Source: ABA Journal eReport (American Bar Association)|
Pubdate: Fri 17 October, 2003
Author: Siobhan Morrissey
Women Convicted for Bullied Sons Suicide, Stillborn Child
While most states have provisions that deal with parental responsibility for the actions of their minor children, two recent cases indicate some states are expanding on that legal concept.
Most states hold parents civilly and criminally responsible if a child becomes delinquent. Here, one woman was blamed for her childs suicide and another for delivering a stillborn child.
A Connecticut woman was convicted of risk of injury to a minor in her 12-year-old sons suicide after police found her home in disarray, with piles of debris and clutter. And the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a case in which a mildly retarded woman from South Carolina was convicted of homicide because she used crack cocaine while she was pregnant, and her baby was stillborn.
Although seemingly distinct, both cases point up a nationwide trend where courts become the arbiter of when parents fail in their responsibilities to their children. Some experts question whether this trend is causing more harm than good, and whether the prosecution is overreaching.
"Whenever one resorts to criminal law to deal with family law in terms of enforcing, sanctioning, you are using a blunt instrument long after one would hope it would be able to encourage responsibility by other means," says Madison Powers, a lawyer who teaches philosophy at Georgetown University. "Its too little, too late. Its an admission of failure to have to go to the criminal prosecution system."
"This is the ultimate in insensitivity. You just lost your child, and now the state is prosecuting you?" asks an incredulous M.H. Norris, the Hartford, Conn.-based defense attorney who represented Judith Scruggs in her child endangerment case. Her son, J. Daniel Scruggs, killed himself on Jan. 2, 2002, after suffering months of bullying from several students in his seventh-grade class. Even though his mother had arranged for him to attend another school, Norris says, the boy used a necktie to hang himself in his bedroom closet. State v. Scruggs, No. CR02 0210921S.
Norris sees the case as a matter of the state assuaging guilt. "You have a dead boy, and they want somebody to be a scapegoat," he says.
The prosecution maintained that Scruggs contributed to her sons suicide by keeping a filthy house and allowing him to keep knives. The child had been taunted for failing to bathe, the state maintained. Press reports say that during his closing argument, Assistant States Attorney James R. Dinnan told the jury, "This case is about parental responsibility."
In a statement issued after the verdict, Dinnan said the decision to prosecute was not made lightly. "There are those who may disagree, but it is our position that parents are responsible for the care and welfare of their children and must ensure their basic medical, emotional and psychological needs are satisfied," he said.
Norris sees the parental responsibility argument as a stretch. Jeff Atkinson, an adjunct professor at DePaul University law school in Chicago and the author of the ABA Guide to Family Law, agrees. "It would be imposing an unusually high burden on parents to hold them responsible for their childs suicide unless they had very specific information that the child was at a high degree of risk."
Norris says his client did what she could to help
Two years ago, a jury convicted her of homicide
by child abuse for ingesting cocaine while pregnant. Paltrow disputes
whether cocaine caused the death and maintains her client was a cocaine
addict who happened to get pregnant.
Some family law experts, such as Atkinson, find
this approach too intrusive.
Walker criticizes this analysis. "The use
of fertility drugs in the course of attempting to get pregnant would
not be considered showing extreme indifference to human life,"
he says. Paltrow "is introducing politics into the issue, rather
than addressing the legality of the issue."
"If the attention can be repeatedly placed on bad mothers," Paltrow says, "then society is off the hook for taking any social responsibility for the poverty and the violence that just too many people are living in in this country."