Local newspaper reports in London this week recounted bare details of a horrific court case relating to the manslaughter of a four-month old baby. The 19-year old mother pleaded guilty to starving the baby to death as well as separate charges of child cruelty to two other children. She was given an 18 month suspended sentence and various restrictions that included a ban on looking after any children for the next two years.
I picked up the story from a tweet linking to the Men’s Rights sub on Reddit. The OP invited comparison to another case where a man was sentenced to eight years in prison for shaking his baby to death in a rage because she was crying while he wanted to play a video game.
On the face of it, the suspended sentence on this woman was remarkable. The posters on Reddit/MensRights claim that this is a typical case of ‘pussy pass’ where women can literally kill and walk away from court with not so much as a slap on the wrist. Several comments were along the lines of “anyone who does this should be strung up by their toes and flayed alive.” Others attributed the verdict to the fact that there are, apparently, ‘many rad fems in the British government.’
Anyone who follows British law and child protection issues would realise that this sentence is far from typical. It’s generally true that mothers tend to receive slightly shorter sentences than fathers in cases like this but the difference is not that profound. This is so far off the scale of normal that I wondered if it might be some bizarre reporting mistake. This was underlined by the strange absence of outrage or even raised eyebrows in national and regional media.
I dug deeper. I have to tread carefully from this point, because I found a court report which I am pretty sure flouts the reporting restrictions in this case (the mother’s name and some other relevant details should have been withheld to protect the identities of her two surviving children, and it was not) I’m not going to link to it or reproduce it for my own legal protection, however the key details are reproduced below.
MILE END, TOWER HAMLETS A teenage mum who was forced to marry an older man in [COUNTRY REDACTED] when she was 13 is facing jail today for killing her four-month-old daughter. [NAME REDACTED] has admitted the manslaughter and cruelty to two other children [NAMES REDACTED] under the age of 16.
Suddenly the case takes on a very different aspect.
What appears to have happened here is that the victim of forced marriage and child sex abuse, who by the age of 18 had already given birth to three children, perhaps allegedly as a consequence of repeated rape, proving incompetent and incapable of properly feeding and caring for those children. It’s by no means unlikely that she found herself incapable of caring about or loving those children.
With just this smidgen of background information, suddenly this sentence appears less a calumny of justice and more a proportionate and compassionate response to an utterly horrendous and complex case.
The tight-lipped silence of most media might well be explained by the possibility of ongoing criminal charges against anyone involved involved in the forced marriage (including the husband, perhaps.) This is one of those multi-layered cases where reporting the details of one trial and verdict could risk prejudicing the outcome of another (hence my own ultra-cautious approach here).
I don’t blame the Reddit denizens for accepting the initial reports at face value. It took a wee bit of journalistic nous and experience on my part to track down additional details and start to make sense of it.
However this sorry saga does illustrate the dangers of rushing to squeeze every news story into such a shape as to match one’s prejudices. It may also show that when it comes to media reporting of difficult and complex cases, sometimes telling a small part of the story does more damage than telling none of it. Sometimes the only responsible way to tell a story may be not to tell it at all.