Dr. Stacey Patton not only remembers her case number in the New Jersey foster care system – KC114343 – but also knew that she would one day grow up to talk about what she and others experienced as foster children.
Now an award-winning journalist, child advocate and assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University, the child-abuse survivor was in New Orleans April 5 to share her story and her extensive research on race and child rearing to help prevent a negative cycle of discipline that she believes affects African-American children.
“How can we better raise children in healthier and safer ways?” she asked a room full of counselors, social workers, educators, parents and police officers who work with children as she presented “The Parent-To-Prison Pipeline” at St. Peter Claver School in New Orleans.
Advocate of reform
Patton’s work over the past decade aims to reform cultural attitudes of African-American parents: that physical punishment of children is a proper form of discipline that comes from love and an impulse to protect them from getting into worse trouble later.
“It never felt like love when I was being hit,” she said. “My adoptive parents used to say, “I whup you so the police won’t do it. I whup you so the white man won’t kill you.”
Even as a child, she didn’t understand this discipline.
“The only person I thought was going to harm me or kill me was my black mother, who said she was doing it to protect me.”
Patton, who has written two books – the latest, “Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America” – believes to change attitudes, one must
grasp where violence on children surfaced.
She traces it to Europe 2,000 years ago when children were not valued and then to the mistreatment of black children through slavery and the Jim Crow era.
She said corporal punishment is not native to African culture. In fact, she said, African ancestors treated children like gods. Nigerians believed children were reincarnated ancestors with spiritual and mystical powers. To hit a child would diminish the adult, she said.
“Hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow terrorism planted this behavior,” she surmised. “Once you understand this history, hitting and whupping and beating – whatever you want to call it – is the whitest and most effective thing you can do to destroy a black child.”
From research, she estimated that 70 to 80 percent of Americans, regardless of race, hit their children; but it’s high – 80 percent – in the African-American community, regardless of socio-economic status.
Patton gave examples of mothers caught on camera beating their children. Some go to jail, forcing their children into child protective services and possibly the “juvenile and adult prison pipelines.”
Other mothers – like Schaquana Spears, 30, of East Baton Rouge Parish, whose three sons broke into a neighbor’s house in 2016, are validated and seen as heroes in their community for teaching right from wrong.
“How did we get here?” Patton asked. “How do we become a people who pick up cell phones and record ourselves shaming and beating our kids and uploading it on social media where millions of people like, share comments, make horrible statements about the children, calling them derogatory names and celebrating that this is good parenting? This is what it means to be a good mother, a good father, that more parents need to do this?”
She said she, too often, hears defense of corporal punishment from African Americans, especially males, saying, “I turned out fine.”
“It’s not good parenting,” she said. “It is a form of retribution” for being hit as a child.
Patton cited statistics that black children are more at risk of being assaulted, seriously injured or killed by a parent or caretaker than by the police. More than 3,600 children over the last 10 years were killed as a result of maltreatment, she said.
She described a school-to-prison pipeline where there are racially biased suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests of black children for subjective offenses such as defiance to teachers or chewing gum. This zero-tolerance discipline policy and what she calls a “criminalization of adolescent behavior” has contributed to students’ increased disengagement in school, falling behind in studies, being sent to juvenile detention facilities and then disenfranchisement later in life from voting rights and more.
Patton then offered statistics on how a parent’s role facilitates this same prison pipeline. Seventy to 80 percent of those in prison had contact with the foster care system. While not blaming foster care, she thinks something is broken in a system that results in generations repeating negative cycles of behavior – not going to college, getting pregnant early and going to jail.
“If whupping children was an effective way to keep black people out of jail, then why are we having national conversations about mass incarceration and police brutality?” she asked. “If whupping children was a prerequisite for success, black people should be ruling the world right now.”
Patton has found that black America’s negative talk about their own children feeds into a negative image of black children and their possibilities in life. It poisons relationships between parents and children, men and women and how children see themselves.
She says this “co-signs” a long-standing racial narrative that the only way to make black people law-abiding, smart, successful, moral people is by subjecting their bodies to physical violence.
Patton said while she is not trying to tell people how to raise their children, she wants to expose them to ways of discipline other than corporal punishment. Black people have to stop being co-conspirators in the dehumanization process, she said.
“If you take hitting out of the equation, you don’t put your kids at risk for abuse or unintentional fatality or other (negative) outcomes” (such as school arrest, psychotropic drugs, etc.), she said.
For additional parenting skills, call your child’s school, Sister Mary Ellen Wheelahan at the Safe Environment Office at 861-6278 or the New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital at 896-9237.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.