The Oklahoma child abuse and neglect statute is not protecting children and is instead criminalizing survivors of domestic violence and mothers living in poverty
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Oklahoma led the country in women’s imprisonment for nearly three decades and even after recent reforms it still has the second-highest women’s imprisonment rate. Unfortunately, this is driven by Oklahoma’s highly punitive and overly broad child abuse and neglect statute. As of July 2021, child abuse and neglect is the most common offense for women in Oklahoma prisons, where one in every six women is serving a sentence for this offense.
A new issue brief from FWD.us, Failing to Protect: Oklahoma’s Child Abuse and Neglect Statute Unfairly Punishes Mothers and Endangers Children, builds on the work of the recent report, Turning the Page: Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice Reform Story, and examines how this statute fails to protect children.
“Children must be protected, but Oklahoma’s child abuse and neglect statute often does the opposite,” said jasmine Sankofa, Policy and Research Manager, Criminal Justice Reform, FWD.us. “Right now, the statute is routinely used to scapegoat survivors of domestic violence, criminalize mothers living in poverty, and punish mothers struggling with substance use or in the wake of devastating accidents.”
Unlike other states, the statute punishes almost any scenario where a child’s health, safety, or welfare was or could have been at risk, threatening people with a life sentence no matter the severity of the risk or actual harm and the mother’s culpability. This means that Oklahoma’s statute gives district attorneys unfettered discretion in the prosecution of mothers for harm that did not actually occur, that they did not cause, or for circumstances rooted in poverty.
“Many women in Oklahoma aren’t getting the support they need and our child abuse and neglect statute is causing more harm,” said Colleen McCarty, Founding Executive Director of Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “Looking at other states, our statute is by far the broadest and by far the longest sentence in most situations. We aren’t protecting kids, we are unfairly punishing mothers.”
The reality that Oklahoma mothers face is terrifying. Multiple studies have shown that many women prosecuted for ‘failure to protect’ their children were abused themselves and were at work or not home when their children were harmed. Shockingly, these mothers regularly received longer sentences than the person who caused the abuse. This report also documents instances where a medical condition or tragic accident led to criminal convictions.
Oklahoma’s vague and overly broad statute and lengthy prison sentences deters mothers from reporting abuse, separates families, isolates them from critical resources, and places children at even greater risk of abuse and neglect. Disclosing abuse, seeking resources for substance use or homelessness, and even taking your child to the hospital after an accident can trigger the involvement of law enforcement. The fear of family separation, coupled with the threat of prosecution, serves as a barrier to getting the support services they may need.
“The Oklahoma child abuse and neglect statute sets an expectation that mothers be all-knowing and that somehow harshly punishing them will keep kids safe in the future,” said Sankofa. “If this were true, Oklahoma would be ranked the best in the country for childhood wellbeing, but that is not the case. Oklahoma ranks in the bottom as one of the least healthiest states for women and children.”
The high rate of incarceration for women takes a toll on Oklahoma’s families. According to a national study, the average age of a minor child with a parent in state prison is nine years old, and one in every five children (19%) are four years old or younger. This type of disruption can have lasting effects on a child’s wellbeing long into adulthood, including: negative educational, emotional, psychological, and physical outcomes.
“We can do more to protect children, help survivors, and address poverty without criminalizing and isolating families,” Sankofa said.
The full issue brief can be viewed and downloaded here.