A teenage abuse survivor is in prison, while a known abuser walked free to kill his wife. Something's very wrong.
Last May, in Ohio, 14-year-old Bresha Meadows ran away from home. She told her relatives that she was scared for her life, “because her father was beating her mother and threatening to kill the whole family.” Her mother, she reported, had suffered many injuries at the hands of her father, including broken ribs, punctured blood vessels and black eyes. In July, Bresha allegedly shot her father, killing him. Bresha’s aunt, Sheri Latessa, told Democracy Now that Bresha was acting to protect her mother, telling her “Now, mom, you’re free.”
There’s a name for this kind of violence: it’s called “battered child syndrome” and it usually occurs in response to years of extreme physical or psychological abuse. In fact, studies show that 90 percent of all such violence is committed by children who have suffered abuse at the hands of the parent over a long period of time.
Bresha Meadows’ alleged actions fit the description of battered child syndrome down to the last detail. The parent is killed in a non-confrontational situation, often while sleeping, without a violent struggle. Prosecutors and outsiders, who don’t know about the abuse, interpret these actions as cold, calculating and amoral. But many of these children believe that killing the abusive parent is the only way to end the abuse and free themselves — and in Bresha’s case, her mother — from a life of constant fear.
Bresha is currently incarcerated for her actions, held at the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center in Ohio. A petition for her release has garnered more than 18,000 signatures. On Oct. 5, Bresha was put on suicide watch by detention center officials. Prosecutors are considering trying her as an adult, and she could face life in prison.
Now a second scenario. In August, in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Kevin Ewing cut off his ankle bracelet and took his wife hostage at gunpoint. Earlier in the summer, Ewing kidnapped, held and tortured his wife for 12 days, branding her with a metal rod, pistol-whipping her, and keeping her bound and tied in a closet. He repeatedly threatened to kill her, and then himself. The second time around, he did it.. Ewing shot his wife three times, and then shot himself — just as he had warned.
Records show years of abuse, with many instances documented by the police. Tierne Ewing, Kevin’s wife, secured a protection-from-abuse order in 2001, which Kevin repeatedly violated. Two criminal cases were filed against him, one of which put him in jail for seven months. Community members, including those in their church community, knew of the abuse and had tried to intervene. One of them told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the abuse and violence “had been going on her entire adult life.” Just three days before he killed his wife, Ewing was released on a $100,000 bond after spending three days in the Washington County Jail.
What are the laws and policies that make it possible for 47-year-old Kevin Ewing to be released long enough to make good on his threat against his wife, while 15-year-old Bresha Meadows is incarcerated and faces trial as an adult?
Joanne Smith, executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, a New York-based advocacy organization, argues for trauma-informed support for survivors of domestic violence like Bresha Meadows.
In an interview, Smith told Salon that the criminal justice system failed this young woman at multiple points. “The Bresha Meadows case teaches us that the very system set up to support survivors has failed them and is now punishing them for taking actions into their own hands,” she said. “The system is reactionary instead of preventive. When Bresha’s grades dropped in school, that was a sure sign that something was wrong. She then ran away from home and reported the abuse but was asked about the abuse in front of the abuser, her father.”
One key element of our criminal justice system is the way in which bail is determined and set. Bail practices are notoriously skewed toward punishing low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color. Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, notes some of the inherent challenges in a system that doesn’t take into account the risk faced by survivors of domestic violence.
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