On the morning of March 20, Shanesha Taylor had a interview. It was for a good job, one that could support her three children. The interview, at an insurance agency in Scottsdale, Arizona, went well. But as she left the building to the parking lot, she panicked. Police officers stood surrounding her car, a crime-scene van parked nearby.
Hours later, Taylor was posing for a mug shot, tears running down. A headline in The Huffington Post read: “Shanesha Taylor, Homeless Single Mom, Arrested After Leaving Kids in Car While on Job Interview.”
The article ricocheted across the Internet. Many viewed her story — that she, unable to find child care, had left her sons, aged 6 months and 2 years, in her car while she went to a 70-minute job interview — as emblematic of the harsh realities of today’s economy. Taylor’s pretrial report put her monthly income at $1,232, while her monthly expenses totalled $1,274.
Taylor, 35, was charged with two counts of felony child abuse and soon became the subject of syndicated columns calling her the “true face of poverty”, petitions asking the prosecutor to drop charges and a crowdsourced fundraising campaign that gathered $115,000. After 10 days in jail, she was freed after strangers paid her $9,000 bail.
Then came the backlash, as critics contended that a woman who had put her children in peril was being made into a hero. The Maricopa County attorney claimed Taylor was neither homeless nor unemployed. Her children — she also has a 9-year-old daughter — were removed from her custody.
In an interview with The New York Times, Taylor, with Antoine Duncan, 33, the father of her children, described how her life had slowly disintegrated. When she spoke about her children, she teared up easily.
“I understand the economy is suffering,” she said, “but in the grand scheme, I can’t explain to my daughter that ‘The economy’s bad; that’s why we don’t have a home’. She’s going to say, ‘OK, why don’t you have a job?’.”
College was financially out of reach, so after high school Taylor had joined the Air Force. In 1999, when Phoenix was booming and the housing market was growing manic, she found her niche as a mortgage loan officer, bringing home large commissions. Duncan and she had their first child in 2004.
After mid-2006 though, home values began to decline. In 2008, after the death of her grandmother, Taylor quit her job, she said, to give herself time to regroup. But she never regained her economic footing.
Eventually, Taylor applied for food stamps and Medicaid. In January 2010, she enrolled full time at Estrella Mountain Community College, with plans to major in engineering. Taylor’s daughter went to day care.
In 2011, Taylor and Duncan had a son. Unable to afford rent, they moved to a cheap motel. Taylor was working in customer service, making $12.35 an hour. In mid-2012, Taylor dropped out of school as loans mounted.
When money became even tighter, she and the children stayed with her parents. In 2013, her work hours were cut and she lost child care subsidy. She became pregnant with her younger son, was placed on bed rest, and was fired, she said. Taylor said she and the children went from house to house to live with friends or relatives.
The night before the Scottsdale interview, Taylor went to a Wal-Mart parking lot, where she spent hours in the night scrounging up recyclable cans and asking passers-by for gas money, to make sure she had enough for the 35-mile drive to the interview.
Her parents would be at work the next day, so she had arranged for a baby sitter. But when she arrived, she said, no one answered the door. Taylor said the home of the next-closest available sitter was a 30-minute drive in the opposite direction, and she wasn’t sure if she had enough gasoline.
She drove to Scottsdale, and parked the car in the lot. It was 71 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the police report, she left the boys strapped into their car seats, the tinted windows cracked, and the keys in the ignition with the fan blowing but the engine off.
About a half-hour later, two women heard crying and called 911. The boys , according to a paramedic, “showed signs of heat distress”. Both were ultimately found to be unharmed.
A judge recently gave her permission to visit the children, living with her relative, after more than two months.
For the first time in years, on the other hand, Taylor had no financial worries. More than $100,000 had been contributed to her cause. “People ask me, ‘Are you happier now?’,” she said. “Truth be told, I stay inside and I cry because I don’t have my children.”