Understanding Erin

For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to understand Erin. On the surface, it is a very simple, perhaps exaggerated, morality tale. A teenager gets pregnant, keeps the child. Four years later, the mother gets arrested for felony child neglect. Her son, at age four, weighs only ten pounds. This woman is the worst possible kind of monster, the sensational press tells us. Child neglect is extremely frightening. It pokes a dangerous whole in the ideas of self made men and powerless women.

We are not self-made. In our earliest years, we are absolutely dependent on the women that gave birth to us. We cannot survive without their nurturing, or the nurturing of someone they have handed us off to. These women are not powerless, they have more power than the male managers that we will work for years later. Our bosses can fire us. The first women in our lives can leave us to die.

Digging a little deeper, we find an even more complicated story. Erin’s son has lissencephaly, a rare birth defect. Children with this birth defect rarely make it past their second year. They have frequent convulsions and have difficulty absorbing food and medicine. Now, some extremists will suggest that this is Erin’s punishment for having had sex as a teenager. They are like the Pharisees asking Jesus who sinned, the blind man, or the blind man’s parents. Erin, like all of us, have done things in the past that we shouldn’t have done, that we aren’t proud of.

Yet, what did Erin do when she had a child with a birth defect? She sought help. She participated in leading network of people dealing with lissencephaly. She tried to find doctors that could understand and deal with this birth defect. For this, a couple of weeks after she brought her son to the hospital for medical help, she was arrested for child neglect.

If we believe we are all self-made and can overcome any adversity that is thrown at us, then we must believe that Erin is some sort of monster who didn’t try hard enough, or was at least some sort of failure. However, if we believe that we are all in this together, we need to see if there are other failures. Where was everyone else while Erin’s son was wasting away? Sure, there were people in the lissencephaly network that were helping Erin. There were researchers trying to understand lissencephaly and educate others about it.

Yet, where were the doctors, the social workers, the insurance companies, or even those in the faith-based community? Perhaps, it is easier to blame a teenage girl who is in over her head, than to look at our own failings. Perhaps that is the real reason she was arrested. Perhaps the way her story challenges the myths that we are self-made and that women are powerless is the reason the sensationalist media wants to spin a different story.

As I’ve explored this, I’ve spoken with people that have helped the parents of children with birth defects for years. They have told me that Erin’s story, sadly, is not that unusual. We don’t know how to deal with birth defects. They frighten us. They challenge our feelings of invulnerability. So, like the Pharisees, they we blame the parents.

On Thursday, the courts will hold a dependency hearing. Then, on April 16th, Erin is scheduled to be arraigned on the felony child neglect charges. My prayers go up for Erin and her son, that there might be forgiveness and healing. I also pray that we may all be convicted (in the religious sense) of our own culpability in not doing enough to prevent the neglect of children, whether they have birth defects or not, that is intrinsic in the system.

(For more information, read my previous post about Erin and lissencephaly).

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We are all in this together