Alex Campbell has written a worthwhile article on the way laws in several US states can punish a battered woman when her child is murdered by the batterer (the article contents include descriptions of brutal violence aimed at children). The objective behind the laws that sometimes achieve that result is a laudable one: to make sure that parents protect their children:
At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In Texas, where Lindley lives, the crime is known as injury to a child “by omission.” In other states, it goes by “permitting child abuse” or “enabling child abuse.” In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.These laws are not all the same. Some, such as the Texas law, allow extremely long sentences to be given to the parent who failed to protect. Only a few state laws allow any consideration of the possibility that the parent accused of failure to protect might have been another victim of a domestic abuser.
These laws make parents responsible for what they did not do. Typically, people cannot be prosecuted for failing to thwart a murder; they had to have actually helped carry it out. But child abuse is an exception, and the logic behind these laws is simple: Parents and caregivers bear a solemn duty to protect their children.
And that is what most of Campbell's article addresses: That battered women might be given prison sentences as long as forty-five years for failing to protect their children:
No one knows how many women have suffered a fate like Lindley’s, but looking back over the past decade, BuzzFeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.These cases might not be a random pick from all cases where a child is killed by the father, stepfather or boyfriend of the mother. But they do suggest that mothers are held to a very high standard of what it means not to protect a child. More evidence on that comes when the reverse types of killings are analyzed: where the mother (or the female partner of the father) is the killer:
Almost half, 13 mothers, were given 20 years or more. In one case, the mother was given a life sentence for failing to protect her son, just like the man who murdered the infant boy. In another, the sentences were effectively the same: The killer got life, and the mother got 75 years, of which she must serve at least 63 years and nine months. In yet another, the mother got a longer sentence than the man who raped her son. In one more, a father fractured an infant girl’s toe, femur, and seven ribs and was sentenced to two years; for failing to intervene, the mother got 30.
The laws against failing to prevent child abuse are written to cover both fathers and mothers. And, in fact, women perpetrate 34% of serious or fatal cases of physical abuse of children, according to the latest congressionally mandated national study of child abuse. But interviews and BuzzFeed News’ analysis of cases show that fathers rarely face prosecution for failing to stop their partners from harming their children. Overwhelmingly, women bear the weight of these laws.
BuzzFeed News found a total of 73 cases of mothers who, regardless of whether they were battered, were sentenced to 10 years or more. For fathers, BuzzFeed News found only four cases.
White, Lindley’s prosecutor, couldn’t recall prosecuting any fathers for failure to protect from physical abuse.
“Mothers are held to a very different standard,” said Kris McDaniel-Miccio, a law professor at the University of Denver whose expertise is domestic violence. She said that the lopsided application of these laws reflects deeply ingrained social norms that women should sacrifice themselves for their children.
Some of that difference may be due to the fact that women are more likely to have custody than men when the birth parents of the child are not together. But looking at those cases in some detail would be useful, to see whether mothers and fathers are treated as equally responsible to protect their children.