The first thing Latricia Chance saw when she walked up to the apartment that October morning was a toddler, alone and shoeless, eating cereal on the doorstep. It was her friend Arlena Lindley’s 3-year-old son, Titches. Chance said hello. Titches, his mouth full of food, said nothing .
Turner turned to Lindley, warning her that if she tried to take Titches out of the house he would kill her. Chance could see the terror on Lindley’s face. Yet Lindley spotted an opening, grabbed hold of her son. and made for the front door.
She was too slow. Turner snatched the boy from her arms and, still holding the boy, slammed the door shut on Lindley and Chance, locking them outside. Stunned, they withdrew to figure out what to do .
By the end of the day, Titches would be dead. and Turner would be arrested for his murder. Prosecutors would charge Turner with assaulting Lindley too, noting that she was “very afraid” of him .
Yet they would also deem Lindley a criminal. Even though Lindley had tried to rescue her son, they would prosecute her for failing to protect him from Turner .
Lindley’s case exposes what many battered women’s advocates say is a grotesque injustice. As is common in families terrorized by a violent man, there were two victims in the Lindley-Turner home: mother and child. Both Lindley and Titches had suffered beatings for months. But in all but a handful of states, laws allow for one of the victims — the battered mother — to be treated as a perpetrator, guilty not of committing abuse herself but of failing to protect her children from her violent partner.
Said Stephanie Avalon, resource specialist for the federally funded Battered Women’s Justice Project. “It’s the ultimate blaming of the victim.”
Photograph by Melanie Buford for The Dallas Morning News
Photographs of Titches Lindley sitting above his bed at the home of his father, William Wade, in Dallas.
No one knows how many women have suffered a fate like Lindley’s, but looking back over the past decade, BuzzFeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.
At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In Texas, where Lindley lives, the crime is known as injury to a child “by omission .” In other states, it goes by “permitting child abuse ” or “enabling child abuse .” In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
These laws make parents responsible for what they did not do. Typically, people cannot be prosecuted for failing to thwart a murder; they had to have actually helped carry it out. But child abuse is an exception, and the logic behind these laws is simple: Parents and caregivers bear a solemn duty to protect their children.
If a violent partner threatened her child, “I would sacrifice my life 10 times out of 10,” said Carmen White, the Dallas prosecutor — and mother — who pressed charges against Lindley. The law provides justice for child victims, she said, and it sends a message to mothers about their duties.
Only a few states provide an exception for parents who feared for their safety at the
time the violence occurred. In some of these states, that exception is narrow or limited, leaving battered women open to prosecution.
Prosecutors often use the violence a mother endured as evidence against her. Since she was battered, they sometimes argue, she should have left the relationship, taking herself and her child to safety.
Advocates have tried but failed to compile national figures on how many women get prosecuted and sentenced under these laws. BuzzFeed News created its tally by focusing on 29 states that allow for sentences of at least 10 years. But because of limitations in the data provided by different states, BuzzFeed News’ tally is conservative; the actual number of cases is likely higher.
Then there are cases of women sentenced to a decade or more but where it’s difficult to determine whether they were victims of partner violence. BuzzFeed News found 45 such cases over the last decade. Often, the abuser and the mother who didn’t stop the abuse pled guilty, leaving little detail in their court files about what actually happened. Domestic violence advocates suspect many of these women were battered too, saying that women who’ve suffered abuse often conceal it, even through weeks or months of counseling. "I know in my heart that there's more out there," said Laurel Mohan, executive director at the Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project in Minnesota.
Where there is evidence of the women being battered, the case files describe them being punched. throttled. kicked. whipped. or raped — often in combination — at or around the time their assailants were doing the same to their children. “My husband took full possession of me and my life,” a mother in Tennessee told the court right before her 15-year sentence was handed down.
Domestic violence advocates say these cases signal a deep misunderstanding of what it means for women to be trapped in abusive relationships. Many such women fear alerting authorities, because doing so can provoke their partners to extreme violence. Moreover, authorities often fail to protect battered women and their children. Advocates also say that imprisoning these women serves little purpose and deprives any surviving children of their mother.
The laws against failing to prevent child abuse are written to cover both fathers and mothers. And, in fact, women perpetrate 34% of serious or fatal cases of physical abuse of children, according to the latest congressionally mandated national study of child abuse. But interviews and BuzzFeed News’ analysis of cases show that fathers rarely face prosecution for failing to stop their partners from harming their children. Overwhelmingly, women bear the weight of these laws.
BuzzFeed News found a total of 73 cases of mothers who, regardless of whether they were battered, were sentenced to 10 years or more. For fathers, BuzzFeed News found only four cases.
White, Lindley’s prosecutor, couldn’t recall prosecuting any fathers for failure to protect from physical abuse.
“Mothers are held to a very different standard,” said Kris McDaniel-Miccio, a law professor at the University of Denver whose expertise is domestic violence. She said that the lopsided application of these laws reflects deeply ingrained social norms that women should sacrifice themselves for their children.
From a different perspective, White agreed, saying that severe punishments generally fit “what people believe” should happen to mothers who shirk their duty to their children.
Aside from conceptions of motherhood, McDaniel-Miccio said that many people — and, by extension, many judges and juries — still don’t grasp the answer to a question at the core of so many of these cases: Why didn’t she leave him?