29 states in the US have laws that criminalize being a parent or guardian of a child who is a victim of abuse. These laws, called Failure to Protect laws, were mostly passed in the 1960s during a large movement to eradicate child abuse. Oklahoma has one of the strongest of these laws. In Oklahoma, “enabling child abuse” is a felony that carries the same sentence as child abuse itself. In a study to find ways to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, the “enabling child abuse” law was pointed to as a major reason why Oklahoma incarcerates so many more women than the rest of the US.
Now, I’m all for protecting children from abuse. If you’re a parent and know your child is being abused, and decide to turn a blind eye because you don’t want to go through the effort of reporting it, or you decide it’s not worth the pain to the abuser, than you deserve to be punished in some capacity. Unfortunately, most of the time this is not the scenario that plays out.
The first problem with failure to protect laws is that they overwhelmingly affect women more than men. One study found that when a father is charged with child abuse, the mother is nearly always charged with failure to protect, but that fathers in the same situation are rarely, if ever, charged for their partner’s abuse. However, this study didn’t provide numbers. A separate study found 73 cases of failure to protect charges against women and only four against men in ten states over a span of 10 years. In two of those cases, the mother received a longer sentence for enabling abuse than the abuser received.
The main problem with failure to protect laws is that in many if not most cases, the person who is charged with enabling abuse is also a victim of abuse. Often the laws are actually used against women who have been abused. In the ultimate act of victim blaming, prosecutors contend that if a woman has tried to leave an abusive relationship before, she was not helpless to stop the abuse, or even point to an abusive relationship as evidence of poor decision making.
Study after study has shown the difficulty of leaving an abusive relationship. Social pressures, financial issues and fear for one’s own and one’s children’s lives make leaving an abusive relationship extremely difficult. But for some reason, instead of protecting abused women and offering them support and ways to make themselves safe, we’re criminalizing them and telling them that it was their fault.
Enabling child abuse laws also hurt the children who were the victims of the abuse. A child who suddenly loses both parents will grow up being bounced around foster homes and group homes rather than being allowed to remain with the abused parent and heal along with them. One child told Buzzfeed that he would rather have gone through the abuse for the rest of his life, if it meant his mother wouldn’t have had to undergo her 20 year sentence (longer than her husband’s 15 year sentence).
In some cases, mothers are convicted, but given “suspended” sentences that allow them to remain with their children. But given the difficulty of getting a job as a felon and the bans that some states put on government assistance programs, this still puts an inordinate amount of stress on a parent’s ability to provide for themselves and their children. On top of that, visits from parole officers who treat abuse victims like criminals disrupt the children’s lives even further.
These stresses and distractions place huge roadblocks in the healing process for both child and adult victims. Instead of criminalizing victimhood, we should create more support structures that allow women to leave abusive relationships, support their children financially after the loss of a partner’s income and mentally support women and children as they heal from (sometimes a lifetime of) abuse.