Child Welfare And Privilege: A Tale Of Two Struggling Moms

Two Moms Had Breastfeeding Struggles — One Got Help, The Other Got Her Kids Taken Away

You’d be cranky too if you were hungry
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Have you ever needed professional help as a mother? Have you ever worried that your need for help may be interpreted as you being an incompetent mother? Like, incompetent to the point where your kids may be taken away from you

For a lot of you, the answer is an emphatic no. And some of you would probably even be quick to judge any mother that got herself into such a situation. 

It sounds like a nightmare scenario that no mother would want to find herself in. And most moms would probably think that there is no possible situation that could result in their kids being taken away from them.

Well … let’s walk through two scenarios.

One mom called 911 to get formula for her screaming infant in the middle of the night because she had nothing to feed her with. Another mom took her child to the emergency room over concerns about his fluid intake after seeing three other medical professionals. 

Can you guess which mom had her children taken away by child protective services? You guessed wrong if you thought it was the mom that called 911 in the middle of the night. And filling you in on the details of each situation may give you a very different perspective. 

Shannon Bird, a white woman, is an Utah-based mom blogger and influencer with just under 100,000 Instagram followers. She is a former Utah Jazz dancer and is now a married stay-at-home mother of five. In January 2020, she called the police at 2 am because she ran out of breastmilk for her infant daughter. At the time, her husband, Dallin, was out of town, and her four other kids, one with a cast, were asleep. She claimed that medication dried up her breastmilk, and she didn’t have any formula in her home.  

Police officers quickly responded and mistakenly brought her a gallon of milk, not realizing her child was only six weeks old. They then went back out again and purchased infant formula for Bird with their own money. One of the officers explained that he had used that formula for his infant daughter and told Bird he hoped it didn’t upset the baby’s stomach.

Shannon Bird openly Instagrammed the incident, and the story went viral, garnering her press from outlets like local news stations, People Magazine, Inside Edition, and even an in-person appearance on Fox News. She was painted as a desperate mom in need of help, and the police officers were celebrated as heroes.

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Now let’s talk about Syesha Mercado, a Black mother of two who lives in Florida with her partner Tyron. She is a former American Idol Contestant, and she made her debut on Broadway in the production of the Book of Mormon. She worked with Manatee County on an anti-bullying campaign and was even given a key to the city of Sarasota on May 9, 2008, which local officials proclaimed to be “Syesha Mercado Day”.  

Like Shannon Bird, Syesha was also facing breastfeeding challenges with her then-15-month-old son. Her milk had dried up due to her pregnancy, and her son was refusing to take in other fluids. After seeing three different medical professionals (including a lactation consultant), she brought him to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

Once at the hospital, she was coerced into signing a document stating she would not leave the hospital until the staff determined it was okay for her to go. Two weeks later, the hospital claims she refused a B12 shot, and her​​ son was taken from her by social services and placed in foster care based on a claim of medical neglect. Months later, not two weeks after giving birth, social services took custody of her 10-day old baby girl.

Both mothers’ stories have played out in the media with very different outcomes. Many were quick to condemn Shannon Bird for relying on the police to feed her baby, and many have spoken out on behalf of Syesha Mercado. And honestly, as a mother of color, specifically a Black mom, it’s hard to read these stories and not see the blatant differences. And it’s also hard not to feel rage bubble up in my gut simply because I know these are not the only examples of injustice. 

It’s easy to point the finger at Shannon Bird and criticize her actions, but she is just a tiny fraction of a much bigger picture. This isn’t about criticizing her for the choice she made. This is about the fact that her privilege allowed her the possibility of calling the police as a solution. And Syesha’s lack of privilege made it so that she was punished for searching out medical support for a very similar breastfeeding issue. 

The truth is, support for mothers and children in this country is just trash! When our society fails mothers, we are quick to label the mother as a failure. And mothers of color and lesser means are more often penalized for this assumed failure. The child welfare system meant to support parents and children often becomes a platform that disproportionately penalizes parents of color.

It’s no secret that the child welfare system is inherently flawed, and the problem of systemic racial and ethnic disproportionality and disparity is openly acknowledged. And many critics of the system argue that it is impossible to discount the role of implicit and explicit racial bias in the decision-making process. Decisions are often left to individual caseworkers when it comes to reporting, investigation, substantiation, and out-of-home placement. In 2010 Nassau County implemented a “color blind” program in which officials had to decide whether to remove a child from an allegedly unsafe home without knowing the families’ race. The percentage of Black children removed dropped from 56% in 2010 to 29% in 2015.

Moreover, in 2000, although Black children accounted for only 15 percent of the child population, they represented 36 percent of children in foster care. According to a 2016 report, Black children still comprise nearly a quarter of the children in foster care. It is also documented that Black children receive inferior services and are also kept out of their homes for longer periods than their white counterparts. And Black parents are faced with termination of parental rights at higher rates than white parents.

I find it hard to understand how people can continue to ignore these glaring problems — especially other mothers. No loving mother should have her children ripped from her arms after actively seeking out support. And one of the key things that can bring more attention to some of the racial injustices committed against mothers like Syesha Mercado is mothers like Shannon Bird publicly acknowledging the protection their privilege grants them.