Homeless mom sentenced to 5 years in prison for “stealing” son’s education

A mother has been arrested and sentenced to jail time for sending her five year old son to a school district where she had no permanent residence.

I can barely believe I’m having to type this sentence again. In a post just last year, I wrote about a woman in Ohio who was convicted of lying about where she lived in order to get her daughters into a better school district and was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, three years of probation, community service, and payment of up to $30,000 in back tuition she could be required to pay the school. At the time, I (morbidly) joked that I’m surprised they didn’t hit her with life in prison and tattoo “Thug Life” on her upper stomach.

Now, a year later, the same twisted logic and interpersonal and systemic racism has landed another mother in jail for the simple “crime” of wanting her child to access public education.

Tanya McDowell was living as a homeless woman when she was arrested for sending her five year old son to a school district where she- surprise- didn’t have a permanent residence. Ms. McDowell has said that she only wanted a better education for her child. Despite a change.org petition that has generated over 15, 600 signatures asking for the charges to be dropped against her, she was just sentenced to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty in the case.

As I’ve mentioned previously, this story really hits home for me because my OWN mother did this for me, driving 30 minutes each way to school and back during a tough time of transition for my family. But because my mother is white, and we weren’t homeless, or some other inexplicable reason, she didn’t have to go to jail for her crime of fiercely loving her only child.

It’s hard to believe that our tax money is being spent prosecuting the most vulnerable and impoverished members of society for daring to dream a little bit bigger for members of the next generation- if we could even call sending your child to public school “daring to dream big”. This case is just another example of the ways in which motherhood can often be celebrated in theory but villified in practice in our society, especially when that motherhood doesn’t look rich or white.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    How do the kinds of people who hand down sentences like this or even find in acceptable—how do they even BEGIN to justify something like this? And when they do how do they look in a mirror without punching it?

    Do you know what has become of the child, is he going to be a ward of the state or something now?

  • http://feministing.com/members/stellarose/ Stella

    This is terrible. And I am sure that if she had NOT sent her child to school at all (which seems to have been her only alternative) she also would have faced criminal penalties, having her kid taken away from her, or at least social approbation. Or if she had sent her child to live with other people and given up parental rights voluntarily, plenty of people would have lined up to judge her.

    YOU CAN’T WIN as a mother in American society. The people who yell the loudly about being pro-family are the most anti-mother.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

    Did we wake up in a Crapsaccarine World?
    What happened to Ms. McDowell’s son?

  • http://feministing.com/members/centexman/ Kirk

    Ok… this story had me quite riled up… until I did a little digging. She was NOT sentenced to five years in prison for “…sending her five year old son to a school district where she- surprise- didn’t have a permanent residence.” She WAS sentenced to five years prison and five years probation for “…four counts of sale of narcotics as well as one count of first-degree larceny”. Here’s the link to the news article.
    Mother pleads guilty to stealing a Norwalk education, may pay fines up to $6,200

  • http://feministing.com/members/35upward/ think tank

    You need to be much more accurate in reporting things of this nature.
    I agree that 5 years in prison for putting your kid in another school is ridiculous, BUT she was originally arrested for 3 felony counts of narcotic trafficking after making repeated sells to undercover police officers. In fact, she was originally facing up to 15 years and the judge tried to throw out the ‘stealing’ school aspect of it. The prosecution just wouldn’t let her off the hook because of the drug selling. With good behavior, since the majority of non life sentence convicts only serve 40-60% of their time, she’ll probably be out in 2 to 3 years. Now whether 5 years for drug trafficking is appropriate is a different discussion, but she didn’t get “5 years for stealing son’s education”.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ellecee/ LynnCee

    I don’t understand this. If she was homeless, what school district would that put her in? Seems like she should be able to pick and choose. Otherwise, she’d get arrested no matter what school she sent her child to.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tkalenb/ Kalen T

    While I’m appalled that prosecutors would go for a first-degree larceny — especially for a woman who was homeless at the time — I daresay something to take into account is how the court system took these charges combined with more serious narcotic and drug charges, namely, three counts of the sale of marijuana and crack cocaine, at least in Norwalk, with two similar counts in Bridgeport. The cases themselves were not split, as mentioned in this recent article on the subject:


    My understanding is that the five years were for the drug convictions rather than the larceny charges, however, I could be making presumptions (not to mention a poor journalist for ignoring the details) on that account. Just thought it might be a good idea to clarify as well as see what the possible surface disparity in jail terms between McDowell’s case and that of the Ohio woman mentioned above. Nevertheless, serving jail time and penalizing these women, particularly when McDowell was homeless and already at enough of a disadvantage, in such a way is more than unfair for taking one’s children to a school district outside their area of residence.

  • http://feministing.com/members/auradis/ laura

    This is heartbreaking. Those people seriously can’t see how much she was doing just so her child could get an education?? They’re going to penalize her instead of help her?? Ugh.

  • http://feministing.com/members/electric38/ Ralph

    The public library in your area is free and allows internet use. Most now have computer downloads of many books. Many schools are going on line with free classes. Many also have downloads of textbooks. Do a quick search for on line education.

    Lots of groups are looking at putting the “best of the best” (most productive) teachers on line for every grade up to and including college. This allows children to learn at their own pace (the class is like a u-tube video) as they can repeat any parts that take them more time to absorb. There is also the Khan Academy and sites like Big Shot camera.
    Many countries are looking at ways to offer free tablet/e-reader type computers for students. For example, they have the cost down below $25 in India, but still want to get lower than that. The US still doesn’t get it. Uploading and deleting new books is easy. Take a look at sites like books should be free.com and other similar ones.

    Just a suggestion if learning from a traditional school fails.
    Good luck!

    • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Public libraries in this area at least often have a sign-up waiting list for use and a half-hour time limit, in order to accommodate everyone. Better than nothing at all, sure, but is anyone going to really suggest a kid will get an education equivalent to being enrolled in full time school (or even homeschooling in a stable enviornment—like a home for starters) using these methods?

      I mean, I’m all for autodidacticism, but I can’t pretend this is a suitable enough substitution to deny a child the right to schooling.

  • http://feministing.com/members/technomancer/ technomancer

    She also repeatedly sold crack and marijuana. How that figures into this, if it has anything to do with it all, isn’t clear. It is a bit odd that she’s the only person to ever be charged with ‘theft’ by sending her child to a different school district when the state reports an average of 20 children ejected from schools for the same reason, but parents never being charged with anything.

  • http://feministing.com/members/awoo/ Amy

    What this says to me, regardless of what the charges were or sentence was, is that we need a more comprehensive educational campaign around the McKinney-Vento Act, and its Homeless Education provisions, which do a lot of great work to ensure the educational stability for kids experiencing homelessness. Among other things, it allows for a child who is homeless to enroll in one of three places: 1) the school where the child was last enrolled; 2) the school where the child was enrolled before becoming homeless; or 3) the school where the child is currently living (and yes, you can still be homeless even if you’re ‘living’ somewhere). Parents clearly need more resources and info on this federal law, and it sounds like school divisions do too (and perhaps even prosecutors and courts). No one should be going to jail for trying to send their kids to school.

    • http://feministing.com/members/brittforbes93/ Brittany

      I don’t think there could be much of a “school where the child was last enrolled”, or “school where the child was enrolled before becoming homeless”, because since the son was 5, I’m assuming he was entering kindergarten. So…unless she was living somewhere, couldn’t she pick and choose?

  • http://feministing.com/members/cassius/ Brüno

    In other countries parents get in trouble for denying their children education.

  • http://feministing.com/members/brittforbes93/ Brittany

    Why is it the stories about law enforcement officers that look the other way when a man steals food for his starving family only heard about? You know those stories. They’ve even become a mainstay on TV. Yeah, why wasn’t someone here like “Yeah, she broke the law, but she did it for a good reason. She did it to give her son a hope that he might not end up like her. Maybe we shouldn’t convict her.”

    Fuck the legal system.