Oklahoma’s “Child Abuse” Law Doesn’t Protect Children — It Criminalizes Mothers

Karina had been wanting ahead to Christmas. In November, she had reunited along with her 6-year-old daughter, who had been staying with Karina’s sister after Karina was evicted. That month, the household celebrated Karina’s youthful daughter’s first birthday — full along with her first teetering steps.

Karina moved in along with her father and, making an attempt to save lots of for her personal condo, had been working two full-time restaurant jobs, typically going straight from one to a different. Though she was an enrolled member of the Shawnee, she was too removed from the tribal space to make the most of their help.

As an alternative, she relied on her boyfriend to take care of her 1-year-old. Though he was not the daddy of both baby, Karina had no purpose to mistrust him. She had seen him along with his sister’s kids, with whom he spent each weekend, and, she informed Truthout, “he was good with youngsters.” Karina referred to as commonly to test on them. He at all times informed her that every little thing was tremendous.

On Christmas Eve, Karina woke as much as discover her child not respiratory. “She was already chilly,” she recalled. Later, she discovered that her boyfriend informed police that he had choked the infant with a stuffed animal “as a result of he would get pissed off because of her crying on a regular basis.”

Finally, her boyfriend was convicted of kid abuse and sentenced to twenty years in jail. He was launched in 2019 and is serving the remaining 10 years on probation. Karina went to trial. She was convicted of kid abuse and sentenced to 65 years in jail. She has served 18 years and stays in jail at the moment. Truthout agreed to not publish her authorized identify on this article (Karina is a pseudonym) as a result of girls with baby abuse convictions are sometimes bullied in jail.

Karina’s case is just not uncommon — not less than not in Oklahoma. The state has lengthy held the doubtful distinction of getting the nation’s — and the world’s — highest incarceration rate for women. Whereas it has now dropped to second place (behind Idaho), it nonetheless has more than double the national average.

“Since 2016, the ladies’s jail inhabitants has declined 30 percent,” Jasmine Sankofa, coverage and analysis supervisor for FWD.us, which advocates for legal justice reform, informed Truthout. However, she added, “a number of the positive aspects from reforms have centered on nonviolent offenses, low-level property and drug offenses. It’s time for Oklahoma to shift and concentrate on different offenses which are actually driving the ladies’s jail inhabitants.”

This contains the state’s baby abuse and neglect statute, beneath which one in each six (or 16 % of) incarcerated girls in Oklahoma is imprisoned. The statute encompasses a broad vary of circumstances, together with dwelling in poverty, experiencing home violence, and having a companion who injures or kills a baby. The state classifies baby abuse and neglect as a violent offense, whatever the details, which implies that these convicted beneath the statute aren’t eligible to earn break day till they’ve served not less than 85 % of their sentence.

It is usually the commonest conviction for ladies in Oklahoma’s prisons.

Failing to Protect,” a brand new challenge transient by FWD.us, particulars the methods during which Oklahoma’s baby abuse and neglect statute unfairly punishes moms and additional endangers, moderately than protects, kids.

Whereas each state prosecutes dad and mom and caregivers for baby abuse and baby neglect, Oklahoma’s statutes are broad, imprecise and open to interpretation. As an illustration, state legislation defines baby abuse as “willful or malicious hurt or threatened hurt or failure to guard from hurt or threatened hurt to the well being, security, or welfare of a kid.” Because the transient summarizes, the state defines baby neglect as “‘the failure or omission to supply … satisfactory nurturance and affection, meals, clothes, shelter, sanitation, hygiene, or acceptable training, medical, dental, or behavioral well being care, supervision or acceptable caretakers, or particular care made crucial by the bodily or psychological situation of the kid’ along with abandonment and the ‘failure or omission to guard a baby from publicity to’ unlawful medicine, inappropriate content material, and different unlawful actions.” Each can carry as much as a life sentence.

The statute additionally permits prosecutors to cost a mum or dad or caregiver with enabling or allowing baby abuse, extra generally often known as “failure to guard.” The report discovered that over 300 folks had been charged with failure to guard since 2009. In 13 Oklahoma counties, 93 % of these convicted had been girls. Half had been abused by the one that had damage their baby, and one in each 4 girls had been sentenced to extra time than the harm-doer.

Truthout heard from greater than half a dozen folks sentenced beneath this statute. Their crimes ranged from driving with out a automotive seat, to having a new child take a look at constructive for methamphetamine, to being unable to guard their kids from an abusive companion’s violence, to injuring their kids.

“The Oklahoma baby abuse and neglect statute units an expectation that moms be all-knowing and that one way or the other harshly punishing them will hold youngsters secure sooner or later,” mentioned Sankofa, who authored the problem transient. “If this had been true, Oklahoma could be ranked the very best within the nation for childhood well-being, however that’s not the case. Oklahoma ranks within the backside as one of many least-healthiest states for ladies and kids.”

Criminalized for Being Victims

Girls of colour are disproportionately impacted by each home violence and criminalization. In Oklahoma, Black girls make up 7 % of the state inhabitants whereas Indigenous girls make up 8 %. However within the state’s girls’s prisons, 18 % are Black and 17.5 % are Indigenous.

Indigenous girls are sentenced to jail 2.6 occasions extra typically, and Black girls 1.9 occasions extra typically, than their white counterparts for baby neglect.

On the identical time, girls of colour usually tend to be killed by their intimate companions. In 2021, girls in Oklahoma made up almost 70 % of victims of intimate companion homicides, and almost one in 4 had been Black and greater than 1 in 10 had been Indigenous.

Moreover, state legislation doesn’t enable an affirmative protection, which might enable them to introduce proof of the mom’s personal victimization.

That’s what Tondalao Corridor discovered. Corridor, then age 20 and a Black mom of three, had been making an attempt to finish her relationship along with her abusive boyfriend, Robert Braxton. He choked her, punched her, threw objects at her and verbally abused her.

In 2004, she returned dwelling to search out that Braxton had injured her two youngest kids. She introduced them to the hospital the place her 3-month-old daughter was identified with damaged ribs and a damaged femur.

“On the hospital, I didn’t say something as a result of he had already threatened me,” Corridor informed Truthout.

Each adults had been arrested for baby abuse. Even after she was taken to the police precinct and later booked on the native jail, Corridor remained afraid of Braxton. “He was threatening me by way of letters,” she recalled. “He despatched me a [picture of a] hand and mentioned, ‘Slap your self, bitch.’”

Corridor knew nothing in regards to the authorized system. When she first heard that she was charged with allowing baby abuse, she recalled that she didn’t know what the phrase “allowing” meant. In 2006, two years after she introduced her kids to the hospital, she pled responsible to that cost. The choose sentenced her to 30 years in jail.

That very same yr, Braxton, who had spent the previous two years in jail, pled responsible. He acquired a 10-year suspended sentence and was launched from jail.

“There are such a lot of tales about moms who didn’t trigger the abuse,” Sankofa informed Truthout. However prosecutors proffer the speculation that mothers must be all-knowing “and that they need to have carried out any and every little thing to defend their kids from potential abuse and neglect. This concept that mothers are one way or the other accountable, much more so when their kids is harmed, is why mothers in the end find yourself getting lengthier jail phrases.”

An Absence of Seat Belts Equated With “Beating and Damage”

Whereas girls of colour are disproportionately affected by each home violence and criminalization, the statute has additionally ensnared white girls whom the authorized system punishes for his or her co-parent’s transgressions.

In 2002, Geneva Phillips, a white mom of three, had separated from her kids’s father. He proposed that, regardless of their separation, she and their kids, then ages 8, 4 and three, proceed their household custom of celebrating July 4 at Lake Tenkiller. Phillips agreed.

After the weekend, her ex agreed to drive them again to Tulsa, the place Phillips was dwelling with a relative. They piled into his automotive which he had been within the strategy of restoring. Someday in that course of, he eliminated the seat belts within the again seat.

Not lengthy after they started the hour-and-a-half drive, they encountered a police roadblock.

As a result of her ex-partner was driving on a suspended license, the police searched the automotive and took the kids to foster care. (Later, the kids had been launched to their great-aunt.) Each dad and mom had been arrested and, though no baby was damage, charged with allowing baby abuse for permitting the kids to experience in a automotive with out seatbelts.

“I sat in jail three weeks,” Phillips informed Truthout. “I had by no means been away from my kids earlier than.”

It was the third week of July earlier than Phillips was dropped at court docket for a listening to. When she realized that her subsequent court docket date wouldn’t be till October, she pled responsible. “There was no manner the youngsters’ great-aunt would be capable to hold them for 3 months! Three weeks was pushing it!” she defined.

That conviction appeared on background checks when she utilized for jobs, housing and even supplemental Social Safety. “It’s so shameful,” she recalled. “Even realizing why I’ve that felony and what truly occurred versus the cost itself, it’s nonetheless so shaming when folks ask you to clarify why you will have a conviction for ‘the beating or harm of a kid.’ Each time I clarify, it’s the underlying information that folks imagine what the background test says, typically over the reality.”

“Someone Actually Must Change That Regulation”

Tondalao Corridor spent 15 years in jail. Throughout that point, she met many different girls who acquired sentences exceeding these of the abusive companions liable for injuring or killing their kids.

After a spate of articles highlighted the injustice of her prosecution and sentence, the state’s pardon board advisable that the governor commute, or shorten, her prison sentence. He did and, in 2019, after spending 15 years behind bars, Corridor walked out of jail and rejoined her household. By then, her kids had been adults — ages, 23, 19 and 18 years outdated. She additionally had two grandchildren whose births she had missed.

“We are able to’t get that point again,” Corridor mirrored. “Someone actually wants to alter that legislation and make it retroactive as a result of there are such a lot of girls in there who shouldn’t be there.”

State legislators have made some makes an attempt with payments that allow abuse survivors to current an affirmative defense, and, extra just lately, separate child neglect from child abuse and create maximum sentences (moderately than potential life sentences) for each. None of those payments handed.

Karina stays in jail. In 2009, she reached out to an lawyer, who helped file an utility for commutation. The detective who investigated her daughter’s loss of life despatched a letter of assist, stating that he had initially filed expenses solely in opposition to Karina’s boyfriend. Then, in line with his letter, then-district lawyer (Wes Lane of Oklahoma County) “very strongly” requested that he file expenses in opposition to Karina for permitting the kid abuse to happen.

“I personally felt that the cost in opposition to [her] was not warranted, and I additionally felt that I used to be compelled to file that cost in opposition to her,” he wrote. “This case has bothered me from the get-go and much more so when it was discovered that [she] acquired 65 years for the cost.… I’ve had stressed days/nights fascinated by the injustice of the sentence. I really feel that [she] shouldn’t be in jail and must be launched.”

The state’s pardon and parole board refused to contemplate her case for commutation. With no commutation or a change in legislation, Karina should serve not less than 85 % (or 55 years and three months) of her 65-year sentence earlier than changing into eligible for parole. By then, she might be 78 years outdated.