BLAMING MOM: Women Convicted for Bullied Son's Suicide, Stillborn Child

October 17, 2003

By: Siobhan Morrissey, ABA Journal eReport (American Bar Association), October 17, 2003

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 child’s 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 son’s 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. "It’s too little, too late. It’s 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 son’s 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 State’s 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 child’s 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 her son.

"The state is overstepping its bounds with parental responsibility," he said, explaining that his client, a single mother raising two children while working two jobs, had asked the Department of Children and Families for help when her son was truant. She obtained brochures and was in the process of transferring him to another school, Norris said.

On Oct. 6, a jury in Meriden, Conn., convicted Scruggs of one felony count of putting her son at risk by creating an unhealthy and unsafe home environment. The jury was upset because police found two knives in the boy’s closet, Norris says, but the boy kept the knives for protection in case burglars broke in, which had happened twice before.

Norris says that despite the jury’s decision, he plans to press the judge for an acquittal because the prosecution failed to provide expert testimony that links the home conditions to injury to the boy’s health. "The law that binds him right now says you need an expert," Norris said.

While Norris awaits an appeal in that case, Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women continues to fight the South Carolina courts for release of her client. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in the case involving Regina McKnight, who is serving a 12-year prison term. McKnight v. South Carolina, on petition for a writ of certiorari.

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.

The state is merely looking after the rights of the child, says Trey Walker, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster. The prosecutor weighs whether the woman’s actions "could potentially cause the death of the child," Walker said.

Some family law experts, such as Atkinson, find this approach too intrusive.

"Generally speaking, part of the woman’s right of autonomy is freedom from criminal prosecution for nondeliberate injury to her unborn child or fetus," Atkinson says.

Paltrow says the case is a civil rights issue.

"If the state can take custody of pregnant women because they are imposing a risk to their fetus to make sure of accountability, then we have to agree that women who become pregnant lose their full rights of citizenship," Paltrow says. Such a law, she maintains, could affect even women who do legal activities such as smoke, drink alcohol and take fertility drugs (because having multiple embryos puts the pregnancy at risk).

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."

Paltrow says she is presenting the bigger picture. The law should provide health care for pregnant women, not prosecute them if they fail to provide adequate care for their fetuses, she said.

"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."