When Hurricane Florence battered the Carolinas in September, Dazia Lee’s tragic story made national headlines. Thinking the storm had passed on Sept. 16, the 20-year-old Lee headed out to her grandmother’s house with her 1-year-old son, Kaiden, strapped in his car seat. The drive took a tragic turn when a flash flood overcame the car, and as Lee tried to escape with her toddler, she lost him to the surging floodwaters.
On Monday, Union County, N.C. Sheriff’s office charged Lee with involuntary manslaughter for the death of her toddler, and for driving on a closed or unopened highway, the Washington Post reports. If convicted, she could spend 13-16 months behind bars.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP quickly spoke out against the charges, saying the decision to punish Lee appears racially motivated.
“She was attempting to get her child out of the car, not to have her child die, and to charge her on top of the fact that she is in mourning for the rest of her life, that represents implicit bias, insensitivity, and even racism,” Corine Mack, president of the NAACP chapter, told the Post.
In an earlier interview with the Post shortly after her son’s death, Lee said she drove past the barricades after seeing other cars emerging from the same road. But once she drove past the orange barrels, a surge of water hit her car. She gripped Kaiden to her chest, writes the Post, before the powerful flood waters pulled her son away. Kaiden’s body was found the next day.
In a press conference given on the day Kaiden was found, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey noted that Lee had “suffered tragically.”
“She lost a child. That’s all you can say. But let me say this: These were dangerous times. Driving through water where the roads are closed is dangerous for anybody,” he said. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office told the Post the evidence “would support the filing of charges.”
But Mack notes that two N.C. sheriff’s deputies transporting two mental health patients who ended up drowning in the storm were not charged with those deaths (though they were eventually fired).
“Black men and women are disproportionately arrested and charged for similar infractions of white citizens who are not arrested or charged,” Mack said.
This pattern extends towards child care and parenting, where black parents and guardians are routinely monitored and judged more harshly than their white peers for similar behaviors. According to a recent Appeal article, studies have found doctors are “more likely to report injuries on black children as suspected child abuse than identical injuries on white children…[and] caseworkers are quicker to perceive black children as being at risk and in need of removal from their homes.”