Toddler Removed From Home After Viral Swearing Video

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 1:51 pm
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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we're talking about something you might have talked about yourself with other parents or friends, if you've seen this video.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You a ho (bleep).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's up, then?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Shut up (bleep).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Say, I'm thuggin' it with my diaper on (bleep).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Bleep) (unintelligible) ho.


MARTIN: This is video of a 2-year-old boy. He's African-American, and he's swearing up a storm, as you can hear. You can also hear someone - it turns out to be his uncle - off-camera, egging him on. Now, this video went viral after the Omaha Police Officers' Association found the video on a public Facebook page, and they posted it online on their site under the headline, quote, "Heartbreaking Video Shows the Thug Cycle Continuing."

Well, there have been a number of developments in the story and many, many strong reactions. So we wanted to talk about it. And with us to talk about it are Paul Butler. He's a professor at Georgetown Law school and former federal prosecutor; he's the author of "Let's Get Free." Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and a father of five. Dani Tucker is a fitness instructor, mom of two, one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. Welcome back to everyone. Thank you all so much for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

PAUL BUTLER: Great to be here.

LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, I want to offer some additional details about what's been happening since this video first posted. But I did want to just get initial reactions from each of you about whether you think that the police union should have posted this, to begin with. Dani.


MARTIN: Because...

TUCKER: They had no reason to be there, you know. I mean, the people put it on - they put it on Facebook because these fools like this infamy, you know. They want to post it. And I told you, there's probably tons of them right now, trying to outdo that video. Oh, you think Little Deuce was good, wait till you see my little man. And they know that. The police know this. Don't feed that. Why would you put that on there? And now, they're putting their shoulders up like, yeah man, we made the Omaha website. That makes them proud. Don't do that.

MARTIN: Paul, what do you think?

BUTLER: This little boy is at risk for getting locked up for a long time, at some point in his adult life. We want the police to think about their work in a more holistic way; to think about crime prevention, not just stopping, frisking and arresting. So when they talked about this little, innocent child being set up for a life of thuggery, they were right.

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think?

SPENCE: Oh, no. I'm with - man, I was so upset when I found out that the police was actually associated with reproducing it. I could cringe. It actually reproduces all the problematic ideas that many of us already have about black boys and about poor families, in general.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, the video was posted by the police union and the police department - the Omaha Police Department...


MARTIN: ... said that it did not endorse the posting. Interesting. Other developments since then: The investigators later identified the boy seen in the video. In fact, you could - his identity initially was revealed; his face was not obscured in the original video at all. He was later removed from the home. And it says that - they said they didn't find any legal - or no criminal activities had taken place, but the Child Victim Unit coordinated with the Child Protective Services regarding concerns for the well-being of the toddler and other children believed to be in the home. And they said that they found safety concerns. And four children, including the toddler seen in the video, and his 17-year-old mother - I want to say, who was also considered a minor here - were later removed from the home.

It emerges that, Paul, you know, to your point, that the young boy's father was killed last year in what was believed to have been - who was 17 - killed - believed to have been in a gang-related shooting. So I don't know if any of that - does any of that change anybody's thoughts about this?



TUCKER: ...because he said at risk. No. He's not at risk. That boy will not live to see 25. That's the life they live. They live by the gun. They die by the gun. You taking them out of the home doesn't take it out of their minds. Soon as - I mean, because they're not - you taking them out the home, and as soon as they get back on the streets, they're going right back to where they are. That's the hard, cold fact of it. That it is a gang world. It exists. Deal with it. OK. You trying to go get him is not going to help.

MARTIN: Well, OK, but...

TUCKER: You got to educate them.

MARTIN: But to their point - to their point, they're saying - they want to say this does exist, and they're acknowledging it. And they're saying that if the police can't do it alone, then people need - somebody needs to intervene. That's what they say they were saying.

TUCKER: Right, OK. So let's be real. What are you going to intervene and do? You going to invite him to come live at your house? No, you're not. No, I'm not. No, he's not. Bottom line - education. What I want to see is more of the videos of the young gang folks who got out of that life, and are going back and trying to reach somebody. Help them because the ones that are there that want to stay there, there's nothing you're going to do to get them out of it.

BUTLER: But Dani...


BUTLER: It almost sounds like you're writing off the life of this little, innocent kid. And in fact, there are lots of interventions that would work to make him a lot less at risk for going to jail. The mother's 17. She sounds like she wants to do the right thing by the kid. And in fact, studies show that if you train young parents how to parent better, that makes their kids significantly less likely to get locked up.

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think?

SPENCE: Well, OK, so first, the 68111 ZIP code - that's one of Omaha's ZIP codes - they spend over $14 million on incarceration costs, according to Justice Atlas. And on top of that, Omaha, as of a few years ago, had the highest black poverty rate of like, top 100 metropolitan areas. So the key, for me, is that in framing this issue, they don't frame it as an issue of poverty, right? They train - they frame it as an issue of culture, right?

And all we see is like, a little, thin slice of this 2-year-old's life. So to the extent that maybe an intervention can be made, I mean, there are a number of other interventions that we could have imagined working more than saying, this is what thug life looks like. You're looking at somebody who will be a gangster - as if they could predict the future.

MARTIN: Paul, what do you think about that? What about what he said?

BUTLER: Well, again, this is a kid who - something has to be done. You know, it would be nice to say that it was just about discrimination, and just about poverty. And for some crimes like drugs, that's true. The police do selectively enforce those laws against African-Americans. But look, black boys commit a far disproportionate amount of street crimes. They're more likely to be stickup boys. And they're more likely to be homicides - and not just the assailants, but also the victims. So there does have to be some kind of racial justice intervention, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't take responsibility for what we can do better.

MARTIN: And for those who are wondering, everybody in this conversation at present is African-American. I think that that - and part of the reason that we designed it that way is that some people have raised the question of, why do they feel a need to post this video of an African-American little boy? The population of Omaha is something like 4 percent African-American; are they making some sort of racial comment?

And also by using the headline "Thug" - you know, and they feel that that was - some people felt that that was kind of racially coded language. And they said no, they didn't think that. There are plenty of people who are thugs. It's a term for people who prey on other people. That was their kind of response to that. I don't know. So what - now that we've seen this, what should happen now? I'm interested in other people's feelings. What should happen now, knowing - I mean, Dani, you made the point that this is here. It's out here. It exists. This is not secret. This is not new news; that this is out here. What do you think they should have done instead?

TUCKER: What they should have done?

MARTIN: Yeah, what they should have done instead, and what kind of conversation should ensue now.

TUCKER: Well, personally, for me, you know, the lack in the justice system because if I'm not mistaken - from what I read, the house had been shot up before; the boy was still in the house. You understand what I'm saying? And their parents, their folks, their gangs, the people they live with, they fall through the system. And it is just a process, a cycle that keeps going. I'm not writing them off there. I'm living in reality because I live with them. I'm living in reality. And the bottom line - if you got 10 of them looking at you, you can save maybe one of them. But you have got to set in your mind the truth - that the rest of the nine of them, they don't want to be saved. Neither did these people.

They did this to be famous in the wrong way. And so are other people doing it right now that saw them. They don't care about what you're saying. They don't see that you want to save them. They don't need saving. This is their life. This is what they're living. This is how they do it. And that's a reality.

MARTIN: Paul, what about her point? That - in fact, it's interesting that in posting the video, the police unit said that we're not going to post his name because we don't want to give - they used the word thug - that, you know, notoriety. But what Dani's saying is, they did. They did. And why not highlight people who have been in the lifestyle and have gotten out of it? Why not do that?

BUTLER: Well, again, we want police to be proactive. We want them to be creative about ways to prevent crime, not just to enforce the law, so that we have the situation now where we have nearly 1 million African-American men and women in prison. So this is about ways to intervene early on. We talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. You know, a lot of times, it starts in the home, with toddlers like this. And I don't think it's wrong to ask, are there things that are going on in our culture that aren't the best for our kids?

MARTIN: What about the mother? Lester, what about the mother here?

SPENCE: Well, so Paul brought up some statistics earlier. The most important predictor of, for example, a kid doing well in school is the education of the mother. So from how she spoke - and she said clearly, like, this is not how he talks. This is not how I raise him.

MARTIN: Do you want to hear - for people haven't heard this, let me - the child's mother did speak to a local news station, KETV. Let me just play a short clip of what she said, for people who didn't hear it and are reacting to what you're talking about. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He got a clean diaper. The house is clean, and like they said, kids cuss. Every kid does it. So he's a smart little boy. And all the cussing he did, he doesn't do that. I let somebody - the person that told him to do that, my son doesn't cuss like that. I don't let - I don't allow it.

MARTIN: Lester, go ahead.

SPENCE: Yeah, so as far as making interventions, the specific intervention to take the child and the mother out of the home, to place them with - in foster care - and to make interventions in both - I believe both of them are getting counseling. That's actually a positive thing. But what I'm concerned with is the larger narrative. So when Paul says, for example, in a lot of cases, that this is - you know, thug cycle begins in the home, he's empirically wrong.

That's a belief that people kind of have, and it sounds like common sense. But it's not, right? And this reproduces it. So I'm all for interventions in the home. I'm all for getting parents and their children counseling when they're in violent circumstances. But I'm not for reproducing these ideas about what generates crime in black families and in poor families, in general.


BUTLER: Well, Lester, man, you're in Baltimore. That's like ground zero for a lot of these issues. And if you're a black boy who doesn't want to get arrested, who doesn't want to be a victim of crime or possibly a victim of homicide, you'd better watch your back if you're in Baltimore. So again, we can wait all day for appropriate...

SPENCE: Paul, I've got three boys.

BUTLER: ...appropriate intervention from the state.

MARTIN: Let him finish his thought.

BUTLER: We can wait all day for an appropriate intervention from the state. But at the end of the day, it's about what we can do to save our boys and our girls. And there are things that we can do without waiting for the government to do what it needs to do.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, how does posting this video promote that - whatever needs to happen here? Is it a way to - basically to call attention to it and say if you're in this child's sphere - or maybe not just this child, but the entire family sphere, then you need to step up and say that's not OK.

BUTLER: I think it starts an important conversation. You know, we talk a lot about the new Jim Crow, and there is discrimination and racism in our criminal justice system. But there are also things - crimes that we commit disproportionately that again, Lester is right, we need to take a broader view. But at the end of the day, part of that broader view is looking at African-Americans and our own sense of responsibility. This is not who we are. This is not where we came from. This is - you know, next month is Black History Month; this is not part of our history. Something is happening that we need to change.

MARTIN: Dani, you wanted to say something?

TUCKER: It's part of our history, OK. It is. It is. And it's been going - this is nothing new. You understand what I'm saying? This is nothing new. We can go back to - I go back to the city-under-siege days in the '90s, when we were the murder capital of the world. And these fools were just stepping up their drug and gang and stuff just to try to get on this show. This has been going on for years. And it's going to go on for years afterwards.

Again, I say you know the ones out there that you can help. Build with them. And as far as what we can do, much like we do in my fitness program - kids are free. And the kids that do come in, we work with them to show them a future in fitness - or just a brighter future, period. But you - that's all you can do. But you have got to understand that there is about - I don't know the percentage - but like this baby and others who are not going to make it. And there ain't nothing - a thing you can do about it. And that's reality.

MARTIN: Can I ask - I'm moving the conversation in a different direction. But I do want to ask whether anybody thinks the child would have been removed from the home if he had been white, if the family had been white?

TUCKER: No because the system doesn't work that way. He would have been removed from the home to go to foster care for about two weeks, and then back in the house. Go talk to them and ask them about it. It doesn't matter what color he was. The system does not work to help them.

MARTIN: Lester.

SPENCE: Yeah, and it's interesting to note that when you look at - you pull up the video on Facebook - on YouTube, at least in my case, on the right-hand column where they have associated videos, I saw several videos of white kids cursing. In fact, the sound guy who's with me now, says that he saw more kids - when he did a search for toddler cursing video - he found more white kids doing it than he found black ones, right? So I don't think that this would have happened had it been white. And we wouldn't have had this racialized narrative because for whites, this doesn't look like, you know - for whites, this behavior isn't as loaded as it is for black children.

BUTLER: Well, white people, frankly, they don't have the same kinds of concerns about victimization and especially, victimization from African-Americans. So, again, my concern is wanting folks to feel safe when they walk in the streets, thinking about ways to prevent folks from lives of violence and crime. We need early interventions, starting when kids are 2 and 3.

MARTIN: You feel that - so you feel that this shows that even if this is uncomfortable for people, that this showed, at least, the people who posted this video, the police union folks are trying to broaden the conversation. And that's a positive even if it's uncomfortable for people.

BUTLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But to the point that Dani made, hasn't this conversation been had for a while? So what should happen now?

BUTLER: Well, what should happen now is, we should not only think about interventions and the responsibility of people outside of our community, we need a more serious conversation about what we can do - you know, churches. You can think about the black church. They're very good at training parents. They're very good at helping boys and girls graduate from high school - which also makes them a lot less at risk for going to jail. So we just need to step up our game some.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you think should happen now?

TUCKER: I think he should come live with me for a minute.


TUCKER: And wait and see because...

SPENCE: Oh, Dani will set him straight.

TUCKER: ...I hear you. I hear you and I feel you, dog. And we all say - as they would say in the hood, I feel you, dog. We all singing that song. Now, I need you to come live with me so I can introduce you to the people in 4C - it ain't happening. You understand what I mean? And the church has been there. We have been there. Everybody's been there. You got to want to change. And they don't.

BUTLER: Well, I think you can...

MARTIN: Lester, final thought from you?

SPENCE: And one thing - 'cause this hasn't been said - as the parent of three black boys, I'm really more concerned by the police actually surveilling them and using heavy-handed tactics in dealing with them, than I am the kids that I routinely see every day in Baltimore.

BUTLER: Can I just say the...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Paul.

BUTLER: ...sad truth is that you need to be more concerned about your three young, black boys, about their friends and the other black boys, because it's the sad truth that they're more likely to be victims of other young, black boys then they are of the police.

MARTIN: And so what would that mean? What would that look like, Paul? What does it look like to do that? You're saying he needs to police the kind of people that his kids - he needs to be the police of the people his kids are around, right?

BUTLER: So the kinds of things that would work are, again, just getting, boys especially, to graduate from high school - they don't even have to go to college; to get services to mothers, even when - as soon as they get pregnant, to get them the appropriate kinds of services. All of that makes a big difference.

MARTIN: Well, there's obviously a lot to talk. Thank you all so much for - candid, respectful, candid, but candid conversation. I appreciate it, you know, bringing it - keeping it real, as we would say. Dani Tucker is a fitness instructor, mom of two, one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. Paul Butler is a professor at Georgetown Law school, former federal prosecutor, also a regular contributor to our - many conversations about politics and culture here in Washington, D.C. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, father of five, with us from Baltimore. Thank you all so much.

TUCKER: Thank you.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

SPENCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.