Hot! It’s not Diane Anderson who should be judged harshly

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/national
Published Friday, Apr. 22, 2011. Last updated Saturday, Apr. 23, 2011.   Christie Blatchford

I got a note this week from a reader aghast at the viciousness in the online comments attached to one of my stories about Diane Anderson.

Ms. Anderson died, along with two of her five children, in a Dec. 22, 2007, fire at her little townhouse in a subsidized housing project in Toronto, and for a couple of weeks now I’ve been covering the coroner’s inquest examining the circumstances of the deaths.

The reader wrote: “There is so much hate and vitriol in the responses. I don’t know what some of the people are recommending – a public flogging for single mothers living in poverty?” She sent along an actual comment and asked me to write something about the hate mongering, as she called it.

Not a chance, I told her, explaining that ages ago, I gave up reading such comments. Such anonymous refuges are the purview of the illiterate and cruel.

But truth is, this time, I’ve had a few e-mails too, suggesting that if Ms. Anderson hadn’t had so many kids, or had just pulled herself up by her bootstraps, or wasn’t a smoker, she and Tayjah and Jahzial would still be alive.

It was in my first piece that I wrote that this inquest would likely be about weakness both individual and societal. I thought I had the balance about right.

But as the evidence has emerged, though Ms. Anderson was certainly flawed, most of the weakness revealed has been with a social-welfare system that seems unable or unwilling to distinguish one poor black woman on welfare from another.

I ought to know: A day before the inquest resumed this week, I covered the sentencing hearing for Melissa Alexander, an unpleasant young mom who was convicted of manslaughter for failing to get help for her fatally scalded little boy, and who in fact left him behind to his suffering while she went out shopping.

Some of the same sorts of agencies involved in her case were involved with Ms. Anderson, but as another reader said, though “Diane Anderson was everything Melissa Alexander was not … our social services system effectively treated them precisely the same, with almost identical indifference and neglect.”

Ms. Anderson smoked; she probably disabled the smoke detectors that likely would have saved her kids and maybe even herself; she was legally drunk the night of the fire, when the two littlest boys grabbed her lighter and accidentally set the dreadful tragedy in motion, and she had clearly made unwise choices in men. This latter she had in common with only half the women in the world, and for that matter, her other failings are awfully ordinary too – venial sins, if you like.

But she was also strong, resilient, proud and even near what turned out to be her breaking point – when she was consumed with grief and flailing – she was still trying to rouse the bureaucracy to action.

In July of 2005, Ms. Anderson suffered what I’ve called in print a double blow but which was actually a triple punch – her fiancé Leroy Whittaker was shot to death at his apartment, a mistaken-target homicide witnessed by her 10-year-old son, and within a few days, Ms. Anderson gave birth to Mr. Whittaker’s stillborn daughter, whom they had named Beautiful.

In about a week, she lost the man she loved (and in whom she had invested, rightly or wrongly, many of her hopes for her kids) and a child, and now had a son who had been exposed to unimaginable violence.

Until then, despite her Grade 9 education, her sprawling brood (which included a special needs child), her lousy townhouse in a part of the city euphemistically called a “priority” neighbourhood and the omnipresent fact of her grinding poverty, Ms. Anderson had managed and even done herself proud.

She has been universally described at the inquest as a good mother who loved and took proper care of her children, themselves known as good kids. Her house was neat and clean.

When the grief for her lost man, child and dreams began to defeat her, she still made significant efforts to get help – telling her kids’ schools what had happened, calling the police at one low moment, trying to get better housing, disclosing to almost anyone who asked that she was having a rough time.

What she was offered, for the most part, were figurative hugs for her “issues” by a gathering flock of helping professionals.

The concrete things that I believe may actually have helped her – child care, so she could have time to mourn properly, not to mention a few bloody minutes to herself; a better place to live not haunted by memories of her slain lover; a bit of extra cash; the offer of a ride now and then to the agencies that were downtown and thus effectively on the other side of the moon – never materialized.

I’ve met her sister Sophia, and her daughter Ieisha, the oldest at 19. I’ve heard Ms. Anderson’s voice on a tape from the night she called the police for help, dignified even in her distress. I would have liked her, I think. I already admire her. It’s not this lady who should be judged harshly.

P.S. I wrote this week that the sign on a busted stall in the loo at coroner’s court where the Anderson inquest is being held is a metaphor for the good intentions and lousy execution of social services in this case. The day the column appeared, the sign, which read “We are wortking [sic] on it,” disappeared.

The toilet remains out of order.

I rest my case.

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