The Public's Right to Know (Or, Anyway, The Planet's Right to Tell 'Em)


There’s a woman out there mad at The Dade Planet for covering her trial last April. She feels that the DA’s office unfairly portrayed her as a bad mother who didn’t love her children, and that The Planet he’ped.

It was an unusual case. The woman had a lot of children—five. She and her husband had a fight. He drove off in their one car. She set off after him on foot, later testifying she had intended to intercept him at a place it was his habit to pull over, because she wanted the car back. But she left her children unattended. The oldest one was 9. Left in charge, that girl promptly called 911.

Two Dade deputies responded and one of them found the woman walking on the road and brought her home. Meanwhile, the other cop got to the woman’s trailer and found the 9-year-old with a newborn on her hip, the rest of the kids swarming around her. The place was a mess. Some kitchen cabinets had gotten overturned, the dishes weren’t washed, garbage had spilled onto the floor, and there was laundry backed up. The oldest girl told the cop that “this happens a lot.” The cop took out his phone and called DFACS, the Department of Family and Children Services, which shortly arrived and took the children.

Was the cop too hasty? Was DFACS? Possibly. The mother had only been gone for 10 or 15 minutes. As for conditions in the trailer, others testified that the cop had exaggerated how awful the mess was and that anyway the home didn’t usually look like that. In any case it was not alleged that either parent had molested or beaten the children. One of the boys had an infected sore that the oldest girl described as staff, and a couple of the children had had head lice for several months. But in general they were healthy and animated children, and DFACS and a juvenile judge had since decided to return them to the home—all except the oldest, who had triggered the events that led to the trial with her 911 call. She was the woman’s child by a previous marriage, and she was now in the care of paternal relations.

The case went to trial. The woman and her husband were charged with five felony counts apiece of cruelty to children—one per child—and five more apiece of the lesser charge of contributing to their dependency. The father had a separate lawyer, who argued that Dad was guilty of none of these charges because he’d left first, when the mother was still there to care for the children. The jury bought that and exonerated him completely. But Mom was found guilty of one count of cruelty to children, in the oldest girl’s case, and all five of contributing to dependency.

I wondered at the time why the trial was happening at all. Basically, what the prosecution had on the woman--besides that 911 call from her kid--was that she’d left the children alone for those 10 or 15 minutes and that she was a messy housekeeper, which if it were a crime I’d be writing this from prison. But there seemed to be no real intention of putting the parents in jail or in fact of taking their children away—by the time of the trial, the four younger ones were back at home and the fate of the older one had become a custody matter with her father in another court. So I asked the prosecutor why he was prosecuting. He said something general about wanting to protect children and I duly published the quote.

The judge sentenced the mom to 15 years, but all were to be served on probation provided she complete a parenting course. And that was the end sum of the trial: The woman was humiliated and saddled with a criminal record but neither jailed nor deprived of her children, except the oldest.

I could see why that woman was mad at me. If I hadn’t covered the trial, she would have been spared at least some of the humiliation, because of course none of the other local media covers the courts. So I did some self-flagellation on that one.

The woman contended that what the DA really had on her was that she was poor. I think that would be better phrased “poor, with all those children.” These days, there’s a certain social stigma attached to parents having more mouths than they can feed. This woman had five children, mentioned that the family depended on food stamps, and at her trial was visibly pregnant with No. 6. The prosecutor questioned her about that with open contempt—a used condom had featured among the spilled garbage, he said, so didn’t she know how to prevent pregnancy? I expected her condition also affected the jury, and I was shocked myself and mentioned it in my article.

But thinking about it now I reflect how much things change in 100 years. I recently read about Margaret Sanger opening the first contraceptive clinic in New York in 1916. Back then, practically everybody had more children than they could afford. Poor women lined up at the clinic, desperate for help in “stopping the babies,” but male judges were outraged by the idea. They had Margaret Sanger and her sister jailed and ordered the clinic’s patients to go home and have babies “like you should.” A far cry from our modern prosecutor’s shaming of the woman for being pregnant.

In the end, though, after all this wrestling with right, wrong and history, I decided The Planet wasn’t solely responsible for the woman’s misery. The whole legal process started when the little girl called 911, effectively turning her parents in. Who knows what led up to that? But it affected the cop, it affected DFACS, I’m sure it affected the jury, and The Planet had nothing to do with it.

Then again, the little girl wouldn’t have called the cops if the father hadn’t stalked out and if the mother hadn’t followed; then, after the 911 call, the thing might have fizzled out if the cop hadn’t called DFACS, if DFACS hadn’t taken the kids … or, for that matter, if the DA’s office hadn’t chosen to prosecute and had left the matter up to DFACS and the juvenile judge.

Frankly, the doings of the local DA’s office have often bewildered me. Once, when the world and I were young and there was still anyone in that office talking to me, I asked an assistant DA about how they chose what to prosecute. She said they had to have enough evidence for a reasonable shot at winning. But I’ve seen cases since then where they had no such thing, and a couple where I had to wonder whether a crime had been committed in the first place. Once I thought they did irreparable harm to someone probably innocent with an accusation that they in fact later decided not to prosecute—but which had already made the front page of the local print rag when he was arrested.

All I’ve ever achieved from questioning that kind of thing is a glacially cold shoulder and the dead confidence that no one in the DA’s office will ever talk to me again. But that’s immaterial. I am not writing this editorial to question why they do what they do. I am writing it to explain why The Planet does what The Planet does.

You could say that the trial of the woman with all the children was a nonevent and The Planet shouldn’t have covered it. But after all the soul-searching, I still think I was doing my job. A newspaper is supposed to cover the courts. If the arrestee has done something wrong, if the prosecutor has done something wrong, if the judge has done something wrong, that’s not even my business. What I’m supposed to do is tell you, the reader, what’s going on in the courts, and you get to decide those things.

Anyway, whether or not the trial or any other news is important for the public to know, I want people to read The Planet and if something is interesting, I am of course and by God going to report it. This editorial is not just about the aforementioned trial. I was thinking about that side of things last week when I wrote about the Dade Water Authority borrowing money to buy land for a reservoir on Lookout Creek.

The Great Lake Debate

I don’t know how important the reservoir thing is. When it came up last year, I was as bewildered as anyone at the idea of Dade building a lake. The county couldn’t even maintain the little one-acre recreation area it had on Lookout Creek, I pointed out. But the water company has since explained it had wanted the land since 2010, when its strategic planning determined a reservoir was the best long-term way to assure water supply, quality and price.

Then a second side of the issue emerged: Another reason the water authority wanted the Lookout Creek land was to keep Tennessee American Water, the giant for-profit water company, from buying it instead. I published that and a representative of TAW called to say they didn’t know what I was talking about, they’d never hoid of such of a thing!

So I published that, and a woman from Signal Mountain called me and said TAW spoke with forked tongue. Signal Mountain, you see, is in the middle of deciding what to do with its own independent water system, and she belonged to a citizens group that had found the corporation to be a big bad thirsty wolf determined to lap their little water company up. I checked with the Dade Water Authority and learned that yes, that’s the perception of a lot of small water authorities and cooperatives across the country, too, that American Water wants to absorb them whether or not they want to be absorbed. And TAW had in fact offered to buy out Dade Water in 2014 and had run a legal ad announcing its intention to operate in Trenton under the name “Georgia American Water.”

So there’s all that to consider, and meanwhile the whole reservoir idea is now being treated as less a county initiative than a water board project. Couched in terms of a long-term infrastructure improvement by the water company, which will pay for it without raising rates, it really seems less and less important as an issue.

On the other hand, it is still interesting. If people are talking about the reservoir and asking about the reservoir and screaming about the reservoir, I’d be a schmuck not to run and find out about the reservoir—even if the water board has the sadistic habit of meeting at 8 a.m.! Again, the other media outlets don’t bother following those matters, which is one hell of a good reason to read The Dade Planet.

Crime Pays

There are other things I run in The Planet not because I find them interesting or important but because it is clear readers do. Take crime. When I started this racket I was adamant about publishing the arrest report because people told me when they opened a newspaper they went straight to that and to the obits, to see who got arrested and who died. So I published both from the start and I am happy to do so, but in general I found the kind of crime we have here, all that meth, sad and depressing and I couldn’t imagine readers feeling any different.

They do! I can tell by the numbers when I publish even the tawdriest meth-house-bust press release. Dade’s got one recidivist who rockets my hits every time his name comes up in court. I call him my superstar. At least from a newspaper perspective, crime does in fact pay.

And as far as important, as in socially relevant, I do think the arrest record has something to convey there, too. From budget hearings I know the DA’s office complains about its ever-growing caseload, and that the sheriff’s office and jail are cash-strapped and overworked. So why, pray tell, are we still arresting people for tiny amounts of marijuana? It’s been decriminalized in other states, it’s increasingly tolerated in Georgia and I read the other day Canada had legalized it entirely. But in Dade people are hauled to jail to eat and sleep on the county’s dime for less than one ounce.

Just how common an arrest that is became apparent to me because of a misspelling in the police computer. When I get the arrest report, it reads: “Marajuana-possess less than 1 oz” every time anyone is charged with it. To save time, I do a search-and-replace on it, correct the spelling, add a period after the “oz,” and hit “Replace all.” Then the program tells me how many replacements were made. Sometimes it’s two and sometimes three, but often it’s more and when I did it on the June 8 report, it was 12! Often, it’s the only thing an arrestee is charged with besides traffic offenses.

I can’t tell you what the economics are. Do marijuana perps pay Dade more in fines than they cost it in jail food, labor and court costs? I don’t know. And whether it’s making or losing the county money, is it anyway right to jail people for something that is just not considered very criminal these days, and which most of us know people who use, including attorneys, police officers and judges? Well, that’s not my crusade. But I do notice the numbers, I publish ‘em, and I hope readers notice, too.

There are other things I publish regularly that really may or may not be important. The Trenton police commissioner every month reads the total amount of police fines the PD has taken in and I every month publish that number in The Planet. It used to seem to me like a staggering number, and anyway my self-righteous journalistic ears had pricked up when some citizen had questioned how much a new radar gun cost and the commissioner had defended it with the amount of money it generated in fines. Was it right, I asked myself, to finance city projects with speed traps? Now I don’t think about it that much. I just publish the number every month as a pleasant and reassuring tradition, the way I do the tons of garbage processed by the county transfer station every month and reported in what I am pleased to call the State of the Dump address at the county commission meeting.

Robin's Soapbox

There are things I do consider important that I keep repeating in The Planet until readers are doubtless fed up with hearing them. I try never to miss a chance to point out the Dade Board of Education’s continuing shameful treatment of the library. The B of E, which gets 65 percent of your property tax dollars, used to share the burden of local support for the Dade Public Library with the other two taxing entities in Dade, the county and city commissions. But in 2012, led by a superintendent who had previously brought fame and glory to the county by banning a National-Book-Award-winning youth novel from the high school—he gravely showed me it contained the word “bastard”—the school board zeroed out all support for the library, causing it to lay off staff and shut its doors all but three days.

That superintendent later left town minutes ahead of the torches and the pitchforks, but not fast enough—the damage he did has proved permanent. The city and county have both stepped in to take up the slack, and after two years (and giving Mr. Stupidhead the boot) even the B of E began pitching back in a little. But it has done so in slow, begrudged increments and even now pays about a fourth what the county does. As a result the library is still seriously understaffed and remains closed on Mondays.

To me, it is a constant irony—and a constant irritant—to see the much poorer county and city treating their library with love and reverence while the better-funded B of E, which is also supposed to be the one devoted to books and learning, shows it an empty palm and an extended middle finger, and I will shut up about it the minute the B of E makes things right or I am atomized by a meteorite.

Robin Makes Amends

But I will consent to move on now, because this is getting long and I haven’t hit on IDA yet.

In fact, IDA will have to wait until next time. Until then, what I would impress upon readers in conclusion is that if I sometimes publish a story I wish I hadn’t, or leave out information I wish I’d put in (more of that later, too), or hurt somebody’s feelings, or harp on too sententiously about issues I find important and you don’t—brace yourself, I feel a Shakespeare quote coming on—

If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended:

That the function of a local newspaper is to dish up information and analysis about the locale, and for all of its warts The Planet does more of that than the other local rags. I really am doing the best I can here to gather and report the news honestly and faithfully, and occasionally even to deliver something extra to amuse or entertain you. I don't always succeed but I try!

Anyhoo, until next time …

Give me your hands if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

Editor's note: Quotes are from Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Midsummer night is special to The Planet but The Planet missed the whole damn thing this year due to its standing Thursday-night date with the Dade County Commission and its seemingly endless budget process.

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