When Judge Naita A. Semaj released 28-year-old Tyresse Minter without bail after he allegedly choked his 15-year-old stepson to death inside their Bronx apartment in January, many wondered what led her to make such a baffling decision.
The answer likely lies in her five years working at foster-care agencies, where the reigning ideology is that the parents who abuse their children are the real victims — not the children themselves.
The adults have suffered from racism, poverty, and substance abuse —indeed many are themselves the products of violent homes — and so, the thinking goes, we cannot hold them accountable for their actions.
But excusing parental maltreatment has clear consequences: Children like Julissia Batties and Zymere Perkins were left in their homes to be killed by their parents despite clear signs of unspeakable abuse.
In New York City and jurisdictions around the country, we let parents get away with behavior that we would never allow from other adults or strangers.
A recent report from Minnesota actually quantified this.
The report, “Minnesota Child Fatalities from Maltreatment,” looked at 88 child maltreatment fatalities between 2014 and 2022. It found that “the average sentence for non-parents overall is substantially higher than for parents, with a difference of 82.1 months.”
Why are we so lenient when it comes to parents who mistreat their children?
For one thing, the report note that parents who received lower sentences were more likely to express remorse for their actions.
Some scholars “contend that some members of the judiciary, along with society in general, believe that when a parent contributes to the death of a child, that loss is punishment in and of itself.” (This reminds me of the man who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.)
Experts also suggest that at-risk children are kept in risky homes out of fear of breaking up the family unit, even if that unit threatens the child the most.
Also at issue are the challenges involved when young children are forced to testify against their own relatives, which can result in prosecutors pleading down cases in order to avoid a trial.
But there are other significant factors.
For some observers, the leniency toward parents harming their children begins with allowing corporal punishment.
“Parents are permitted by judges and the public to do things to their children that would be outrageous if a stranger did it,” James Dwyer, a professor of law at William and Mary, tells me.
Dwyer, who has reviewed hundreds of child abuse cases, says that the treatment these children experience from their parents would constitute “assault and battery and conviction for Class 1 misdemeanor” if they were done by another adult and “possibly a low-level felony.”
Such treatment is allowed in part – you guessed it – for reasons of cultural sensitivity.
Social workers, for instance, are regularly charged with holding black families to lower standards when it comes to discipline.
Sharonda Wade, an African-American supervisor in the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles, told me that black colleagues will tell her not to worry about placing children in homes of relatives with a record of beating children. “So Grandma has got domestic violence on her record. What’s wrong with that? I’ve had a little domestic violence, too.”
Stacey Patton, a professor at Morgan State University, who suffered corporal punishment as a child, has earned the ire of many in the field of social work for suggesting that holding black parents to different standards when it comes to physically disciplining their children is not acceptable.
“Too many black leaders continue to support hitting children,” Patton continued. “A few years ago, our first black president joked nostalgically at the 100th anniversary of the NAACP about the days when the community was empowered to publicly whup misbehaving children . . . Black comedians make fun of white parents who do timeouts.”
Holding black families — or any families, really — to different standards when it comes to the safety of their children may appear mind-boggling to some, but it makes perfect sense to many on the left.
Activists like Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania say it is structural racism, not abusive parents, that is the problem.
As she told Time Magazine last year, we should not be “putting people in jail, or … taking children away. We need a fundamentally different way that actually gets to the roots of why there’s so much violence in our society.”
Maybe. Or maybe there’s so much violence because our system not only allows it – but finds as many excuses as possible to make sure the cycle remains unbroken.
How else to explain the fact that Minter, who was eventually returned to jail, will soon be set free once again.