Blaming a Victim? Battered Women and State Child Protection Laws

by Jacqueline Mabatah

Buzzfeed” is not particularly known as a website for its newsworthy content. However, one headline involving a battered woman who received a forty five-year jail sentence after her partner murdered her son, for which the abuser received life with the possibility of parole, piqued my interest in state laws that touch on the intersections of race, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Arlena Lindley, an African American woman, and her three-year old son Titches, from a previous relationship, lived with her abusive boyfriend, Alonzo Turner. One afternoon, Turner whipped Titches with a thick leather belt, threw him against the wall, pressed his foot in the boy’s chest, and put the boy’s head in the toilet and flushed, just because the boy had soiled himself. Turner threatened to kill Lindley if she tried to take the boy out of the house. However, seizing a short window of opportunity, Lindley attempted to free herself and her son from Turner, but she was too slow. Turner locked Lindley and her friend outside of the house. When Lindley would return later in the day, Titches would be dead and Turner arrested for his death. Even though Lindley attempted to rescue her son, Lindley was also charged with failing to protect her child from Turner. Police and prosecutors argued that Lindley didn’t do enough. She failed to seek help by either calling the police or social services after Turner had locked her out.

Domestic violence, especially in communities of color, is all too prominent. Statistics from the Department of Justice National Violence Against Women Survey released in 2000, reveal that fifty percent of Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner. More than thirty percent of African American women are raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Moreover, African American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate more than 35% higher than that of white women, and about 2.5 times more than women of other races.

Issues involving child safety are undoubtedly sensitive areas of discussion. Both women and men have a duty to protect children, however, prosecutors seem to be less aggressive in pursuing cases against men who fail to protect their children from their abusive female partners. What is most disturbing about this case, and others like it, is how prosecutors have blatantly used the woman’s abuse as evidence of the woman’s reckless endangerment of the child. While some will argue that a woman is as culpable as the abuser for staying in an abusive relationship—a mother should lay her life on the line for her child—such arguments, although not meritless, not only blame the woman, who is often a victim herself, but also are too simplistic. What troubles me is that these women are battered—often victims of repeated physical and sexual abuse—and they lose a child, or a child is severely injured, and they are then placed behind bars—for the rest of their lives in some states like Texas and Oklahoma. How much more are they expected to endure?

Women of domestic violence often live in a world of constant fear. Some women don’t seek help out of fear that their partner will threaten to harm both her and her child, or also harm her close friends and family. Questions involving why a woman didn’t leave an abusive partner assumes many factors, for instance that the woman had (1) the financial means to leave her spouse or partner, (2) had friends or family in the area that would take her in and protect her from her abuser, and (3) that she had never tried to seek protection from the police.

It is hard to say where we can find the balance in ensuring child safety, on the one hand, and protecting abused women from lengthy sentences in such circumstances, on the other. Juries are said to consider a woman’s domestic abuse when they weigh innocence or guilt and determine punishment, but it seems hard to imagine that a jury could really empathize with an abused woman, especially when there is no documentation—a police report or social service visits—indicating that she sought help. Lindley’s story is not uncommon. And for the many women, often women of color who don’t have the resources to fight their sentences, the structure of violence continues as they serve out their jail sentences all the while coping with the loss of their child.

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