WHERE WERE the parents?

The July 5 fire on Gesner Street was barely out before the question was hurled at the parents of two of the children who perished in the fire.

The question was asked mostly by readers, but then by Mayor Nutter's public-safety director, Michael Resnick, during a protest at City Hall led by Patrick Sanyeah, the father of one of the boys who died in the fire.

"Where were you?" Resnick asked.

That was insensitive and dumb. Especially since the children were in the care of an adult, a 41-year-old mother who was injured trying to save the children, including her twins, who also died in the fire.

What bothers me more than the question being asked is how often and quickly it's asked when bad things happen to poor, black and brown people.

"Can you imagine a public official asking similar Q about a Main Line parent?" someone tweeted when I lamented the loaded question on Twitter.


Sometimes it's a legitimate question; I've asked it myself. And this time it was no doubt fueled by Sanyeah and other residents' displaced anger at a Fire Department that by all accounts did everything it could to put out the fatal fire.

But most times, that question is code for judgment and blame.

Schools falling apart: Where are the parents?

Kids being shot: Where are the parents?

Kids die in a horrific fire: Where are the parents?

Translation: It's their fault, their responsibility, their problem. Not ours. If only they worked harder, tried harder, were better people.

"The code, the thinking, is that they were derelict," said Charles Williams, professor of psychology and education at Drexel University, "that they don't know how to raise their kids."

Blame the parents - and then we don't have to deal with the complex issues of school underfunding, of parents and teachers so tired of the mess that they just move out or move on. For a sad, sobering reminder of this, read yesterday's Inquirer story about a young, promising Philly teacher who called it quits after seven years.

"I did them an injustice. The school district did them an injustice, " Maria Ciancetta said.

Blame the parents - and then we don't have to deal with the violence that seems to claim as many innocent lives as it does people who "asked for it."

Years ago, I covered a story about a 14-year-old who was killed by a Connecticut cop about 2 a.m. The officer said he thought the teen had a gun; he didn't. He shot him in the back. Want to guess what people asked first and longest? And, no, it wasn't why a white cop would shoot an unarmed black kid in the back.

Blame the parents - and then we don't have to deal with issues of substandard housing, precarious public safety and the utter lack of even the minimum quality of life in so many parts of this city. A line in an Inquirer story about the fire caught my attention. Days before the fire, the mother of two of the children had to move out of her apartment because of a plumbing issue that left her with no water.

I've visited countless Philadelphia residents with housing issues that continue to surprise and disgust me. Last year, a young mother showed me around an apartment that had been overrun with bugs coming from a rotting kitchen floor that the landlord refused to fix. I was going to write about it, but then she decided it would be less trouble to just move out and move on. Something she said stayed with me. She couldn't bear the look people gave her when they saw the bite marks on her baby and assumed she was to blame.

But, hey, better to just blame the poor, black and brown parents and then go on our merry way.

Chad Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, said the question isn't just loaded, it's divisive.

"What they're blatantly doing is painting a picture of pathology along color lines and separating the masses through the city of Philadelphia," he said.

Of course you want to know where the parents were during the fire. These are vulnerable children, and we look to their parents to nurture, rear and - yes - protect them. But rather than asking a loaded, empty question that lets so many of us wipe our hands of our own responsibilities to this city's children, why aren't we more consistently asking questions and - better - demanding answers to the issues that should get all our attention: How can we stop the cycle of poverty that is dragging this city under? How can we stop giving generations of children a lousy education? How can we stop this us-and-them mentality that continues to separate a city?

Where are the parents? Where are we?

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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