Tragedy as Teacher – Curing Injustice Through Accountability Tracing

By Danielle Harris, Managing Attorney of the Integrity Unit at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

An Op Ed, as it appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on February 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin N. Hume/SF Examiner.

When tragedy strikes, we are scared and angry and we want answers and action. And in the U.S., we traditionally want a “fall guy,” someone to blame, to fire, to demote, to lock up, to vote out. Having blamed someone, anyone, we may feel as if we have addressed the problem and we go back to our daily lives with a false sense of security. And then, when tragedy strikes again, we repeat the cycle, wondering in passing how this could have happened again. We vacillate to and fro, from left to right and back again, finding fall guys, but keeping the real culprits — the deficient structures — intact.

What if instead, in response to tragedy, like the New Year’s Eve deaths of Elizabeth Platt and Hanako Abe, we tried to trace the missed opportunities that brought us there? What if, like contact tracing designed to catch early virus cases and minimize bad outcomes and further exposures, accountability tracing were a required project in these instances, “accountability tracer” a job title? What if the goal were not to determine who was to blame, but to identify structural deficiencies to prevent future horrors?

If we truly want change, a vaccine instead of a mask, we must shift to this broader sense of accountability and commit to repairing harm and ending cycles of violence.

Accountability tracing must begin at the beginning. When we are talking about systemically-oppressed people — as for the majority Black families ensnared in the penal system — historical context is essential.

Next, we will usually need to start with the biological parents of the subject, no matter how brief their union or how big their role in raising the child. What traumas did they bring to pregnancy and parenting? What support did they have in expecting and having a child? If there was lacking support, where was it? Is that deficiency still true today or has it been fixed?

We would then look at the childhood. If we see a mother working two jobs to support her kids and a father addicted to crack cocaine, we must ask if the child had proper nutrition and supervision, sufficient love and attention. If there were early signs of struggle at school, we must examine the response, including how discipline was handled. If our public institutions knew or had reason to know the child was suffering, we need to see how they handled it, analyzing supports and gaps in our public health system, our school district, our child protective system, and existing community-based organizations.

Where an addicted parent or caregiver is involved, we must ask if they were known to police or the court system and we must look to the supports given to them, the children, and the family as a whole. When a parent is incarcerated, that response reverberates and existing supports for the co-parent and children are little to none. The parent’s incarceration makes it six times more likely that his child will later face his own incarceration. The parent’s addiction makes it more likely the child will suffer from depression, abuse, and his own addiction. These facts have been known for decades and still we have little meaningful cycle interruption in place.

If our subject himself fell victim to addiction disease as a young teenager, we must trace his history at that time. Did his high school teachers or administrators know? Should they have? Did the police know? Did juvenile probation or the juvenile courts know? What supports were offered? Were they offered in a punitive matter, making them unattractive and to be avoided or were they offered with love and without strings? Were appealing options created as an alternative to the positive reinforcement the self-destructive teen was receiving from negative influences?

Or, was he sent to prison as an older teenager, a “man” in the eyes of the law and nowhere else. Was the loss of freedom the punishment or were grueling conditions, violence, subjugation, and shame layered on top? Were education and programming opportunities available? What was his mental health status? Was it addressed? What did we expect of him when he was released that first time? What supports did we offer to help him succeed?

When that round failed and our subject cycled back into jail the next time, still addicted, with worse mental health than before, did we do it differently this time? How about the time after that?

The answers may be grim. For so long, our court system has elevated punishment over addressing the roots of harm and treating known diseases with known treatments. And our brand of punishment is so harsh, it guarantees those punished will emerge worse than where they started, with no ongoing support to boot. We repeat the same failed approach again and again, expecting a different result each time. A collective insanity if there ever was one.

If we want to cure a disease, we have to inoculate against it, diagnose it, and treat it. Had we done as much for Troy McAlister, who tragically caused the deaths of Ms. Abe and Ms. Platt, two families would not be grieving today.

Danielle Harris has lived in San Francisco since 1996 and is raising two daughters. She works as a managing attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.


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