Should we hold mothers responsible when their children are abused by another adult? A growing number of activists and journalists believe the answer is no. They argue that because the mothers are often themselves being abused that it’s unfair to punish them — either by incarceration or by removing children from their custody — for the actions of these men.
A recent story in Mother Jones, for instance, decries the laws that incarcerate women for their “failure to protect” children. The author profiles a woman named Kerry King, whose live-in boyfriend had been abusing her daughter for a year. She frequently left the girl alone with the man who was using heroin. She noticed bruises on the girl’s body. Her daughter told her they were from when the boyfriend was “mean.” But she claims she never thought the girl was in danger until one day when he had his “fingers around her neck” and King tried to intervene. That’s when he slammed King against the wall and told her to hold the child down while he beat her with a belt. King did as she was told, “hoping that if she complied, it would be over faster.”
King was sent to prison for failing to protect her daughter, the result, according to Mother Jones, of a “classist,” “racist” “criminal justice system that makes mothers ultra-culpable, blaming them for things that are largely outside their control.” One Oklahoma attorney interviewed for the piece explained that “it becomes insurmountable, the number of things [women] have to do in order to be in compliance with what we think is a good mother.” If that includes not holding down a child while your boyfriend is beating her, the bar actually seems a little low.
What the critics fail to understand is that it is possible to see these women as both victims and also adults legally responsible for their children’s well-being. In most of these incidents, the children are not the offspring of the man involved. Rather, the woman has chosen him as a boyfriend, brought her children into his orbit, and stayed with him long after it was clear he was a danger. (The presence of a non-relative male in a home makes the abuse of children about 11 times more likely than in a home where a child is living with both biological parents.)
In a USA Today article last year, a team of reporters found that women who were the victims of domestic violence and remained with their abusers sometimes lost custody of their children. The authors were outraged that investigators “criticized abused mothers and their choices,” and that “mothers bear the brunt of caseworkers scrutiny because they are typically their children’s primary caregivers.”
Who is supposed to bear the brunt of the scrutiny if not their primary caregivers? USA Today cites one woman whose infant and toddler were temporarily removed from her custody after her ex-boyfriend (with whom she apparently had regular contact) beat her unconscious in front of the kids. Even if an adult doesn’t lay a hand on the children, the notion that the children are perfectly fine even while their primary caregiver is lying bloodied on the floor seems strange. A man who beats his girlfriend doesn’t always beat his children, but there is certainly a much higher likelihood of it happening. Nevertheless, some advocates are even arguing for less police intervention in domestic violence cases because it might result in involvement from child protective services.
An article from last year in The New Republic described a similar group of women who were incarcerated and lost custody of their children because of crimes they committed at the behest of their abusive partners. The authors cite the case of Tanisha Williams. After an abusive boyfriend, Patrick A. Martin, forced her to help him commit murder in 2002, she ran away and had no permanent address or way to support herself. She left her baby in the car at night to procure drugs and sex work. “She swept the place with her gun cocked. Only once it was clear would she carry [the baby] inside.”
The author argues that the system is unfair because “Women must . . . navigate gendered binaries in a system designed by and for men . . . Female victims should fit a paradigm of innocence: a petite, heterosexual white woman with a clean record.” The problem is not that Tanisha is not white or even that she doesn’t have a clean record. Whatever Tanisha’s criminal punishment should be, there is no way that leaving a baby in her custody is in the best interests of that child.
The New Yorker, too, took up a similar crusade a few years ago, arguing that district attorneys were “criminalizing survivors of domestic violence,” by prosecuting women for allowing their children to be harmed by the men in their lives. As one lawyer explained: “You can see a woman in a domestic-violence situation here . . . and all the DAs want to do is punish her . . . I’m reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ so maybe I’m just in a dystopian mood.”
There is good reason to be in a dystopian mood, but it is not because of the way the law treats these mothers. Those experiencing the real dystopia are the children. The one person who is supposed to protect them from predatory adults has chosen over and over to place them in harm’s way. And now more people want to ensure they will never be rescued.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”