Charleena Lyles: Ableism, Racism, and Gendered Violence

By Alicia Gill, Director of Research and Program Evaluation, YWCA USA

This week, a pregnant Charleena Lyles was murdered in front of her four young children by police officers responding to her emergency—she had been burglarized and was likely shaken up when she made the call for help. The responding officers knew and discussed the fact that she had a history of mental health concerns and was a survivor of domestic violence. She had expressed concerns of having her children taken away, and of the continued violence she had already experienced. This horrifying story is neither shocking nor new. Black women are caught at the intersections of trauma, increased policing, excessive force, healthcare systems that are outright hostile and doctors who don’t take Black pain seriously. This has long been known. We know that ableism and anti-Blackness is ingrained in our institutions, and that this is something that can kill us – and this week, it killed Charleena Lyles.

When I was in graduate school for my masters in social work, I spent a year working in Washington, DC’s mental health system. For part of the year, I provided community-based support primarily to folks living with persistent schizophrenia who also had histories of trauma. I often accompanied and drove the folks I worked with to doctor’s appointments, to their houses, to therapists and to other kinds of wrap-around services. I did this alone. For the other half of the year, I worked at a Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, working with folks on the streets who were experiencing acute psychiatric crises to help them get services and safety without police intervention. At the emergency psychiatric program, we worked in teams. My boss and I, both young Black women, worked closely together. Our deep and personal understanding of and experience with the intersections of racism in mental health services, foster care, child protective service programs, and policing meant that we took every care not to expose the folks we worked with to more traumatizing systems. Having come from a decade of doing rape crisis and domestic violence advocacy work prior to graduate school, survivor-centered advocacy and trauma-informed care was central to my values.

The work that my boss and I did with community members in the midst of psychiatric crises, wasn’t always a perfect model, but we had a way of navigating these systems and an analysis that would not allow us to put people in more danger through police engagement. We were acutely aware of the alarming fact that half of all people killed by police are folks with disabilities. We knew that the ableism, often sexism, usually racism (and anti-Blackness in particular), that police exhibit was often triggering for the folks we worked with, and for us ourselves, and that this would put them in more danger. Knowing this, we never made the choice to call the police on a person in crisis. We did not want to endanger the very people we were trying to help. I cannot speak to mental health organizations writ-large; this was only our very small two-person team in a large-scale system of historical violence.

In my psychiatric response team, we were two young women of color, with cell phones, car keys, good training, experience and case notes, and we were often able to de-escalate mental health crises without the intervention of police. We served as a safety net of sorts, to help community members get the help they needed. In Charleena’s case, the systems failed her. Instead of a trauma-informed, survivor-centered response, she was shot dead by police when she called for help. 

Maybe if our social safety nets could have caught Charleena, she would still be with us today. Charleena was a mom and a whole person living with a mental illness. For those of us working at the intersections of women’s health, reproductive justice and gender-based violence, we know the fear domestic violence survivors voice about having their children taken away as a result of their partner’s violence or fleeing violence and running into homelessness only to have threat of child protective services intervention. We know that the majority of women who are engaged in any criminal justice system are survivors of trauma and have symptoms of PTSD or another serious mental illness. We knew that reproductive justice includes the right of women with disabilities to have children, and keep them alive in this world. And we know that women’s access to health care, including mental health care makes a difference.

I am devastated by the murder of Charleena Lyles. I am shaken up thinking about the trauma those children must be experiencing, and by all of the ways our systems let her and her family down. I am also disturbed by the racist, sexist and ableist victim-blaming suggesting that Black women with mental illnesses should not have children, or that her children should have long been taken away. These kinds of comments have real historical context and are pain points for many Black women, who for so long had no legal control over our own bodies. The systems we have in place to protect women and families are broken, and it is almost always Black women who pay the cost.

Charleena Lyles deserved better. She deserved an empathetic response, she deserved medical treatment and mental health support, and she deserves our advocacy. Advocacy to right the wrongs against her, and for many other women at risk of falling through the cracks, being forgotten, or being taken away from the world too soon. Her children deserved more, and we will continue to demand freedom for our communities. Black motherhood matters. Black lives matter. #SayHerName