I almost threw up when I saw the headline “Mom Gets 99 Years” for abusing her child – but it was not only out of fear for the child.
It took me an entire day to get through just one column on Elizabeth Escalona – as I could only stomach a little bit of her story at a time. She who savagely beat her two-year-old, in front of her other children who later testified their mother was angry over potty training. The abuse Escalona inflicted on her daughter left the toddler in a coma, with broken ribs, bleeding in her brain and bite marks. The little girl also lost some of the skin on her hands as Escalona super-glued them to the wall after the beating.
I can not read or write that summation without crying, becoming physically nauseous and seriously considering running from my office to my kids’ school and bringing them all home for hugs until bedtime.
But as my breath also begins to quicken, my eyes race back to the headlines on this trial to find out what happened in that courtroom, that brought this judge to put forth this severe of a sentence. Because, for some reason, 99 years doesn’t exactly bring me comfort for this child or Escalona’s others.
In fact, I feel threatened by it.
Because as much as it might feel emotionally “right” to banish an abusive parent beyond her mortal life to exist only behind bars because of the severe physical abuse she inflicted on a child, that can’t be the whole story. And this story is coming from a courtroom – where both sides of an argument are meant to be heard and emotion is not supposed to be driving verdicts and sentencing. A specific courtroom where a TWENTY-THREE YEAR OLD MOTHER OF FIVE already pleaded guilty to a “first degree injury to a child” charge – which in Texas is considered more serious than attempted murder. Escalona did not deny her actions and was remorseful in testimony, therefore not mentally unaware of right and wrong. She knew she was wrong and begged for another chance in society. The judge also had no set standards he had to uphold for sentencing. He could have set punishment for Escalona anywhere from mere probation to life in prison.
But this judge’s courtroom is in Texas, which is known as a state that harshly punishes convicts. But even in the Texas capital murder case of Andrea Yates in 2001, who drowned all five of her own children, when Yates was convicted she was sentenced to one life term. (Five years later another Texas jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity). But this crime that resulted in five deaths was given a similar punishment as Escalona but in far less of a “statement” than a 99-year sentence.
A statement made with no mention of any form of rehabilitation. A statement that took absolutely no account of her marijuana drug use since age eleven, that has continued up to her time on bail before the trial – that would have arrested her brain development and affected its function. A statement that had no interest in the physical and sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood and again in adulthood. Or that reflected any one of these facts, nevermind all of them together, making a situation where there is literally no way this twenty-three year old mother of five was mentally or emotionally fit to parent.
But frankly it seems this jail sentence wasn’t really about Escalona – or even more sadly, even about protecting her children. All five of Escalona’s children, including an infant born since this beating took place, have all been sent to live with her mother. Even though Escalona’s attorney argued that her client was the product of a broken home, continual abuse and a childhood that included illegal drugs and gangs. So even if Escalona’s actions cannot excuse or cause us to see humanity in Escalona herself, who cannot see the danger of putting five more kids back into the home where she was raised?
Without any evidence of future care for these five children going forward, beyond the rehabilitation of the one daughter’s physical wounds last year, this jail sentence feels more like a message. “That’s a very harsh sentence for any judge,” said Texas District Attorney Association President Lee Hon. Hon has prosecuted fatal child abuse cases in this same county that resulted in shorter prison terms. “It may just mean that the judge in this case was trying to send a harsh message.”
And although I would normally welcome the statement or message a prison sentence might make to other child abusers, I don’t think that is who will feel the brunt of this decision. Because as a non-child-abusing parent and fellow female, this sentence feels like we’re throwing Elizabeth Escalona out with the bathwater basically to warn other poor, uneducated, disenfranchised and possibly abused – women. Which is the only reason I can even see Escalona for what she really is – the original victim.
According to an interview with Mr. Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire in the Christian Science Monitor: cases like the one in Dallas “actually makes the problem seem harder to solve than it really is. People look at that and say, ‘We’ve got to get these people out of the gene pool,’ but the reality is that most child abuse and neglect, the kind that really causes the greatest amount of damage because it’s the most frequent, is the result of things that are pretty easy to fix – parents without proper parenting skills and parents who don’t have enough social support.”
This verdict comes one month before our next elections, when there is so much talk about “young women” in the debates that lawmakers say have rights and choices to make for themselves. About their sexual decisions and finding their first job after college. But clearly Elizabeth Escalona never had any of those choices in this life, not before age fourteen when she first became pregnant or ever after.
I think the court went after this mother so hard, not only because there were photos of her daughter in the hospital that leave no room to ignore her child’s profound suffering – but because she doesn’t have the ability, knowledge or resources to fight back. So the court made an example of her. Which feels haunting to me both as a female and a mother.
Particularly, again, in Texas because it is one of the 19 states in this country that still allows paddling (a southern colloquial word for beating children with an object, usually an object made of wood) as a form of discipline WHILE CHILDREN ARE IN SCHOOL. The Center for Effective Discipline estimates that over 200,000 children are struck by an adult, with an object, just while in school, each year. Therefore you can rightfully assume that it is also ok for parents to beat their own child with their hands or an object – including sticks or belts – in the eyes of the law in these states, including where Escalona was tried. You may even recall that last year a Texas County Family Court Judge was out’ed on YouTube when his disabled daughter uploaded a videotape of him violently cursing, threatening and beating her at sixteen years old – forcing her to lay on a bed to take a brutal whipping with a belt – twenty times despite her screaming, wailing and begging him to stop – as punishment for downloading pirated music. Which by all accounts, particularly his own, was “legal” and therefore not “wrong.”
Which is exactly what Elizabeth Escalona did. Only she kept going.
As insulting as it may seem to some to equate hitting children with your hands or with an object “for discipline”, or allowing adults in a position of power over children to hit them with their hands or objects while they are in school – it is actually only different from Elizabeth Escalona’s actions by degree.
Just like the degree of sentencing is.
And if the sentencing in this case wasn’t done to make a statement to “bad mothers everywhere”, I don’t know that I would have even been able to see Elizabeth Escalona as even human, no less also being someone’s little girl. But I do. And I fear that if we just stand in judgment and fail to look at those in our society we are allowing to fall through the cracks because they don’t have an education and the emotional support and opportunities to learn to speak for themselves – to flee monsters of all sorts, than more monsters like Escalona are going to continue to pop up or specifically grow up in this country and perhaps even at a faster rate.
Maybe we should also look twice at allowing parents and educators IN 19 STATES to legally beat and whip children – their own or others – just like we might spend some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Elizabeth Escalona’s life sentence will cost the state of Texas, on preventing the cycle of child abuse in the first place.