Help was not on the way. So at the intersection of desperation and hopelessness, a young mother made a drastic decision to save her child—to give her up to someone else she deemed more capable of providing care. Most of us empathize with mothers who make such a choice, as we understand the agony of losing a child yet admire her deep sacrifice. But this is not a story about “that kind of mother,” as Frankea Dabbs is a homeless, young woman with a documented criminal background who decided to abandon her child on a NYC subway platform. For many it seems the similarities between the model sacrificial mom and Frankea couldn’t be more drastic; however, a deeper look at the complexities involved in this case reveals a sad truth: Frankea Dabbs might have been exercising what she felt at the time was her only option.
This is not a plea for sympathy or an attempt to explain the unexplainable abandonment of vulnerable children by their mothers, but rather, an attempt at understanding how what seems to be our personal choices may actually be predetermined by a socio-cultural and political matrix which dictates what can ultimately feel like a set of impossible options.
When we hear about these cases, our impulse is to ask “Why?” As mental health providers, we also seek to understand but, as mental health advocates, we see evidence. Evidence that mental illness continues to be misunderstood and devalued in the context of community and families, as well as by institutional constituents, including the legal system, family assistance agencies, and other civil bureaucracies, charged to support and intervene. Dabbs gives us a unique glimpse into the intricacies of helping a family member struggling with competing crises, in this case poverty, homelessness, unresolved trauma and untreated mental illness. This complexity is detailed in reported comments from family members struggling to understand Dabb’s seemingly illogical life choices while still seeking to provide support to her and her young child. At the same time, we see how institutional supports can be ineffective in addressing cases that involve mental health. Rather, instead of being a help they can add insult to injury by propagating institutional isms associated with gender, race and class. For those in need of mental health services/support, these dynamics can serve to aggravate their symptoms and mental health dysfunction at the critical point of seeking treatment.
Writing for The Guardian, Kirsten West Savali was one of the only journalists to address the fact that Frankea Dabbs has been designated this mother, literally separating her from her personal story. The fact that she has an unresolved traumatic history (allegedly having witnessed the murder of her child’s father), that her aunt reports something has been “wrong” with her for some time or that she indicated delusions of grandeur at the time of her arrest (suggesting a relationship with Jay Z) are not held alongside the fact of her desperate decision to abandon the complicated and overwhelming responsibility of motherhood. Savali brings into relief the influence of work by Melissa Harris-Perry and other scholars articulating the intersections of race, gender and class to shame and stigmatize African Americans, and impact our mental health.
So how does this relate to Frankea Dabbs or for that matter to any other person struggling with a mental illness? Mothers who participate in actions that clearly pose a threat to their children are uniquely positioned to exemplify the politics of mental illness as the archetype of the life-giver is paralleled with that of the life-taker and speaks not only to the powerlessness of the mind to mental illness but, also to the lack of attention to and devaluation of mental health. A brief review of similar cases reveals a common refrain, documented and undocumented histories of mental illness. Further exploration of these cases should prompt the public to consider the effect of racial, gender and social class dynamics to shape Black motherhood and the mental health of Black women in America is needed.
The truth is we do not know what may have happened to baby Dabbs had her mother not left her to the care of a stranger on a NYC subway platform. However, haven’t we heard enough stories of mental break and overwhelm ending in the early loss of life for children by their undiagnosed/untreated mothers (e.g., Ebony Wilkerson, Lashanda Armstrong, Zakieya Latrice Avery)? Is it possible to consider that maybe Frankea Dabbs found the best parenting, child-preserving option available…maybe she helped herself since no one else did?