Failure to Protect: Oklahoma Woman Sentenced After Toddler's Child Abuse Death

Recently, the Huffington Post published my article, "'Failure to Protect' Laws Punish Victims of Domestic Violence." The article describes how, in many states, including Oklahoma, enabling child abuse--or failing to protect a child from child abuse--is punished equally with actual physical child abuse. In other words, a woman who remains in a relationship with a man who abuses her child faces the same penalties as the child's abuser, even if she herself never physically harms the child. In some cases, the mother's sentence is even longer than the abuser's.

In some ways, it makes sense. We as a public believe that mothers should be their children's ultimate protectors, and that they should never, ever put a romantic relationship above their children's safety.

But what these failure to protect laws often fail to consider is that the mother may herself be a victim of domestic violence and may feel powerless to protect her children. Considering that a woman is up to 75 percent more likely to be killed by an abuser if she leaves or attempts to leave the relationship, some mothers may feel that staying in an abusive relationship and trying to appease an abuser is the best way to manage the risk the child faces.

The article points out that many of these women likely deserve some legal consequences for "enabling" or allowing the abuse of their children, but failure to protect laws often punish battered women without resources above what should be considered reasonable.

Now, a case is playing out in Tulsa that illustrates the need for balance between punishing women who fail to protect their children from abuse and further victimizing women who are already victims of domestic violence.

Heidi Marie Benjamin was just shy of 21 years old when her boyfriend, Scott Allen Bolden, allegedly beat her 19-month old daughter to death. Bolden was charged with first degree murder in the toddler's death, and Benjamin was charged with child neglect and permitting child abuse by injury.

Bolden is awaiting trial in February, but Benjamin entered blind pleas to the charges against her and has been sentenced.

Her defense attorney argued for probation for his client, saying she deserved leniency because she herself was a victim of domestic violence. He said that the woman has an IQ that is below average, and she was without resources to get help for her daughter. While the district attorney argued for a life sentence, saying that Benjamin waited "two to three hours" to get help for her injured daughter, the woman's defense lawyer pointed out that she had "no phone, no vehicle, and no keys to the residence" when her daughter became limp and unresponsive. In short, she had no resources to get help.

Tulsa County District Judge Tom Gillert was unmoved by the plight of a young woman who had dropped everything to move from Missouri to Oklahoma to be with a man who turned out to be a violent abuser who has been named in two separate protective orders and is a defendant in another domestic violence case. Instead, he agreed with the prosecutor that Benjamin should have known about Bolden's violent history and told Benjamin her case was "a situation of your own making," telling her that her daughter "might as well be dead at your hands."

Benjamin was sentenced to 14 years in prison followed by 15 years of probation.

Evidence shows that Benjamin isn't completely an innocent victim--Missouri DHS received three complaints of neglect against Benjamin in the month before her daughter was killed. She did indeed put herself in a situation that put her daughter at risk: moving to another state to live with a man she met online without the resources to get away. Still, it is difficult to know whether 14 years is justice for a battered young woman, just out of her teens and with a below-average intelligence, who was living with a violent man and didn't have the resources available to save herself or her daughter.

Of course, the truest victim in this case is little Angel Benjamin, who was brutally beaten to death before her second birthday. Hopefully, justice will be served in her name.

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