CNHI News Service

Opinion

December 11, 2012

COLUMN: Struggling family arrested for being poor

— A couple of weeks ago, David and Rebecca Detjen were on their way to California from Pennsylvania. They were going to the Golden State to find employment. They got as far as Indiana and wound up in jail.

Thanks to a busybody relative, state police inspected their rental truck and found seven children, 15 caged cats and all of their possessions. The Detjens were arrested for neglect of a dependent. Because of the severe economic strain that occupies a poor person's every waking moment, Rebecca was concerned about how much higher the rental truck fee would be during their jail time.

A judge in Henry County said that while he sympathized with the Detjens, he thought neglect of a dependent charges should go forward.

Less than a week later, the Detjens were out of jail, their bond paid by a Texan, one of many people from around the country who offered to help the couple. Still, they're stuck in Indiana waiting on the fates of their children who were scattered about to foster families.

It's important to remember that neglect of a dependent is just a legal term - in this case - for violating the comfortable, middle-class sensibilities of those who think protecting children from poor parents is better than forcing the children into the families of strangers.

Reading this reminded me of the Joads in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Of course, the Joads were fictitious, but the Okies leaving their dust-bowl land for fertile California valleys and the promise of fruit-picking work was all too real. What they encountered turned out to be nearly as bad as what they left.

The banks that ordered their Oklahoma homes to be bulldozed turned into land barons who exploited their labor. In John Ford's film version, the Joads' truck - packed with children, elders, a pregnant woman and, for part of the trip, a dead family member - stops at a gas station on the edge of the desert. As they drive off into that punishing terrain, one of the attendants says that no man should take a jalopy like that into the desert. His pal says, "They ain't human. Human beings couldn't live like that."

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