I wanted to be the person that you told your story to. When she was 22, however, Mire had to put her plans on hold, because she was pregnant herself. This time, she knew how hard it would be. Then the recession hit, and Mire lost the job. She had to pull Kendyll from the center. Every day, she also checked in with several temping agencies.
At one point, she scraped up the money to send Kendyll to a KinderCare franchise, but eventually fell behind on the payments and had to withdraw her. Once, she quit a customer-service job because she had nowhere for Kendyll to go. When she was offered the oil company position, Mire felt like stability was finally within reach. She called about a dozen centers, all of which were either too expensive or had no available slots.
Mire thought she might have to turn down the job. Then a solution materialized. Mire quickly called Tata, who said she could take another toddler. And the state subsidies—would Tata accept those? Yes, she said, she did it all the time. Over the next two hours, she plied Tata with questions, about everything from her experience to her education methods. Most important, she seemed warm with children. The United States has always been profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of supporting child care outside the home, for reasons that inevitably trace back to beliefs over the proper role of women and mothers.
At no point has a well-organized public day care system ever been considered the social ideal. The first day cares were established during the Industrial Revolution, as increasing numbers of women in cities had to work. Jane Addams, the Progressive Era activist, was horrified to learn that all over Chicago, children were being left alone in tenement homes, morning till night. Even Addams believed the optimal solution was government subsidies that would allow single mothers to look after their own children.
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Arguably the best child care system America has ever had emerged during World War II, when women stepped in to fill the jobs of absent soldiers. For the first time, women were employed outside the home in a manner that society approved of, or at least tolerated. But many of these women had nowhere to leave their small children.
They resorted to desperate measures—locking kids in the car in the factory parking lot, with the windows cracked open and blankets stretched across the back seats. This created the only moment in American politics when child care was ever a national priority. In , Congress passed the Lanham Act, which created a system of government-run centers that served more than , children from families of all incomes. But lawmakers saw them only as a wartime contingency—and if day care enabled women to keep their factory jobs, veterans would have a harder time finding work.
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The Lanham Act was allowed to lapse. A broader bill, designed to help working mothers by providing care to all kids who needed it, passed Congress a few years later. Other than some increases in government funding for child tax credits and subsidies, federal child care policy has hardly changed in the last few decades.
But family life has changed immeasurably. In , most American families had a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, compared with one in five today. Around two-thirds of mothers of young children now work outside the home. Meanwhile, the idea that it is preferable to support low-income women to stay home with their children has become toxic in American politics. Since the passage of welfare reform in , single mothers no longer get cash benefits unless they have a job or demonstrate progress toward getting one.
Day care, in other words, has become a permanent reality, although the public conversation barely reflects that fact. On the day of the fire, as her house filled with smoke, Jessica Tata called My kids are dying. Please hurry. Oh my god! Tata grew up in west Houston, the odd one out in a high-achieving Nigerian family. While her siblings excelled at academics and sports, Tata spent some time in juvenile detention, as well as a special school for troubled youth.
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At one point, she admitted to a charge of delinquent arson for starting a fire in a school bathroom. But when Tata was around 16, her family saw a radical change in her. Her parents wanted her to go to college, like most of her brothers and sisters, but Tata decided to open a day care in her two-bedroom apartment. She divided the lower floor of her house into different areas—mats on the tile floor for naptime, a classroom area with little desks, a play area with Legos and musical instruments.
Tata liked to keep her older brother, Ron, posted on their progress, proudly describing the best speller or a child who had learned a new word. I have these kids. I have everything that I dreamed of. A neighbor was trying to console a distraught Tata when she noticed that the children and the firefighters carrying them outside were covered in black soot. Other neighbors reported that they had seen her run out the door screaming, but, seconds before, some had also seen her drive up to the house, with nobody in her van.
Later, a fire department investigator found a bag from Target behind the front door, with a receipt issued around the time of the fire.
Afterward—apparently the very next night—Tata returned to the charred remains of her home, retrieved her passport, and caught a flight to Nigeria. Interpol agents would eventually take her into custody, and at one point, Tata spoke with the mother of one of her charges on the phone. As questions about Tata accumulated, many of them in coverage by the Houston Chronicle , 2 people started asking why authorities had allowed her to run a home day care in the first place.
Her office was responsible for monitoring 6, child care providers in and around Houston, including Tata. Lahmeyer, a transplanted New Yorker who spent some 30 years working on services for children and families, explained how little power inspectors have to make sure kids are getting safe, quality care.
In Texas, a person only needs a high school qualification or equivalent to operate a home day care. That includes online degrees. In , the agency had ordered Tata to close the day care in her apartment, because she was operating without a proper license. Caregivers are also required to attend a state-sanctioned education session.
According to a trainer, Tata had wandered in and out of the classroom, put her head down on the table, and spent much of the time texting.
Into eternity I hurried...
But since the law only requires applicants to show up, Tata had satisfied the requirement. By national standards, Texas child care regulations are typical—better than average in some respects, worse in others. That is to say, they are painfully minimal. You know it when, as the inspector, you are the most interesting thing the kids have seen all day. Like most states, Texas inspects child care centers at least once a year, but only has the manpower to visit home day cares every two.
On other occasions, the process of closing a day care can be torturous. Lahmeyer recalled one place that racked up repeated violations over two years before a judge would shut it down. All too often, it takes an incident to force a closure. Last November, for instance, DFPS closed a center after a caregiver left a nine-month-old infant alone on a changing table without a belt. The baby fell onto a concrete floor, sustaining a serious skull injury.
It took Kenya Mire about 25 minutes to get to the hospital, where she found a frantic scene. Parents were desperately seeking information; staffers were having trouble identifying the kids. I still was kind of hoping it was OK. Mire practically had to be pulled into the emergency room. When they brought her in, she saw Kendyll laid out on a table like a doll. A doctor was pumping her chest, hard. Then a nurse pulled her aside and told her there was nothing more they could do.
Four of the seven children at the day care died that day. Elizabeth died before her mother, Betty Ukera Kajoh, a teacher who met Tata through church, made it to the hospital. Elias was in a special breathing chamber, expelling smoke from his lungs, by the time his mom, Keshia Brown, finished a training session for a new job at a grocery store and learned about the fire. Makayla survived; Shomari did not. In many countries, day care is treated not as an afterthought, but as a priority.
France , for instance, has a government-run system that experts consider exemplary. The Mazikin driver shook his big hairy head back and forth, his ears twitching as if trying to toss off the heat. The engine belched, and the cart accelerated sharply, throwing me off balance. I sucked in a breath of scorching air and tugged at the shackles on my wrists. On either side of the road were gray concrete buildings, all of the same design.
Three stories high, square openings every 10 feet or so, windows without panes, dark inside. The only thing that distinguished them were the paintings all over their exteriors. Some of the markings looked like graffiti, black and jagged, and some of them looked more like murals. But all of them were chipped and pockmarked, cracked and faded. Nothing thrived here. That thought stamped itself on my brain as we passed by a Mazikin trotting down the street on all fours -- walking a woman on a leash.
The Mazikin dragged her through the entrance to one of the buildings. I gave her a sidelong glance. She was twisted into a weird position, with her hips pressed downward and her back bowed. Her fingers stretched and scrabbled.. She was trying to reach her knives. My hood flopped over my head as I fastened my teeth onto the hilt of one of her double-edged throwing knives. I began to draw it back just as we went over a bump.
My forehead smacked the metal edge of the cart, and for a second I saw stars, but then I returned to my task of unsheathing the knife. After a few seconds, I pulled it free, and then bent sharply so she could snatch it from my mouth. As I straightened up to give Ana room, I turned to see the woman wedged in next to me watching us carefully. She paled when she saw the clueless look on my face. Next to me, Ana was working on her shackles, her cloak concealing her movements. I shifted onto the balls of my feet and pulled myself forward to get a good look at where we were going.
Dozens of blocks ahead was a massive building, partially obscured by greenish-brown smog, through which I could make out the tips of a few smokestacks. I blinked away the image of what awaited us at the meat factory in time to notice a black-cloaked figure disappearing between two buildings a block away. From the shape of the silhouette, I could tell it was a human and not a Mazikin, but he moved with sure-footed confidence rather than the broken, raw fear that bent the backs of the humans I had seen so far. I tingled in anticipation as we drew closer -- I wanted to see where he was going, what he was doing.
But we ground to a halt behind another mechanized cart, this one carrying a load of concrete blocks. It had hit a huge pothole and canted to one side, spilling several bricks onto the street and sidewalk. Our driver stood up and began to grunt at the other Mazikin, who raised his ugly head and spat at our cart. He rose to his hind legs and brandished a club that looked strikingly like a human femur.
Our driver sat back down, growling to himself and pulling his hood up against the sun. They were naked from the waist up, and the skin on their backs was blistered, scarred, and oozing with sores. He merely nodded as his Mazikin master hooted at him. The men, perhaps motivated by the reminder about fire hour, finally shoved the wheel of the cart out of the hole.
With near-frantic movements, they tossed the fallen bricks back in the cart and leaped on top of the load, hanging on as the vehicle rolled forward. Our own driver cackled, then gunned the engine of our cart. I clutched the edges of the cart and leaned back as she went to work on my shackles. At least, not that I could see.
Some of the women in the cart had noticed our efforts and were watching us with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Her forehead was still pressed between her hands. Her knuckles turned white, which stood out in stark contrast to the red skin on the backs of her hands. It still loomed far in the distance but was growing closer by the second. The cuff around my right wrist clicked and fell away, and Ana pressed the knife into my free hand.
She was right. The low whispers around us were nonstop now. It was only a matter of time before the driver heard them. I grabbed the knife with my right hand and jammed the tip into the keyhole on the underside of the cuff on my left hand, knowing one pothole could cause me to slit my own wrist. My heart pounded as the cart slowed to keep from hitting a massive truck rumbling along in front of us. We almost came to a standstill as it negotiated the deep divots in the road. The gouges were regular, set across the road in a way that made them nearly unavoidable, like speed bumps.
It almost looked like someone had created the holes with a pickax or something.