Failure To Protect

In many states there is a law in place that sends parents to prison for failure to protect their children in child abuse cases. On a surface level it sounds like a reasonable law to have in place, but when you look at the individual cases it becomes more murky.

Many of these cases involve women, and their children, who have been trapped in abusive relationships and households. Usually these ‘failure to protect’ cases occur when a child dies from the abuse. These women are then put on trial to both send the abuser to jail, and determine how long she will also be in jail for not protecting her child. Therefor, these laws are essentially punishing these women for the same abuse their child faced and often calling the police, or running away aren’t so simple.

The ethical issue this poses for journalists is, how do we then report on these sentencing’s?

Fox43 headline for the Whitley Sharp case,  PA

The biggest ethical issue you face in reporting on these sorts of cases is, do you use criminalizing language, or sympathetic language? While yes, these women have been sentenced to prison, it is important to remember that in most of these cases they have also testified as victims to their abuser. They have also just lost a child.


Advance-Monticellonian headline for the Victoria Pedraza case, AR

Both of the above articles portray the women as criminals, but in the case of Pedraza she was forced to plead guilty to permitting child abuse(a felony that results in five to twenty years in prison) so that the prosecutor would drop capital murder charges. Pedraza’s sentence will also force her to register as a sex offender, even though her daughter suffered from no sexual abuse.

Campbell’s initial article, via BuzzfeedNews

Cases like Pedraza’s have been coming to light due to reporting done by journalists who wish to show these women as victims, rather than criminals. For example, Buzzfeed News Investigative Reporter, Alex Campbell has released a multi-part investigation of  cases like Pedraza’s. Their investigation has, “identified 28 such cases in 11 different states from 2004 through the present where the mother was sentenced to 10 years or more in prison. It also found another 45 cases where evidence of domestic violence against the woman could not be found.”

Huffington Post‘s critique of ‘Failure to Protect’

Another thing to think about is that these women often face significantly longer sentences than the abusers.

So how would you handle reporting a case like this? Are these women victims, or criminals? They are generally tried separately from  their abuser, and the abuse of their child but should we report on them together? Should we be reporting on these cases more, or leave it predominantly to local news?


4 thoughts on “Failure To Protect

  1. I definitely think these women are victims, not criminals. As you pointed out, not only are these women victims of abuse themselves, they have just lost a child. However, I think these cases have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. For example, if there’s a story about a given woman, such as Pedraza, I would make sure to depict her as a victim. However, I don’t think it would be ethical to write a story highlighting all of these women as victims, because that wouldn’t be objective or independent. I think your questions really highlight how much tension there is in cases like these, making it really difficult to distinguish ethical lines.


  2. This is an important new trend that I had absolutely no idea about, and I’m pretty sure most people haven’t heard about this as well. I definitely think more reporting, especially on the mainstream side (i.e. from big papers and network news) would be a big benefit in this situation, but I’m definitely conflicted about how to handle reporting on these cases. I would say that morally I lean more towards at least initially treating the women as victims in the reporting unless facts are unearthed that would suggest otherwise. Yet that could also be compromising to our journalistic responsibility to remain impartial and independent, by automatically giving the women the benefit of the doubt. Still in this instance, especially in view of the much broader trend and the excessive prison sentences leveled against these women, I would prefer to see more reports out there that would treat the women as victims of an impossible situation, or at least do enough investigative reporting (as HuffPo and Buzzfeed have) to back up just how the system fails in these cases.


  3. This might sound very naive and unrealistic, but I feel like journalists ideally should never use criminalizing or sympathetic language. I think the goal of a journalist should be to master language to the extent that they can write effectively but neutrally. Certainly some tint may at times creep in, as there may be no neutral language choice applicable and you may have to choose between two somewhat slanted choices, but I think that the dilemma of this case can be reduced by focusing on writing so that no judgement is passed, good or bad, about the mother on the journalists side of things.
    It sounds to me like this is a very troubling system and that there are huge ethical questions being raised by the legal system’s treatment of these women. However, I believe that the most ethical way for a journalist to deal with it is to simply report the fact with no focus on making them criminals or victims. The truth will become apparent to the world if we tell it to them, and, with something this important, we should make sure to tell it to them. We should not leave it local news. It’s our responsibility to take on difficult and sensitive topics like this.


  4. I think one of the greatest powers of being a journalist is being about to affect positive social and political change. In this case, how to enact legislation that protects women and children from life threatening abuse. I personally believe that “failure to protect” laws are not affective in doing this. Many women are powerless in abusive relationships. Many have very few resources, if any to help extricate themselves and their children from the dangerous environment. Rather than having “failure to protect” laws that put women in jail, I think states should pass reforms and legislation that offer support for mothers and women in general who are in abusive relationships. For example The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) ( funds state programs that provide shelter as well as violence prevention activities. Some include The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is a 24-hour hotline where trained advocates provide information, referrals, safety planning, and crisis intervention in more than 170 languages to hundreds of thousands of domestic violence victims each year. I think taking a proactive approach like this would be much more affective then laws such as “failure to protect”.


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