When they first started dating, Arlena Lindley said Alonzo Turner was a sweet guy. She said he was kind to her and her toddler son Titches. But a few months later, Turner began abusing them both. Punching, throwing, choking became part of their daily lives. When Lindley once tried to escape to her father’s house, Turner tracked her down, threw her in the trunk of his car and brought her back home.
Lindley tried to escape again after Turner whipped Titches with a belt, threw him against the wall and stuck his face in the toilet. She grabbed Titches and ran for the door, but Turner snatched him from her and locked her out of the house. Titches was dead by the end of the day. Turner pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to prison for life. Yet, Lindley was sent to prison, too. She got 45 years under Texas’ injury to a child by omission law.
Lindley’s story was reported in a Buzzfeed news investigation which exposed the dangerous outcomes of these “failure to protect” laws. Buzzfeed found 28 mothers and domestic violence victims in 11 states who were sent to prison for at least 10 years for failing to protect their children from abuse:
"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 got75 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."
Buzzfeed found that at least 29 states have failure-to-protect laws, such as injury to a child “by omission,” by “permitting child abuse” or “enabling child abuse.” Nineteen other states have laws that could also be used to prosecute parents, such as “criminal negligence in the care of a child.” Maximum prison sentences for breaking these laws vary from one year to life. And in some states, they carry the same sentence as child abuse itself.
While these laws are designed to both hold mother and father responsible for protecting their children, the law isn’t applied equally. Buzzfeed found a total 73 cases against mothers, yet only four against fathers. Women commit 34 percent of serious or fatal cases of child abuse.
“Mothers are held to a very different standard,” law professor Kris McDaniel-Miccio said.
Being victims of domestic violence is often used against mothers. Buzzfeed explains that when Texas, where Lindley was charged, created its law in 1977, lawmakers didn’t have domestic violence victims in mind. In fact, it was more geared toward parents who purposely put their children in harm's way, for instance, by not feeding them so they would starve. Many of these state laws were created in the 1960s during a movement of tougher child abuse laws. By the 1970s, domestic violence advocates organized for protections against victims. In the 1990s, Texas added such a protection to its law, but it didn’t guard mothers who were aware of previous acts of child abuse.
The author of an Oklahoma failure-to-protect law, Rep. Jari Askins (D-OK), said she understands the complexity of domestic violence, but doesn’t believe laws need to offer such specific protections for domestic violence victims. Instead, she has faith in defense lawyers to present the full story to the jury and judge.
But instead of working in the victim's favor, a history of domestic violence is often held against victims. Buzzfeed wrote:
"Some point to failed attempts to leave the abusive partner as proof that the mother wasn’t completely helpless and could have done more to save her child. Others cite contact with police or social service workers about domestic violence prior to the child’s injury as missed opportunities to disclose more about the danger posed to the child. Many, in one way or another, present the man’s violence as a testament to the mother’s poor decision-making."
In a followup article, Buzzfeed explored the effects these laws have on children who survive child abuse. The piece featured Collin Grant, whose mother went to jail for 20 years under Oklahoma’s “enabling child abuse” law. Colin’s mother was also a victim of domestic violence. However, she got a longer prison sentence than her former husband, who was sentenced to 15 years for raping Colin.
Colin didn’t see his mother for five years, until he turned 18. He grew up being shuffled between shelters and group homes. Colin said he wished he would have never come forward about his stepfather’s abuse, because he essentially lost his mother.
“The one person I was supposed to be able to turn to for almost anything — I didn’t have that,” he said. “My mother is one of the most caring people in the world.”