My latest column posted at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange is inspired by recent headlines:
The facts are still coming in. All we know is what the media is reporting: a newborn is dead, a 14 year-old girl has been charged with first-degree murder, and a grand jury indictment means she will be tried as an adult.
According to a news release from the local sheriff’s office, on Sept. 19, 2012, Cassidy Goodson went into labor in the bathroom of her family’s mobile home in Lakeland, Florida. To hide her cries of pain, she placed a towel in her mouth and ran the water in the faucet. She used a pair of scissors to pry the nine and a half pound baby out of her womb and into the toilet, where she squeezed its neck until it stopped moving. Then she cleaned up the bathroom, showered with the dead baby, and placed the infant’s body in a shoebox along with her soiled clothes and towels.
Three days later, after smelling a strong odor coming from Cassidy’s room, her mother found the deceased newborn and placed a frantic call to the police. Upon questioning by homicide detectives, Cassidy confessed to choking the baby to stop him from breathing because she “didn’t know what to do with it.” Autopsy results have confirmed that the cause of death was asphyxia from strangulation and blunt force trauma. The ninth-grader is now being held at the county juvenile detention facility and ultimately could be sentenced to life in prison.
Of course, we’ve been down this road before. A teenage girl hides her pregnancy, gives birth in secret, and puts the infant in a trash bag or dumpster. The baby is discovered – sometimes alive, but more often than not, dead. The public responds with anger and disgust. The girl reports paralyzing fear and intense shame – for having sex, getting pregnant, not knowing what to do, and abandoning or smothering her own baby. The criminal justice system steps in, extracts a conviction, and imposes punishment – typically including a prison sentence.
In this instance, Cassidy Goodson, only 5’3” and 100 pounds, concealed her pregnancy with baggy clothing. Although family members suspected she might be pregnant, she produced home pregnancy tests that were negative. Some blame her mother for the infant’s death, claiming that Teresa Goodson was “in denial.” Others blame the girl, stunned by her seeming cruelty. “It’s repulsive and it makes us all sick to our stomach,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has publicly stated. He has also told journalists, “Her son was still connected to her by the umbilical cord when she choked him to death. I just can’t get over that.”
We are left with two central questions: how do we prevent these situations, and once they occur, how do we deal with them?
The answer on the front end seems easy, but in reality it is not. Although teen pregnancy has been on a long-term decline in the United States since the late 1950s, the teen birth rate remains one of the highest among industrialized countries. In 2010, more than 365,000 American teenagers bore children, with the highest rates for African-Americans and Latinas. Meanwhile, our government funds $50 million annually for the promotion of sexual abstinence outside of marriage and our schools teach about abstinence more frequently than methods of contraception – despite the lack of evidence that abstinence-only education is effective. Further, although most teens receive formal instruction about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV, roughly nine million new STIsoccur annually among U.S. teens and young adults, with particularly high rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia.
As for what happens after a mother has committed infanticide (the killing of a child under a year old) or neonaticide (the killing of a newborn), the legal history is revealing. In 17th century England, single women found to have concealed the death of their infants were criminally prosecuted for murder and punished by death. By the late 18th century, acquittals for these crimes increased, and by the late 19th century, prosecutions decreased.
In 1922, England passed the Infanticide Act, amended in 1938, providing that a woman who killed her child would be prosecuted for the lesser crime of manslaughter. Since that time, the majority of women charged under the Act have been presumed to be acting under postpartum hormonal imbalance or a dissociative state; most receive psychological counseling and community service instead of prison sentences. More than 20 countries, including Greece, India, Italy, Korea, New Zealand, and Turkey, follow this approach.
In the United States, however, not much has changed in the past 400 years. The media sensationalizes the crime, and the public responds with alarm. The legal system shames and punishes the mother, and the cycle continues. Infant safe haven laws have been enacted in many states as an incentive for mothers in crisis to relinquish their babies to designated locations, but pregnant teens are poorly positioned to take advantage of these programs. If we are to reconsider how we respond to these acts, we must take steps to understand the causes of infanticide and deal with its complexity.
It may be too late to change the ultimate outcome for Cassidy Goodson, but thousands of other young girls are currently hiding their pregnancies in our neighborhoods and communities. They feel panicked, confused, and alone.
They are children having children, and we must help them.