In the Zone

The natural alliance of government and families

Last October, I spoke at a Fordham Law Review Family Law Symposium about the fortieth anniversary of the Moore v. City of East Cleveland Supreme Court case. The Court ruled in favor of Inez Moore, a grandmother who had been arrested after enrolling the grandson she was raising in a local school because of a zoning ordinance that stated only certain family configurations could live together.

Anne Williams-Isom

When reviewing the Moore v. City of East Cleveland decision, it is impossible not to see one of the grandmothers that Harlem Children’s Zone® (HCZ) routinely encounters in Inez Moore. While educating children is the primary focus of HCZ, working with the adults who bring those children through the doors is germane to HCZ’s success. Miss Inez, as she would have been referred to by HCZ, illustrates the important role played by extended families in communities of color.

Through my personal experience and during my thirteen years at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and my seven years at HCZ, I have seen first-hand how important it is to strengthen and empower extended families.  Strong families are a critical foundation from which children can become self-sustaining, middle-class, tax-paying Americans.

In light of my personal experience, I was elated to read Justice Lewis Powell’s recitation of Justice Stewart Potter’s statement that “freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Indeed, throughout my career, I have seen that the family unit and the government can coexist and mutually benefit by cultivating and strengthening the relationship between these two entities.

Leveraging the strength of families

With this in mind, we should commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Moore decision. But we should use this reflection point as a way to caution ourselves of the missed opportunities that occur when government entities fail to create policies that leverage the inherent strength of all families in all of their shapes and forms.

The critical role played by the extended family in communities is striking, particularly in the context of early childhood development. In recent years, scientific studies have documented the lifelong, wide-ranging effects of chronic stress on babies. When very young children are exposed to persistent stress — such as domestic violence or unstable home environments — the body’s “fight or flight” response triggers the release of chemicals such as cortisol. This physical reaction to ongoing stress can inhibit an infant’s brain development as well as raise the lifelong risk of health, disease, and other chronic ailments. Thus, homeless children or those placed in foster care are systemically set-up to be disadvantaged in more ways than can be measured by the achievement gap alone.

When governments and communities turn their back on vulnerable families, society risks an overall increase in the correlated issues of unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse and crime.

By caring for her grandson, and keeping a vulnerable child in a loving and nurturing home, Miss Inez performed foundational work to benefit society. By living within a consistent family unit, Miss Inez’s grandson had a better chance of attaining a positive future. East Cleveland should have awarded Miss Inez a medal — not a fine or jail sentence.

The old adage about our country is that America is great because it is good. But that goodness needs to be cultivated, and we need to recognize that children living in neighborhoods of entrenched and concentrated poverty are our children too.

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing by empowering an embattled grandmother. Moore was a small step in the right direction toward reinforcing our country’s organizing principle — one United States of America for all of us. But if this country is going to continue its remarkable story, it needs to adequately address the crisis in our low-income communities. Folks like Miss Inez are the first-responders, literally saving the lives of children, and they need our support. When it comes to raising vulnerable children, sometimes love is not enough — but it is a great start.

To read a Fordham Law Review article based on this speech, click here.