Saturday, May 30, 2009
Mom Fell Through the Cracks
By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
A single paragraph in the Journal's coverage of the Tiffany and Tyrus Toribio tragedy jumps out at me.
Toribio's attorney, Lelia Hood, said her client recently fell on bad economic times when retailer Linens 'n Things closed its doors. Hood said Toribio had worked for the retailer for about 18 months before losing her job.
What grabs me is that 18 months is a long time for a young woman to work in a single retail store, an industry where turnover is expected to be high. My image of an accused murderer is tempered just a little bit by the possibility Tiffany Toribio was, like most of us, trying to get by.
I've lost a few jobs involuntarily over the years. I remember the desperation I felt when I lost a job. I remember the fear when weeks went by and another job hadn't shown up.
There is no excuse for killing a child. If, as the police say, Tiffany Toribio smothered her son, the existence of bad economic times mitigates nothing. Many thousands of Americans have lost their jobs in the past year, and very few of them have killed anyone. You will get no society-is-to-blame argument from me.
But a life is always more complicated than we can possibly know. How did the life of a 23-year-old woman come apart on one dreadful night? How, over a period of months or years, did Tiffany Toribio get to the Alvarado Park playground where, it is alleged, she murdered Tyrus and buried his body in the sand under the swing set?
Toribio reportedly arrived at a police substation saying she and her child had nowhere to go. They'd been thrown out of family homes and out of what police call a "party house," which I infer to be a place where people consume licit and illicit intoxicants.
The police say they told her about the many social programs available to help her find a place to stay. Since Tyrus' death, the Journal has received several letters describing the help Toribio could have received that night, from Women in Need, from the state, from Joy Junction. I heard a caller to a talk radio program say lots of people would have been thrilled to adopt Tyrus.
Obviously, by the time Toribio showed up at the police substation, it was far too late for a homeless shelter to be of any help to Tyrus.
Linens 'n Things closed its Albuquerque store last October. Is that when Toribio lost her job, or was she let go earlier, as the company began its death spiral? If she made the median wage for a retail clerk, she was making around $10 an hour. Since she was relatively new, the wage was probably closer to $7.
I've heard nothing about her education, except that she had some dental hygienist training. Did she have any job skills that might be in demand during a recession that has Harvard MBAs driving cabs to make a living?
Toribio was from Zia Pueblo. A 2004 study from the University of New Mexico Southwest Hispanic Research Institute said that 36.2 percent of the state's Indians live in poverty, compared with about 20 percent of all New Mexicans and 17 percent of Americans. If Toribio was among that population, the state provides temporary financial aid and food stamps, but ultimately the poor are on their own.
Health care might have been a problem. The Indian Health Service has cut its services drastically because of funding problems. Tyrus might have been eligible for Medicaid, but that doesn't mean he got it. A lot of eligible kids aren't on Medicaid, and the state isn't anxious to get them enrolled these days because it doesn't have enough money to pay the bills.
Few adults can get Medicaid. Unless Toribio had private insurance, she was out of luck if she became seriously ill.
I wonder about that party house. I imagine a living room full of people in various states of inebriation. Was that Tiffany Toribio's life?
Substance abuse is a public health problem that we treat like a crime. Most homelessness is a public health problem, too, for that matter. The public health professionals I know say the system barely functions because it is so poorly funded. If Toribio had a drug or alcohol problem, publicly funded treatment options are few.
As for adoption, the state says more than 1,000 children in foster homes alone are waiting for adoption. Tyrus' adoption would have been controlled by the Indian Child Welfare Act, which limits the number of families eligible to adopt Indian children. Post mortem enthusiasm for adopting children notwithstanding, Tyrus would have had a lot of competition for a limited number of adoptive families.
There was a lot of help for Tyrus and Tiffany when they fell through the cracks, if only Toribio had reached out for it. Before they fell through the cracks, not so much.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Win can be reached at 823-3896 or at wquigley@ abqjournal. com. Read his blog on the Journal's online Web edition, ABQjournal.com.