Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Arrest the Parents – Podcast #74

Here is a thinking question for you: Should parents be held responsible for the delinquent behavior of their children? For example, if a child was to constantly skip school, should the parent be fined or penalized in some way? Or, if a child committed a crime, should the parent be jailed for negligence?   

Having been a high school teacher for thirty years, I have heard this idea suggested by others over the years. Now I don’t pretend to have an answer, nor do I desire to sway your opinion in any way, but I encourage you to keep this question in the back of your mind as you read the following story from January 1947.

At the time, New York City police were on the hunt for a sniper who had been taking potshots from both rooftops and street level with a 22-caliber rifle. Over a 24-hour period, three unsuspecting people were shot in the vicinity of 50th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. None of the victims were severely injured, but the community was on edge.  Neighborhood children told authorities that it was the work of a teenage boy that they had been providing food for. Known only as “Gypsy”, police went door to door in search of the suspect, but he was nowhere to be found.

There was a very good reason for that. While most children had been in school, this boy hadn’t attended in months. Instead, he typically filled his day by riding the Ninth Avenue bus for long stretches of time. Once they learned of this habit, police greeted him with open arms as he stepped off of the bus during the evening of Wednesday, January 22nd

Gypsy turned out to be 14-year-old Frank Problet, Jr. Frankie immediately admitted to the shootings using a rifle that he had recently stolen from a pawn shop window.

As police questioned the boy, he claimed that he was homeless, did not have a father, and had no clue as to where his mother was living. Frankie had last seen her two days prior in a tavern. He said that he had been living on the streets, mostly in the entranceways and cellars of various buildings around the neighborhood.

Unlike today, the judicial system moved quite quickly back then and the very next day Frankie was found guilty of juvenile delinquency and sent off to the New York State Training School for Boys in rural Warwick, NY.  The general idea of the Warwick school, which was transformed in 1977 into the recently closed Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, was to take children out of their dysfunctional and often violent city lives and place them into a structured facility that offered them structure, support, education, and practical skills such as farming and woodworking. In its early years, this program had incredible success and while I have no way of confirming one way or the other, it would be nice to think that the gypsy Frankie Problet was one of them and lived happily ever after.

Normally that would be the end of the story and in a big city like New York, sending a boy off to reform school would be far too minuscule of a story to ever make the New York Times. But Frank Jr’s case was very different. That’s because he just happened to be arrested just at the moment when then city police commissioner Arthur W. Wallender had decided to crack down on a postwar surge in juvenile delinquency.

His secret weapon was a long-forgotten law that New York State had passed thirty-seven years earlier in an attempt to hold parents responsible for the actions of their children. Under the law, a child was to be dealt with in a juvenile court and the parent in an adult criminal court. As a result, the judges in the children’s courts lacked the jurisdiction to have the parents arrested and the law was basically never used.

But that didn’t stop Commissioner Wallender. The parents of Frank Problet, Jr. would prove to be the first prosecuted under this newly revived law. Actually, it was just one parent – his mom. She had divorced dad five years prior and was awarded sole custody of Frankie and his older sister: 16-year-old Olga.

Genevieve Rivera. Image appeared on page 3 of the June 25, 1947 issue of the New York Daily News.
Genevieve Rivera. Image appeared on page 3 of the June 25, 1947 issue of the New York Daily News.

Late on Thursday, January 23rd of 1947, Genevieve Rivera was arrested and charged with neglecting her offspring. It was quickly learned that she had been born in Puerto Rico to a family that had far too many children to care for, so her parents opted to send her at the age of eight to New York City to be raised by childless relatives.  When Genevieve turned sixteen, the couple unsuccessfully tried to marry her off to a man twice her age. Instead, she married another older man – Frank Problet – at age nineteen and gave birth to the two children by the time she was 20 years of age.

That marriage didn’t last. Dad eventually abandoned his family, forcing mom to find any type of work that she could to keep food on the table and a roof over their head. Unable to do so, Genevieve “drifted into a shameful, tawdry life.”  Unable to care for her children, she sent them to live with her mother-in-law, which led to young Frankie living on the streets.

So what we have here is an uneducated 33-year-old woman who was basically abandoned by her parents at a young age, spoke no English, was unemployed and flat broke, and was now facing a fine or possible jail time for being a bad parent and the supposed cause of her son’s crime. To make matters worse, it was revealed that Olga had run away and could not be found.

The morning after her arrest, which would be Friday, January 24th, she was arraigned in children’s court, held on $1,000 bail, and remanded to the Woman’s House of Detention. A hearing was held before Justice Matthew J. Diserio on Monday. He found her guilty of violating Section 61 of the Domestic Relations Act.

Guilt is one thing, but what would the sentence be for a crime that her child committed? Possibly a few days, weeks, a month? For that answer, Genevieve would have to wait four more days to find out.  I don’t think anyone was prepared for what the judge did. He gave her the maximum sentence allowed for a misdemeanor at the time – one year in the penitentiary.

During the sentencing, Justice Diserio said, “You, Mrs. Rivera, by your own actions and conduct have been found guilty by me. There is no question that I gave you a fair trial. But how could the decision be other when you went from bar to grill, drink after drink, and from apartment to apartment with men as you yourself testified?”

He added, “It was through your neglect that three innocent persons were shot by your delinquent son. They might have lost their lives or have been maimed for life.”

Almost immediately, a debate started as to whether or not this decision was a correct one.

For example, Edward Carey, a brigadier for the Salvation Army, was quoted as saying, “As a curative measure, this is ineffective. The only worthwhile effect it may have will be on other parents. It may shock them into some sense of responsibility.”

He added, “It’s a rather sad commentary in a society that requires plumbers, elevator operators, bricklayers, lawyers and doctors to be highly trained for their task, that there is no universal requirement for parenthood except the biological ability to procreate.”

On a March 3, 1947 broadcast of the show “In My Opinion” on WCBS radio, G. Howland Shaw, then the president of the Welfare Council of New York City strongly criticized “the over-emphasizing of the role of parental responsibility in juvenile delinquency.” He added that “if this over-emphasis should coincide with the popular belief that punishment of the parents is a new way of solving the problem of juvenile delinquency, then we have taken an important step backwards.”

Appearing on the same show, Justice Diserio countered with “Could I or would I be so spineless as to adjourn the case, step aside and refuse to perform my duty? Of course not. The mother was fairly and properly tried, for such neglect, was found guilty and sentenced. I simply had performed my duty.” He further stated that there was “entirely too much parental neglect” and that it was “high time for a showdown.”

An appeal of the decision was arranged by the Society for the Prevention of Crime at no cost to Ms. Rivera. The appeal was made on two grounds: First, that the one-year sentence was disproportionate to her supposed offense. And, second, that the court didn’t have any jurisdiction to hear the case. In other words, why should an adult be tried and convicted in a court designated for children?

At a discussion titled “Juvenile Delinquency: Who is to Blame?” at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on March 17th, Edwin Lucas, executive director of the society filing the appeal, said, “She had no strength left. She tried to support her children, but she couldn’t. Parents have contributed a great deal to the delinquency of their children. But just as children are seen as products and victims of their environment, so are the parents products and victims, too.”

Mrs. Philip Houtz commented, “What makes one child become a juvenile delinquent while a brother or sister grow up into a law-abiding citizen when they are both subject to the same environment in the same family?”

Whether the decision to punish parents for the delinquency of their children was hotly debated at the time, there was one small positive effect. That was that the children’s court was receiving between twenty and thirty calls each day from parents who feared being arrested themselves. Basically, they were throwing their own children under the bus to save their own hides.

On June 25th of 1947, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision. The court said that the lower children’s court did, in fact, have jurisdiction to convict her. And, “There was sufficient competent evidence to justify a conclusion that defendant had been grossly negligent of the child’s welfare.”

That all makes it sound like Genevieve Rivera had lost the case, but the court reversed her conviction. Why? Very simple. All that talk of the taverns she had been visiting, the men that she had been spending time with, and just the general nature of her life was all hearsay evidence. As a result, it should not have been used against her and the court reversed her conviction and recommended a new trial, should the authorities deem it necessary since she had already spent five months in prison.

At least that’s where everyone thought she was. The day after the decision was overturned, it was learned that since she had been acting oddly behind bars, she had been sent to Bellevue Hospital for evaluation and determined to be suffering from dementia praecox, today better known as schizophrenia. As a result, she had been committed to the New York State Hospital for the Criminally Insane three weeks earlier.

I was unable to find out whether Ms. Rivera was ever released or not, but I did find a story written about ten months after her conviction was overturned that indicated that she had not.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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