A Mother Jones investigation found at least 139 women, disproportionately women of color, have been imprisoned for someone else’s child abuse conviction under a dangerous law that went in effect in 2009 in Oklahoma. It’s meant to criminalize parents for failing to protect their children from child abuse. The problem is that prosecutors seem to be interpreting “parents” as “mothers,” in some cases leading to harsher sentences for the nonabusive parent than the actual abuser.
According to the legal statute, “’failure to protect’ means failure to take reasonable action to remedy or prevent child abuse or neglect, and includes the conduct of a non-abusing parent or guardian who knows the identity of the abuser or the person neglecting the child, but lies, conceals, or fails to report the child abuse or neglect, or otherwise take reasonable action to end the abuse or neglect.”
What the law fails to take into account are situations in which the parent, most often the mother, is also a victim of abuse.
Colleen McCarty, an attorney and advocate for legal reforms, told Mother Jones the law oftentimes isn’t applied equally between women and men. “In my experience, it seems like society has a much higher expectation of care on the woman in a family unit than they would on the male,” McCarty said.
Black women, who make up less than 10% of Oklahoma’s population, were disproportionately prosecuted; overall, women of color were found guilty in 19% of cases where the Oklahoma statute was applied since 2009, Mother Jones found.
“They do not feel safe to report because they’re in a dangerous situation, and then the harm just continues and perpetuates,” McCarty said.
At least six states—Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—had failure to protect laws in place as of an Associated Press report in 2018, and by 2022, they existed in most states, Mother Jones reporter Samantha Michaels tweeted.
That same year, a parole board in Oklahoma refused to shorten the sentence of Tondalao Hall, a Black woman never charged with abusing her children, but sentenced to 30 years in prison for failing to tell police about the abuse her boyfriend inflicted, the AP reported. Robert Braxton Jr. had choked, punched, and broken the ribs and femur of Hall’s 3-month-old daughter and was sentenced in 2006 to probation and two years already served while he waited for his trial.
Hall’s sentence was commuted in 2019.
ONLY ON 5: Tondalao Hall’s children are looking forward to the future, one with her free, out from behind bars. Tonight, they spoke publicly for the first time about abuse at the hands of their father, their mother’s punishment and the relative they’re grateful took them in. pic.twitter.com/mima9hjkBQ
— Porsha Riley (@PorshaRiley_) November 8, 2019
But Kerry King, another Oklahoma mother sentenced to 30 years in prison for her boyfriend’s actions, is still in jail, Mother Jones reported.
“Do you love me?” her 10-year-old daughter Lilah asked her a week before Christmas last year during a visit.
When the mother said “of course,” the child followed up with: “Do you still love him? Because if you still love him, I’ll never forgive you.”
It was the kind of response that needed a longer conversation—one that King’s short time for visitation didn’t allow.
“I am not guilty,” she had earlier told Mother Jones. “I just wanna go home. I wanna see my kids so bad. It kind of eats you up.”
Kerry King never hurt her kids. She was a longtime survivor of domestic violence. But she was convicted under a type of child abuse law—a “failure to protect” law. They exist in most states. And they are extremely problematic. 2/x pic.twitter.com/Xv5EwLO90p
— Samantha Michaels (@sjmichaels) August 9, 2022
King told the nonprofit newsroom that her ex-boyfriend, John Purdy, abused both her and her daughter, but she didn’t find out about the harm done to her child until she noticed bruises on her child’s legs that Purdy said were the result of a fall.
King said she later caught Purdy with his fingers around the child’s neck and punched him. He retaliated, slamming King’s head against a wall and forcing her to hold Lilah down to be spanked, the mother said.
King told Mother Jones she later threw her body over her daughter to protect her. “I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
King was sentenced to 12 years longer than Purdy.
Danielle Ezell, a board member for the nonprofit Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, told the AP that women are being sentenced “to two times, three times, four times the amount that the abuser was.”
“Maybe we’re doing more harm than good,” she said.
Megan Lambert, legal director for the ACLU of Oklahoma, told Mother Jones that the people charged under failure to protect laws often haven’t harmed their children. “They were put in impossible situations and were not able to act fast enough,” she said. Lambert also said Oklahoma’s law is “inherently problematic” because often “motherhood is used as the grounds that they ‘should have known.’”
“It’s sexism,” Lambert said. “It’s the assumption that women are responsible for all the goings-on in the home.”
Lambert told Mother Jones the law should treat a victim of abuse as exactly that—a victim—and not as “someone who is in need of prosecution and incarceration.”
“It creates another barrier for domestic violence victims to seek help, because now they are also threatened with criminalization and incarceration, which also means losing their children,” Lambert said.
This content was originally published here.