Like a truck slamming into a Buick, the September 22nd Newsday story struck hard and left me stunned. After a night of downing gin last Friday, 18 year-old Savarin DeJesus returned to her room in an East Harlem homeless mothers' shelter, retrieved her four month old daughter from another shelter resident who had been watching her, and vomited into a bucket of cleaning liquid beside her bed before passing out. When she awoke the next afternoon, baby Niah had slipped off the bed and was face down in a six inch bucket of vomit and cleaning solution next to her mother's bed. The baby was pronounced dead at the hospital, from asphyxiation and/or drowning.
In Manhattan Criminal Court, the 18-year-old mother declared, tearful and trembling, to the judge: "I loved my baby. I want you to know that."
The young mother has been charged with negligent homicide and child endangerment. It's not known whether cribs were available at the East Harlem group home Ms. DeJesus called home. Given the gruesome circumstances of the baby's death, the young mother will no doubt be the object of much hate and criticism , and this story will receive much media coverage, until the next horror story bumps it from first place. Accusations will be hurled, like chairs in a bar brawl--at the "neglectful" mother, at the shelter, at whoever supplied the gin to the 18 year-old underage drinker. There will be questions too, about Niah's father. Who was he? Was he also a teenager? Was he employed? Was he homeless? What about the baby girl's grandparents? Could they have given a stable home to Ms. DeJesus and her daughter? If so, why didn't they?
In court, Ms. DeJesus' lawyer, Kenneth Gilbert suggested she might have moved to the shelter to be near her baby's father.
Eventually, this will fade from memory, like all the other disaster stories about how poverty kills people. Like the one about the kids in Chicago who died in a fire this month because the electricity was cut off and candles were lighting their apartment, which had no smoke detectors. Other than a natural disaster, there's only one reason for the electricity to be cut off, and that reason is lack of money to pay the bill. And there's ultimately only one reason that brings a person to live in a homeless shelter, and that reason is lack of money to rent an apartment or a room. Poverty is an unnatural disaster. Not an act of God; poverty is an act of man against his own kind. Poverty kills, just as surely as fire racing through an occupied home.
And after all the witnesses are heard, and all the pleas and motions are made, baby Niah will still be gone forever, and Savarin DeJesus will get an additional sentence added to the lifelong sentence of knowing that her bad decision, her lapse of good judgment was a contributing cause of the death of the baby she loved.
Are there any of us who, at age eighteen made only "good" decisions? Yeah... that's what I thought.
Because poverty imprisons just as surely as it kills, maybe now finally, Savarin DeJesus will get a more permanent housing situation--at Rikers --where the lights will never be turned off for failure to pay the bill.