A 99-year prison sentence for a 23-year-old Dallas mother who admitted she had acted like a “monster” when gluing her daughter’s hands and beating her into a coma last year suggests that society and the courts are taking a harsher view of neglectful, abusive, and violent parents, experts say.
The mom, Elizabeth Escalona, pleaded this week with the court for counseling and rehabilitation so she could one day have her five children returned to her. State Judge Larry Mitchell acknowledged evidence that Ms. Escalona had herself been abused as a child, but said that didn’t excuse her from beating her 2-year-old until she nearly died.
“For this you must be punished,” the judge said on Friday. The sentence for the felony injury to a child conviction will be appealed.
The Dallas “super-gluing” abuse case joins a litany of recent media stories involving parents going to extreme lengths to punish children.
Those cases include the “good mom” in Alaska who was let off on probation in August after being arrested and tried for using hot sauce to punish an adopted son for lying. Last week, the parents of an emaciated 18-year-old Georgia boy were arrested after it became apparent he had spent so much of his life locked in a room that his two sisters didn’t know the color of his hair.
Also on Friday, a Detroit jury found a 32-year-old father of seven guilty of murder and child abuse for beating his toddler daughter to death with a stick wrapped in a towel after she had an accident, and then covering the crime up by claiming his child had disappeared after a carjacking.
There’s little evidence that incidence of child abuse as a whole is on the increase, though a recently released Yale University study showed a growing incidence of abuse involving children less than a
But it’s clear to experts in the field that major abuse scandals involving institutions like Penn State University and the Catholic Church have brought more scrutiny of child abuse, which in turn is being reflected in how authorities and courts view parental conduct.
“There’s actually little relationship between sentence severity and deterrent effects, but what’s much more important is that people have a sense that if they engage in a certain kind of behavior they’re going to get caught and sanctioned,” says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “And in both cases of sexual and physical abuse, there’s been a big increase in the sense that this is something that could get [parents] into a lot of trouble.”
The week-long hearing in Dallas painted Ms. Escalona as a struggling mother of five who endured physical and sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult. But evidence also showed that she had been a gang member, had abused drugs and alcohol, and had lied to authorities who inquired into how the beating happened.
According to the girl’s siblings, Escalona, upset about potty training, hit her daughter, Jocelyn Cedillo, with a belt and dragged her around by her feet. She kicked the girl, struck her with a jug of milk, then used Super Glue to fasten the girl’s hands to a wall.
In testimony, Escalona claimed she didn’t know why she glued the girl’s hands. But she acknowledged the evidence. “I hit her, I kicked her constantly and she didn’t deserve that,” Escalona said of her attack, which Judge Mitchell said left the girl at “the edge of death.” The girl has since recovered fully.
During the trial, prosecutor Eren Price showed the word “liar” on a projection screen and later replaced it with the word “monster.”
“You can give Jocelyn and her brothers and sister peace," Ms. Price told the judge. "You can give them peace, so that when they're sitting around the dinner table at Thanksgiving with their big family, they're not worried that their mother is going to come walking through the door."
Escalona pleaded with the judge to believe a counselor who testified that she could be rehabilitated
“I’m asking for a second opportunity to show you I’m not the monster everybody thinks I am,” Escalona said. “I’m asking from the bottom of my heart to give me a second chance.”
Escalona’s attorney, Angie N’Duka, had asked for probation or a short prison sentence. “Giving Elizabeth the opportunity to be a better mother, giving her the opportunity to get counseling services, that will be justice for Jocelyn,” N’Duka said.
Under Texas law, Judge Mitchell had a range of punishment options, from probation to a life sentence. Of the 2,100 Texas inmates serving prison time for felony injury offenses against children or the elderly, about 5 percent received sentences of 99 years or greater, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“Outside of the context of this trial, I think even the state would find you a sympathetic figure, because they prosecute people for what was done to you,” Judge Mitchell said. “But I can’t consider that evidence outside the context of this trial.”
The Dallas case is an extreme example of what are daily, ordinary parental and institutional dilemmas over how to discipline children and whether spanking and paddling are appropriate ways to help kids curb bad behavior.
That debate is alive and well as 31 states have outlawed paddling in school, while 19 still allow it. The Center for Effective Discipline, which seeks to end corporal punishment in schools, says over 200,000 school kids are struck each year in the US, though that number has been declining steadily since the 1980s. Total child abuse cases have declined by at least one-quarter since 1997, recent studies suggest.
Texas is a hotbed of the debate.
In September, Springtown High School expanded its corporal punishment policy after parents complained that a male administrator had paddled two girls for speaking sarcastically to an adult. And last year a Texas county judge, William Adams, had to defend himself against a video put on YouTube by his daughter, showing him administering powerful belt lashes as punishment for illegally downloading songs from the Internet.
Even as state laws allow parents broad latitude in what researchers call "pro-social use of violence," support for spanking has been declining for decades. From 1986 to 2008, it has declined from 83 percent to 70 percent, according to the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Indeed, the decline of spanking as a societal norm has likely helped to put the focus on cases where discipline goes too far, researchers say. At the same time, too much focus on the most egregious cases of child abuse can breed cynicism rather than generate sympathy for how society can better support parents in the difficult task of raising well-adjusted children.
Cases like the one in Dallas “actually makes the problem seem harder to solve than it really is,” suggests Mr. Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire. “People look at that and say, ‘We’ve got to get these people out of the gene pool,’ but the reality is that most child abuse and neglect, the kind that really causes the greatest amount of damage because it’s the most frequent, is the result of things that are pretty easy to fix – parents without proper parenting skills and parents who don’t have enough social support.”