kids so loud it would startle you,” another neighbor said, “It was like, Why are you screaming at your kids like that?” Police made 14 visits to the home on complaints of domestic violence.
Police say that the girl and her sister seemed unharmed and did not contact the Administration for Children’s Services. And no one has said whether the mother received any kind of mental health evaluation. No one ever seemed to consider whether these girls could safely remain in a home with someone who was clearly disturbed.
We have learned in recent years how the mental-health crisis in this country has contributed to mass shootings like the one in Buffalo and widespread homelessness, but there is little acknowledgment of how untreated mental illness among parents is affecting children in their care.
According to the most recent federal data, of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care, 13% of the cases involved a caretaker’s “inability to cope.” Another 41% of cases involved a caretaker’s drug or alcohol abuse, which often masks mental illness or occurs alongside it. And 5% involved a parent simply abandoning a child — probably a sign that the parent is not all there.
In many of these cases the system has tried to provide services for parents — therapy, psychotropic medications, etc. — in order to get the family back together. But there are plenty of children out there who are still at risk because of their parents’ mental illness.
It is not uncommon to hear that poverty is responsible for the removal of many children from their homes. If only we gave them adequate housing or more cash, they would be able to care for their children. But many of the parents who find themselves in homeless shelters are there because of mental illness and/or substance abuse. The same issues that are preventing them from holding down a job or paying their rent are also preventing them from properly feeding or clothing their children or getting them medical attention when they need it. It is tempting to believe that money can solve these problems but the issues are much more difficult and will often involve monitoring the well-being of children over the long term.
And yet, our society seems to be moving further away from treating mental illness and its harmful effects seriously. First, it is all but impossible to place a dangerous person in an institution or even take someone who is homeless off the street. De-institutionalization efforts dating back to the 1970s have raised the bar for keeping someone against their will or even forcing them to medicate so high that even parents worried about their adult children harming themselves or others cannot have them committed. And more and more politicians now see homelessness as a choice that a rational person might make.
Now activists inside the medical profession are trying to spread the idea that mental illness is something to be understood, not treated or fixed. An article in this week’s New York Times magazine fawns over a new movement against medicating people who are psychotic. “What psychiatry terms psychosis, the Hearing Voices Movement refers to as nonconsensus realities,” the article states. Nonconsensus realities? Yes, that’s right. We are just supposed to treat hallucinations as a reality we can’t all agree on.
According to advocates in the Hearing Voices Movement, “unusual beliefs [should not be] monitored, corrected, [or] constrained.”
Why would we want to correct “unusual beliefs”? Like beliefs that your 9-year-old child should be punished with an electrical cord for her sins? The answer seems obvious to anyone who is not an activist or an academic.
Or perhaps a public-health commissioner. When Ashwin Vasan, the new head of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was asked by the Times reporter how cities should respond to a spike in violence attributed to the mentally ill, he replied: “We must also combat the notion that people with mental illness are to be feared.”
Easy for him to say.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”