Over the past week, the story of an Ohio mother’s arrest has been making headlines — and sparking a conversation about systemic inequities, as well as the difficulty of balancing child care and work.

Last Thursday, Shaina Bell, 24, left two of her children alone in a Motel 6 room to work at a Little Caesars Pizza shop in Liberty Township, Ohio. A tip to police led authorities to find her 10-year-old and 2-year-old daughters by themselves at the motel, where the elder child told officers her mom was expected back around 10 p.m., WFMJ reported. Bell reportedly told officers that she usually has someone check in on her children every hour while she is at work.

Bell was booked in county jail on two counts of child endangerment and had her mug shot blasted across the Internet, to the horror of many parents, who said they know the challenges of caring for children. (Bell was released the next afternoon, according to jail records, and has a court hearing scheduled for April.)

Many who heard about the incident poured out sympathy on social media. “This sad cause I know she’s just trying to [do] her best,” one Twitter user wrote. Another posted, “She was arrested for leaving her kids alone while she worked to keep them housed which is a choice no one should have to make. All too common in our profoundly inequitable society.”

A GoFundMe account, started by her mother, has raised more than $130,000.

Bell’s story underscores the structural problems that fail to support struggling parents — especially women of color — in a society too quick to render someone’s fate to the incarceration system, experts say.

Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America, said high-quality child care just isn’t an option for many families. “Even before the pandemic and the associated closures of child-care programs, the supply of child care was decreasing,” he said. “When covid-19 was layered onto the already fragile child-care system, it shattered.”

Before the pandemic, more than half of states reported a decline in the number of child-care centers and 79 percent of states reported a dip in family child-care providers between 2018 and 2019, according to data from Child Care Aware of America.

Cardona and his colleagues estimate that it will take a year or more to understand the impact of the pandemic on child-care services. As of July, the group found that 35 percent of centers and 21 percent of family child-care programs remain closed across the country.

The lack of affordable child care is what’s driving many women out of the workforce amid the pandemic. That was the Catch-22 of this case, many on social media said, pointing out that Bell needed her job to be able to provide for her children in the first place.

What’s more, locking up someone like Bell does little to address the underlying issue of poverty and the lifelong devastation that can occur when children are separated from parents, according to Sydney McKinney, executive director of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.

“In our society, Black people and Black families are more likely to be poor than White families. … That’s what’s responsible for Ms. Bell’s situation,” she said. “The pandemic has really exacerbated or worsened those inequalities.”

Black and Hispanic families were less likely to have adequate financial reserves once the pandemic hit, had a more difficult time keeping up with monthly expenses, and were harder hit with deaths and infections, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

The financial relief that is likely to emerge from Bell’s GoFundMe account can ease some of the collateral burden that follows an arrest, a conviction, fees and the cost of child care, McKinney said.

Bell and her mother, Danielle Hosey, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Jail records didn’t show whether she retained a lawyer.

“Incarceration doesn’t address underlying problems and causes here,” McKinney said, noting that many women behind bars are mothers to young children. “We need to figure out new responses that aren’t harmful and punitive but uplift and support families.”

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