Remember the bad old days when a rape victim would show up in court and the defense attorney would say, "Why was her skirt so short?" As if the woman caused her own rape.
Only gradually did it dawn on us that this is blaming the victim. Once we recognized how cruel and clueless this is, we became a more empathetic society.
Except when it comes to moms.
"Blaming Mothers: American Law and the Risks to Children's Health" is a new book by Pace University law professor Linda C. Fentiman. It looks at the way we have kept moms in the crosshairs of our condemnation. From pre-birth through adolescence, when something goes wrong with kids, it is often considered morally and even legally Mama's fault.
For instance, when a woman in Utah elected not to have a cesarean section and one of her twins was stillborn, she was charged with murder. The fact that stillbirths are fairly common didn't matter. Nor did the fact that she had no intention of killing her child. All that mattered was the convenient fact that there was someone to blame.
A South Carolina mom, Regina McKnight, was also convicted of homicide in the stillbirth of her baby, because she admitted to using cocaine when pregnant. I think we all agree it's tragic that people get addicted to drugs. But the idea that cocaine causes stillbirth is not medically supported. Moreover, as a court briefing noted, "nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor'" are all suboptimal. Does that mean we should prosecute any pregnant woman who's not upper-middle-class "perfect"?
McKnight's 20-year sentence was reversed seven years later by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Fentiman also looks at the issue of child abuse. Often when a child is hurt or killed by a dad or the mother's boyfriend, it is the mom who is prosecuted. The idea is that the moment a mother realizes her child is being abused, she must move out of the house and report the abuser to the police; otherwise, she can be considered guilty for failing to stop the abuse.
"The legal system is not taking into account all the structural barriers that impede women from leaving their husbands," Fentiman said in a phone interview. For instance, sometimes the woman has no money to flee with or no place to go. Sometimes she is afraid that if she were to call the cops, the abuser would become even more violent. But the law seems to believe that a good mom should be perfect, no matter what the obstacles.
How did we get so harsh? Fentiman lists several unconscious biases at work:
—Hindsight bias. Once a tragedy has occurred, it's impossible to look back and not think it should have been easy to predict and avoid.
—The fundamental attribution error. This is the unconscious belief that bad things only happen to bad people.
—The "reasonable man" theory. In the olden days, negligence was determined by what a "reasonable man" would have done in the situation. For example, a reasonable man wouldn't leave a 4-year-old home alone for a weekend. But now that we think about the "reasonable woman," the bar is higher. "A reasonable mother is supposed to be superhuman and always do anything to minimize the risk to her children," says Fentiman. So if something bad happens while a mom is, say, napping, she can be blamed for daring to shut her eyes.
—Causation. The American legal system holds the primitive notion that there's only one cause of any problem. So a child who is beaten to death is not a victim of poverty, an abusive dad and a broken protective services system. It's simply that his mom didn't save him.
So in America, we don't blame the victim anymore — but we do blame the victim's mom.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, "World's Worst Mom," airs on Discovery Life. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.