The Culpability of Passive Abuse

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Family Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process5 Comments on The Culpability of Passive Abuse

Last Friday, a Brooklyn mother was convicted of manslaughter in an infamous case that has, once again, led to soul-searching and overhaul of New York City’s child welfare system.  What is remarkable about this case is that the mother never struck a single blow; rather, her 7-year-old daughter was beaten to death by her stepfather.  Seven months ago, the stepfather was similarly convicted, and he is currently serving 26 1/3 to 29 years in prison.  Ironically, the mother could end up serving much more time than that, because she was also convicted of assault, unlawful imprisonment, and endangering the welfare of a child.

As any child advocate will tell you, the facts of cases such as this one are horrifyingly familiar: brutal beatings and sadistic tortures by one adult (in this case, the little girl was tied to chairs, held under cold water, and forced to use a litter box instead of a toilet), chilling acquiescence by another adult, and mistake after mistake by whatever public agency is supposed to prevent this kind of thing by early intervention into suspicious circumstances.  Nearly two decades ago another notorious New York case, which involved the beating death of another little girl, triggered a national discussion about accountability and responsibility on the part of the “passive” parent.  In that case, 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg was beaten unconscious by Joel Steinberg (who had illegally adopted her) while Steinberg’s partner, Hedda Nussbaum (pictured above), was in the next room.  Steinberg left the apartment for three hours, leaving the girl unconscious, and Hedda did not call for help until the next morning, when the child stopped breathing.  In the Steinberg case, though, Joel was convicted of the killing while all charges were ultimately dropped against Hedda.

Why the difference in outcomes?  Continue reading “The Culpability of Passive Abuse”

Lessons from Nebraska’s Struggle With an Abandoned Baby Law

Posted on Categories Family LawLeave a comment» on Lessons from Nebraska’s Struggle With an Abandoned Baby Law

In the past few years, many states have passed legislation allowing parents of newborns to drop their infants off at a designated safe place, no questions asked. These laws are intended to prevent the tragedy of unwanted newborns that have been literally left to die in dumpsters, public toilets, and similar places, usually by panicked teenage parents. Nebraska is the most recent state to pass such a law, but whether by negligence or design, the Nebraska statute did not specify a maximum age of a child who could be left at a safe place without legal repercussions to the parents. In a turn of events that would be comical if it weren’t so sad, Nebraska has seen a parade of 17 different children dropped off at designated hospitals: none of them have been infants, and most have been adolescents. Since Nebraska’s legislature is part-time and does not resume session until January, there may be more drop-offs before the law can be amended.

What’s going on here, and what can we learn from it? Continue reading “Lessons from Nebraska’s Struggle With an Abandoned Baby Law”

Should Criminal Law Be Used to Enforce Family Responsibilities?

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Family Law, Legal ScholarshipLeave a comment» on Should Criminal Law Be Used to Enforce Family Responsibilities?

This important question is explored in a forthcoming mini-symposium in the Boston University Law Review. The lead article, written by Professors Jennifer Collins, Ethan Leib, and Dan Markel, argues that if criminal law is going to be used to enforce the responsibilities of family members to one another, then there also ought to be ways for people in other types of caregiving relationships to make their responsibilities criminally enforceable. Continue reading “Should Criminal Law Be Used to Enforce Family Responsibilities?”