Who's Minding the Kids?

Anatomy of a Baby's Death in New Jersey

The death of her 19-month-old baby boy Myssiah (pronounced Messiah) is wound tightly around Kyla Minus, like a rope. Her arms barely swing free from her tiny frame. She takes measured steps. Her face, though sometimes fighting to break into a 20-year-old's dancing expression, at times seems almost paralyzed in pain. She speaks bare-bone sentences in a monotone. It is gray and shadowy in her spotless, well-furnished public housing apartment. She rarely turns on the overhead light since her toddler was allegedly killed by his child care worker, a woman approved and paid by New Jersey's welfare-to-work program. Melanie Bowman, an aunt of Minus's jailed boyfriend, sits in the Union County jail charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Nobody but Bowman knows what happened November 16 in the minutes before she ran out of her Elizabeth, New Jersey, apartment in her underwear with the limp, pale Myssiah flung over her shoulder, screaming "Help me with my baby." She claims a bump on the head during a bathtub accident led to Myssiah's death. Officials, however, are examining the possibility of shaken-baby syndrome.

Either way, the death was far from Bowman's first encounter with child abuse officials—a fact unknown to Minus and unchecked by the welfare agencies that approved her as a care provider. Those agencies are overseen by New Jersey's Department of Human Services (DHS), an umbrella organization that includes the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)—the same agency that seized Bowman's own children for neglect years ago.

Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey

But the Human Services department has a lot on its plate. DYFS is already under attack for overlooking abuse that led to the death of a seven-year-old boy in the winter. Additionally, its Division of Family Development is charged with overseeing the 1996 federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as welfare-to-work, which requires mothers of young children, like Kyla, to rapidly find child care so that they can go to work in exchange for benefits. The state has had to compensate for the exploding demand in child care since 1996. Things could get harder for these agencies and welfare recipients now that reauthorization of that program, which would require mothers to work even more hours—40 hours instead of 20—is currently being considered by the Senate. The bill is being worked on this week. Just a couple of weeks ago, the House rammed through the Bush administration's proposal, which passed easily with no debate.

Minus's story began when she met Bowman's nephew Dihuant. At the time she was six weeks pregnant by Angel, her former boyfriend, but didn't know it. She and Dihuant fell for each other hard. While most young men run from single women with kids, Dihuant hung in there when he learned of her pregnancy. Kyla is pretty, "dresses," and is cool, but more than that, she has her head about her. Before she got pregnant, she was working a part-time job at a nursing home, liked to party, and was popular in her tiny community. Some of Dihuant's family couldn't understand the attraction, but his Aunt Melanie hit it off with her. Minus took to Bowman's warmth, and admired her willingness to share her successful struggle to kick a drug habit years back.

After Myssiah was born, the baby became Minus's overwhelming motivation for living. "This was something new—not the kind of love you feel for a guy," she says. Bowman seemed to share Kyla's passion and she began baby-sitting often. In her thirties then, Bowman seemed to offer stability in the daunting world of young motherhood, especially after Dihuant got arrested. "She would call and ask if Myssiah could come over to play with her nieces," Minus says, still not able to believe this woman could have done wrong by her son.

Minus's predominantly African American neighborhood has little of the official optimism on display in this working-class city—known more for its stinking factories by the New Jersey Turnpike—where signs urge, "Shop, Dine, Invest." Minus's community remains close-knit even with police posted in corner stores. The common arrests of teens in the area are quick street news, and Minus and her sister Aaliyah Fontaine usually either know them, or one of their friends. Families are intertwined, and the Bowmans, for one, are a sizable clan spread throughout the neighborhood.

So Minus never questioned trusting Bowman, who had "been real" about the drugs and about being HIV-positive. Minus didn't think there was anything else to hide. "Some people talked about her being sick, but I would never discriminate against someone with a disease. I thought that was one reason why she loved Myssiah so much," says Minus.

When welfare required Minus to put in 20 hours of work or attend school to receive benefits, Bowman seemed like a natural baby-sitter. Minus had a few choices of state-funded care, including a licensed day care center, a registered home-based day care, or placement with a friend or family member who could receive public funding. She recalls taking the last choice to ensure Myssiah's safety while she attended a half-day course daily.

All it took was a phone call and a week-and-a-half wait to get Bowman set up for the job. Kyla was referred by the county welfare agency to Community Coordinated Child Care of Greater Union County, dubbed Four C's. The agency is one of about 21 in the state, one in each county, commissioned by New Jersey's Division of Family Development to refer recipients to child care. Under TANF, states must provide child care to welfare recipients, while they work or go to vocational school.

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