As we approach the start of October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a parole board in Oklahoma has helpfully reminded us of why we still have such a time of observation. The way we handle domestic violence cases in the United States is deeply inadequate. Even as victims struggle to find support to help them safely leave abusive relationships, some of them are criminalized for fighting back. Such is the case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot while trying to prevent her abusive husband from attacking her. Others are being sentenced to decades in prison for being unable to protect their children from abuse — like Tondalo Hall, who was sentenced to 30 years because her boyfriend abused her children and she failed to stop him. He got a two-year sentence.
This week, Hall's case came up for consideration before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, and they voted 5-0 to deny her request for clemency. In her testimony to the board, Hall was deeply contrite, saying, "I know I failed as a mother, and I’m just asking for a second chance." But her apologies and obvious pain over what happened were hard to hear, because this wasn't about whether or not she failed as a mother. It was about society's failure to protect domestic violence victims, and about the horrors of being trapped in an abusive relationship.
A significant percentage of women in prison for murder are there because they fought back against their abusers. That's a sharp contrast when compared with the stark statistics regarding the low number of domestic violence calls that end in prosecution. Many women who experience domestic violence end up declining to press charges due to fear and pressure from their partners, who often threaten them, their children, and/or their pets with violence if they attempt to ask for help or leave the relationship. The Department of Justice estimates that arrest rates in domestic violence cases are very low, though around 63 percent of domestic violence arrests nationwide end in prosecution.
It's very possible that Hall did not intervene when her children were being abused because she experienced what's known as battered woman syndrome, a documented psychological phenomenon that could be considered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Women struggling with this tend to be avoidant, while also displaying high levels of stress and experiencing issues with body image. Their personal relationships, including those with family and friends, are usually disrupted, and many feel isolated thanks to controlling tactics on the part of their abusers. The syndrome can also cause women to develop a sense of fear and helplessness. But until very recently, it wasn't even recognized in court as a factor in cases in which women fought back against abusive partners — or were unable to protect children from abuse.
There's an instinctive response to the idea that a parent has failed to protect their children from violence. The knee-jerk sentiment is that parents have an obligation to defend vulnerable children who cannot defend themselves, and who may be suffering physically and psychologically from abuse. However, for women who are themselves being abused, the situation becomes more complicated — part of their denial about their own situation also extends to their children.
Last year, Buzzfeed conducted a detailed investigation into domestic violence victims who had been imprisoned across multiple states for neglecting to protect their children in instances of abuse. They identified 28 women in 11 states, including Hall, who were in prison under these circumstances. Three of them had been sentenced to serve more time than the men who abused or killed their children. In the eyes of these courts, being trapped in an abusive cycle was apparently a worse crime than harming a child.
Even after being sentenced to 30 years, she was still victim-blamed.
So-called "failure to protect laws" charge partners when they don't step up to protect their children from molestation, sexual assault, and/or domestic violence. But these laws don't make allowances for other factors involved, like whether the partner who failed to intervene was also being abused. And they also serve to penalize mothers for being unable to stop acts of violence committed against both themselves and their children — as men are usually responsible for the actual crime of hurting children. Yet there isn't a widespread discussion of these laws and how they fail women.
Enabling abuse is a terrible thing, but it's unfair to characterize women in violent relationships as complicit in the abuse or murder of their children. Far from being complicit, they're also victims, and the law fails to recognize this in many states. Being forced to deal with the abuse of your children on top of your own abuse is awful, and being accused of supporting it is a sharp reminder of the way society often views domestic violence victims: as responsible for their own abuse.
In Hall's case, friends and family noticed her behavior begin to change when she started dating Robert Braxton, Jr. Hall testified about the systemic abuse she endured while displaying classic signs of battered woman syndrome, like saying that she thought each incident of abuse was a one-time event. When her 2-year-old son started showing signs of distress, she wasn't sure what was happening, but she took him to the hospital, where staff treated him for fractures and identified him as an abuse victim. After that, the case snowballed, and Hall went to prison. Shockingly, Braxton's prosecutor blamed Hall for his short sentence, arguing that if she hadn't protected him on the stand, he likely would have been given more time. Even after being sentenced to 30 years, she was still victim-blamed.
Hall's case isn't unique, and it highlights the fact that the cycle of domestic violence is extremely complicated, tearing families apart and leaving women to be treated like criminals while their partners often serve short sentences (if they spend any time in prison at all). This is an issue we need to be discussing during any month, but Domestic Violence Awareness Month offers an opportunity to make sure that it's a prominent part of the national conversation on criminal justice reform and women's rights. Women shouldn't be going to prison because they were being abused, and states need to reform their penal codes to make sure that situations like this don't happen ever again.