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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?