I don’t blog enough about what I do and the insights it provides on the world around me. A story developing here in Tampa caught my eye and I have to say something about it as a Sociologist. Don Swartout, a 59 year-old single father and recent widower, was recently arrested for leaving his 7 year-old son alone in a van while he went to work. Normally I would find this just as disturbing as most other stories about child neglect that go something like the following: neglectful parent locks young child (usually under 4) in a car with the windows up and the temperature soaring only to come back later and find the child dead from heat stroke, etc. Yes, that is awful and I’m not defending behavior like that. But this story is different… (Note: I am taking a few literary liberties here to tell the story.)
Mr. Swartout’s wife died a few years ago from cancer and now that he is a single father without a lot of qualifications, he is, like most Americans, struggling to make ends meet. He works at a call center (Consumer Sales Solutions), probably for not much money, and does his best to provide for his son. Things were working fine, but then his company changed his work hours, moving him to an evening shift. Mr. Swartout, needing to make money, agrees to the change in hours, but now realizes that finding child care for his seven year-old while he is at work is going to be much more difficult. Most day care centers and child care workers take kids during the day, not during the evening. So, what does he do? He scrambles to find someone who can watch his kid, but it’s not like his work gives him advanced notice about the schedule change – they just tell him he has to start working different hours. He now has zero days to find a child care center or babysitter that watches kids in the evenings. Since he can’t find one, he does the only other thing he can – he puts his 7 year-old son in his van with books, food, and whatever other necessities he thinks he will need, rolls down the windows, parks the van in the shade in the parking lot of his work, and checks on his son whenever he has a break. He’s still looking for child care, but until he can find some, he’s stuck. He knows he can’t leave his son home alone – he’ll be arrested for that. His work won’t let him bring his son into the building, he’ll lose his job. So, he goes with creative option C – do his best to take care of his son while working.
His company, completely disregarding his needs, then tells him he can’t park his van in the company parking lot because, well, because they are assholes. So, he moves the van a block away to the parking lot of a church, leaving even less time during his breaks to check on his son. He’s still trying to find evening care, but to no avail. Then someone from his work rats him out to the police – they find his son in the van, make up a story about the son being in diapers (which isn’t true but makes Mr. Swartout look like a big villain), and take the son into protective care while they arrest Mr. Swartout. Thank human grace that someone bailed Mr. Swartout out of jail. But it’s not like the media is being kind to him (though I have to admit they are being kinder than I thought they would be).
So, where’s the Sociology in all of this? Mr. Swartout may not have made a great choice, but as a Sociologist I can’t help but point out that his choices were limited to such a degree that he didn’t really have any better options. Let’s consider the alternatives:
- Mr. Swartout quits his job to take care of his son. People criticize him for being lazy and not wanting to work and he has no money to care for his son. Not a great option.
- Mr. Swartout leaves his son home alone. He’s arrested for neglect. Hmm… Not a great option.
- Mr. Swartout leaves his son with a stranger. The son is molested. Mr. Swartout’s son suffers for the rest of his life and so does Mr. Swartout. Hmm… Not a better option.
- Mr. Swartout pays $10 to $14 per hour to have his son cared for in the evenings (see this profile of a sitter who charges this rate). At that rate, Mr. Swartout is actually losing money at his $12/hour job. He would actually be better off staying home and starving to death with his son so he at least isn’t in debt when he dies.
Hmmm… So, Mr. Swartout chooses option E – None of the above. He makes the only viable decision, is arrested for it, and demonized in the media. Something is wrong here!!! What people need to realize is that it is increasingly the case in the U.S. that work and family life conflict to such a degree that people cannot do both. If Mr. Swartout wants to support his child, he has to work. But if he works, he can’t take care of his child. And this system makes sense how? U.S. society has a serious problem, but people in positions to do something about it (like Mr. Swartout’s managers, the company owners, and politicians), tend not to have the same problem. Why? Because they make enough money that their wives can stay home to take care of the kids or they can afford to pay someone else to do it. It’s just the people who make just enough not to qualify for welfare who get screwed.
I’m sure some conservative or some economist out there is going to say, “Oh, you Sociologists, all you can do is make everyone out to be a victim. Mr. Swartout made bad decisions and that is why he is paying the price now.” Sure, that’s possible. I mean, Mr. Swartout did make at least one “bad” decision here – he had a kid. The bastard! What was he thinking, procreating like that. He should know better than to want to have a child when, well, when he isn’t making enough money to support the child. Or maybe we could claim that Mr. Swartout should have applied himself earlier in life, gotten some education, and gotten a good job. I don’t know enough about Mr. Swartout to argue this point, but I do know that isn’t an option for a lot of people simply because of their socioeconomic background – they may have been raised by poor parents, reducing their educational opportunities to begin with. No, I don’t think Mr. Swartout is just a victim. But I do think he is a victim in the sense that the current system is not fair and it doesn’t care about people like Mr. Swartout.
If you don’t mind, help me find some contact information for Mr. Swartout and/or the kind person who bailed him out of jail and we can contribute to his bail or maybe to his son’s evening care. And while we are at it, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to send a nasty email to Mr. Swartout’s former employer either (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Lastly, not to commercialize this sad story in any way, but if any Sociologists out there need a story to illustrate the conflicting demands of work and family, here you go. Of course, it may yet turn out that there is more to this story than it currently seems. Who knows, maybe Mr. Swartout is just a terrible father. It could be. But if you watch the video linked in those news stories, he doesn’t come across as a terrible father to me. Just a poor guy in a poor situation – an average Joe, screwed by capitalism, greed, and an uncaring social structure!
(Note: Maybe the reason I don’t write much about Sociology is because it makes me seem so negative. Well, how’s this for positive – someone out there is saw the conflict with enough clarity and had enough good will as a human to bail Mr. Swartout out. That is a positive!)
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