August 29, 2006

The crime of bad housekeeping.

The conviction of Judith Scruggs -- whose son killed himself -- was overturned yesterday. The charge was putting her child at risk by creating an unhealthy and unsafe home, and the evidence was entirely about her housekeeping:
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that prosecutors could not point to “objective standards for determining the point at which housekeeping becomes so poor that an ordinary person should know that it poses an unacceptable risk to the mental health of a child.”
This case is confusing to us, I think, because the boy suffered so much from bullying at school and because we may feel that it is too cruel to go after her when she has already been punished by the loss of her child.

But isn't bad housekeeping a crime at some point when you are taking care of children?


Dave said...

Bad housekeeping a crime? Well this would be why fraternities don't house kids.

Seems to me the other extreme is criminal as well. Kids need to be exposed to a modicum of dirt, grime, germs, and sludge, the better to bolster their immune system. And the better to give them a clue about how to keep a (relatively) clean home. A home need not, and should not, be an operating theater.

tcd said...

If she was neglecting the housekeeping, what else was she neglecting? Was she not aware of her son's condition? I was initially sympathetic to her until I read the article. Seems she is suing the school for monetary damages. Her son did not benefit from her care while he was alive, yet she will benefit from his death which was in part a result of her neglect as a parent?

Bill Harshaw said...

Presumably Judith Scruggs will continue living, alone (her daughter being old enough to live independently), and in a pathologically messy house. She perhaps is obsessive/compulsive about keeping things. At what point can and should society step in? When her living conditions become dangerous to others? When they become dangerous to herself? At what point does the daughter become responsible for her mother's behavior/illness?

yetanotherjohn said...

I once did a favor for someone when their home alarm went off while they were travelling on Christmas day. I followed their directions to find a key and went in to check the house for intruders, fire or whatever.

The house was a series of "habitrails". Stuff was piled from floor to ceiling in every room of the house. It was a family of five, but there was so much stuff around and on the kitchen table, it would be amazing if three people could eat at the table at the same time. There was a variety of stuff around the kitchen, including pizza boxes, some with bits of crust still in them. I honestly can't remember if you could describe the kitchen as having no clean surfaces to prepare or eat from, but if there was it would be pretty minimal. I got a second tour of the house with the local police who arrived while I was checking the house. Fortunately, the owners called the police and told them I was coming over to "take charge" while they were gone.

I know one of the three children recently graduated from college with a teaching degree. The other two kids are still in college. All are well adjusted young adults with a good start in the world. So while I would not choose to live like they did, the mere fact that the house isn't pristine doesn't in and of itself rise to the child abuse.

What isn't mentioned is that one government agency is seeking to divert the attention from another government agancy as to who may be culpapble in the death of the boy. Any situation that is so bad a 12 year old feels the humilation of deficating in their pants so as to be sent home is a pretty bad situation. Given that the home was no paradise, it just reinforces that.

Bill Harshaw said...

Presumably Judith Scruggs will continue living, alone (her daughter being old enough to live independently), and in a pathologically messy house. She perhaps is obsessive/compulsive about keeping things. At what point can and should society step in? When her living conditions become dangerous to others? When they become dangerous to herself? At what point does the daughter become responsible for her mother's behavior/illness?

tcd said...

Is she not the mother of the boy? Why should anyone else (besides his father) have been responsible for the boy? Why should a government agency be responsible for her child? I don't understand the excuses made for this mother. Are parents no longer expected to be responsible for their offsprings? This is ridiculous beyond belief.

Maxine Weiss said...

This reminds me of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman....and her bemoaning the "waxy-yellow build-up" on her kitchen floor.

Remember the plumber who drowned in a bowl of Mary's chicken soup?

Loved, Mary Hartman....MARY HARTMAN !!!

Norman Lear was a genius.

Peace, Maxine

Telecomedian said...

I've been in two houses that were occupied by hoarders. The first was a nice, one story home in Northeast Baltimore. Nothing fancy, but a very kept yard and appearance. Once inside, it was a maze of books, newspapers, magazines, collections - ceiling to wall, in every bedroom, bathroom and closet. There was no dust to speak of, and most things were stacked neatly. Still, it was a really disturbing image...until I went to the place of a dirty hoarder. A childhood friend of mine was living with a girl who refused to clean. They lived in a one-bedroom place with a full kitchen and dining area. The living room was cluttered with pizza boxes, cereal boxes, and a whole lot of dirty towels. The kitchen had more pizza boxes (with receipts on them from a year previous!), soda containers, dozens of used popcorn was a legitimate health risk. The bathroom had not been cleaned since they moved in, and the toilet had a beard on it. Simply disgusting.

I asked my friend how he could live like that, and he replied that it was his girlfriend's mess, she should clean it up. Classic depression response, so I can see where anybody could be affected by living in a dirty place.

I haven't stepped foot in there since, and just about cried in agony when I heard they're now engaged!!

chuck b. said...

Sad story, but really interesting. (And it sounds like reference material for a vintage John Waters movie.)

I'm inclined to agree with the idea that bad housekeeping around children should be a crime at some point...but at what point? What elements should trigger an action (and what action)?

And, interestingly, the idea at issue is "housekeeping" not "housecleaning". Keeping is a larger, more nebulous concept than cleaning. Poor housekeeping sounds worse than mere poor housecleaning.

I can see having children in a home infested with bedbugs, roaches and rats (keeping and cleaning) being a legal problem. I suppose in many places it probably is.

Or what about a place that's structurally unsafe (more keeping than cleaning).

I think if it was me, I would find it depressing to come home to a poorly housekept home every day. And I think that could aggravate other problems I might have in life.

But you can't arrest parents for providing a depressing home. I'm sure there are plenty of depressing homes kept spic and span. ("spic and span"? WTF)

My mom was really intense about housecleaning and I found it to be too much. To this day, I have issues with too much housecleaning. We only clean the house--really clean it--every other week, with maintenance cleaning on an as needed basis (i.e., the dishes need to be done every day).

I should be more understanding of my poor mother now, since she kept house with two kids, and I keep it with none.

vw: xgivn--to be forgiven by a secular god.

Ann Althouse said...

Chuck: I think if you really clean the house every other week you're cleaner than most people. Personally, I try to take steps to avoid getting the place dirty -- notably, taking shoes off at the door -- and then I try to avoid cleaning until something makes me feel bad enough. This works well enough and I think the place looks clean. But I think everyone has some housekeeping deficiency that would upset other people -- in the sense of something that would be utterly unacceptable in a hotel.

Daryl Herbert said...

I'd shave my toilet before I let it grow a beard.

I hope this lady makes lots of bucks off the school. They failed the boy as much as she did. The point of transferring the wealth isn't because she deserves it, it's to punish the school district.

If they're never punished, why should they ever change? I would allow the school administrators to substitute receiving a public flogging for making financial payouts to the mother. That would be justice.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely, if you have children there has to be a point where slobbery becomes a crime.

In college one year I lived in a house with four other guys and a ferret. (Note to self: possible sitcom idea.) It was filthy beyond belief. The bathroom was so gross, I'm gagging a little right now just thinking about it. But it was good times!

But if you have kids, that kind of thing should be a crime. The problem is, you can't really codify it. But you know it when you see it: Criminal Slobbery. It has to be a case by case thing.

Melissa Clouthier said...

Good grief! I can hear my mother now. She would squeal in delight at the notion of a law insisting on a righteous level of cleanliness. God forbid she's the social worker investigating some poor single mother's home for an "acceptable" dirt level.

Meanwhile schools, social workers and parents all miss the real problems--a tortured child perhaps (as an aside I wonder if Saddam is defecating in his underwear to avoid the cartoon torture).

The messy house may or may not be a symptom of an uncaring parent. A clean house can be a symptom of a caring parent (or not)--they might just care about having a clean house.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Yes, it is. And so is obesity -- it is called creating an unlawful public disturbance.

Hoarder's Son said...

I have no trouble believing that the Connecticut boy's family circumstances contributed greatly to the bullying he experienced at school as well as to his eventual suicide, since I grew up in similar circumstances, and until I finally grew big enough to fight back, I was relentlessly bullied by other kids for living in a pigsty. It was a daily struggle to deal with the deep shame of growing up in a hoarder's home, and I fought back suicide for many years.

Try to imagine growing up in a house with a kitchen like this one, like I did. (We were not poor, but my mom had a crippling case of obsessive compulsive hoarding disorder.)

Bad housekeeping by itself is not a crime, but in pathological hoarding cases, it can definitely reach the level of neglect and child abuse, not to mention violating numerous housing, health, and safety codes.

If you would like to learn about the impact of this kind of environment on children, please take a look at the "Children of Hoarders" site at .

I also have some potentially useful links (but not much else yet) at my own website.

Hoarder's Son said...

PS. I forgot to mention that I saw a few news reports about this case on local TV. From what I saw of the exterior of the family's home and property, I am pretty sure that the interior is not too far removed from the picture of my own childhood home in the above comment.