Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 13, 2012

Stephen Dick: Family arrested for being poor

By Stephen Dick
CNHI columnist

---- — A couple of weeks ago, David and Rebecca Detjen were on their way to California from Pennsylvania. They were going to the Golden State to find employment. They got as far as Indiana and wound up in jail.

Thanks to a busybody relative, state police inspected their rental truck and found seven children, 15 caged cats and all of their possessions. The Detjens were arrested for neglect of a dependent. Because of the severe economic strain that occupies a poor person's every waking moment, Rebecca was concerned about how much higher the rental truck fee would be during their jail time.

A judge in Henry County said that while he sympathized with the Detjens, he thought neglect of a dependent charges should go forward.

Less than a week later, the Detjens were out of jail, their bond paid by a Texan, one of many people from around the country who offered to help the couple. Still, they're stuck in Indiana waiting on the fates of their children who were scattered about to foster families.

It's important to remember that neglect of a dependent is just a legal term — in this case — for violating the comfortable, middle-class sensibilities of those who think protecting children from poor parents is better than forcing the children into the families of strangers.

Reading this reminded me of the Joads in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Of course, the Joads were fictitious, but the Okies leaving their dust-bowl land for fertile California valleys and the promise of fruit-picking work was all too real. What they encountered turned out to be nearly as bad as what they left.

The banks that ordered their Oklahoma homes to be bulldozed turned into land barons who exploited their labor. In John Ford's film version, the Joads' truck — packed with children, elders, a pregnant woman and, for part of the trip, a dead family member — stops at a gas station on the edge of the desert. As they drive off into that punishing terrain, one of the attendants says that no man should take a jalopy like that into the desert. His pal says, "They ain't human. Human beings couldn't live like that."

Now, 80 years later, that's precisely the attitude that greets the Detjens.

Surviving while poor is an outrage to those with comfy homes and salaries like the reporters who dug into David Detjen's past and found he pleaded guilty in 1989 to raping a 15-year-old girl. He was 18 at the time and received a four-year suspended sentence. Then there was the neighbor who recalled the Detjens as "nasty, disorganized, dirty people."

That sounds like the Joads who did their best to stay clean and organized with little money to aid them while oldest son Tom was in prison for "homicide." (In the film, Henry Fonda pronounces it with a long "o.")

To be sure, the Detjens weren't too smart about things. They sure didn't need seven kids or 15 cats. But David could've left them behind while he went to the promised land for work as many people did during the war years when they migrated from south to north to work in defense production in the auto factories.

The Detjens wanted to keep their family together. Neglect of a dependent? Hardly. The children, one of whom was 18, might have been a little cold, but they were safe. It was probably an adventure to them as it was the Joad kids.

Neglect of a dependent comes from a society that marginalizes and punishes those who don't conform to the bourgeois mentality. It comes from a society where people have to uproot and chase low-paid jobs just for survival. It comes from a society where the law is on the side of land barons and those who look down on the poor as nasty and dirty instead of screaming with outrage over the circumstances that brought the Detjens through Indiana.

Beyond paying bail, where is the employer who will offer the Detjens work? How about the Koch brothers and their energy industry? How about Wal-Mart or Ford? And how about the millions of others just like the Detjens who don't get caught by the police and end up in the newspapers?

Stephen Dick is an editor at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Ind. Contact him at