Failure to protect: How an Oklahoma child abuse law treats women differently than men

An Oklahoma law stipulates that any parent or guardian who knows a child is being abused and does nothing to stop it can be charged with a felony. But a 60 Minutes investigation found that 15 women who were never found to have abused their children have received harsher punishments than the man who did.

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Eighteen years ago, Oklahoma adopted a law designed to stop child abuse. It's commonly known as "Failure to Protect" and on paper, it makes perfect sense. Any parent or guardian who knows a child is being abused and fails to protect the child can be charged with a felony and sent to prison.

But in practice, Oklahoma's courts and prosecutors have treated women differently than men under the failure to protect law.

We found more than a dozen cases in which mothers who were never found to have abused their children were given much harsher punishments than the men who did. Half of those women were victims of abuse themselves.

Mabel Bassett Correctional Center is Oklahoma's medium security prison for women and home to Toni Hall for much of the last 15 years.

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Toni Hall

When we met her, she was halfway through a 30 year prison sentence for failing to protect her 20-month-old son and three month old daughter from being abused by their father, Robert Braxton.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You never suspected that he was hurting the babies?

Toni Hall: No. No. I didn't think that he would've had.

Sharyn Alfonsi:  So they never found any evidence that you hit the children?

Toni Hall: Unh-uh (NEGATIVE).

Sharyn Alfonsi: But that you allowed him to hit the children is what that--

Toni Hall: That's what they say. Yeah. That's what they say.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But you never saw those babies get hit?

Toni Hall: No. No. I would've took them away. We would've went away if I would've seen it. No. That's just-- that's not me.

Hall was just 16 when she fell in love with Braxton. They lived in an apartment complex in Oklahoma City where Hall has stated in sworn affidavits that he physically abused her. His rage, she says, was fueled by resentment because she worked while he stayed at home with the kids.

Toni Hall: He would scream at me, call me different names. He told me that if you put yourself in a man's position, then you deserve to be hit.

Sharyn Alfonsi: He told you that you deserved to be hit?

Toni Hall: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Yeah.

After two years of abuse, she'd had enough. And asked her father to take her apartment hunting one night after work in 2004.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you have money to do this?

Toni Hall: Yeah, I had saved some checks and so I put them in my baby's diaper bag. And I got in the truck with my dad and ended up finding a house that night. And the next morning, that's when I-- my youngest son, he wasn't walking and that's when I noticed about his leg being hurt.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What did you see?

Toni Hall: His leg was swollen. And so I immediately called the doctor. And--

Sharyn Alfonsi: You called the doctor?

Toni Hall: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Days later, when her 1-year-old son didn't get better, Hall brought her son to the emergency room.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And so you take him to the hospital. And what happens?

Toni Hall: And the lady was like, "Yeah. You know what-- what's-- what's going on. You know what happened to him." That's when the nurses had told me that his leg was fractured.

Hall told them the broken leg may have been caused by roughhousing, but X-rays told a different story. The little boy also had 12 broken ribs and was put in a body cast. A medical exam of his three-month old sister found similar injuries, which doctors believe were inflicted sometime in the previous two weeks.  Oklahoma City police had plenty of questions for Toni Hall and Robert Braxton.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you ever turn to Robert and say, "Did you hurt the kids?"

Toni Hall: I had asked him I was like, "Did you do something?" And he was like, "Shut up." And I was like, "What?!" He was like, "Don't say nothing, shut up."

Sharyn Alfonsi: People will say how did she not know?

Toni Hall: I didn't know. I was working and trying to make money so that I could leave the situation with-- of him abusing me. I didn't know that he did that to my kids. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: And you were trying to get out.

Toni Hall: Yes. I was trying to leave.

Both Hall and Braxton were arrested and put in county jail. He was charged with child abuse while she was charged under the state's failure to protect law with "enabling" the abuse. In Oklahoma that means you know or reasonably should have known that a child is at risk of abuse.  

Hall agreed to testify against her boyfriend, but she says he continued to threaten her in jail while awaiting trial.

Sharyn Alfonsi: He was writing you letters?

Toni Hall: Yeah because-- I was gonna testify against him.

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One of the letters Toni Hall's boyfriend sent to her after she agreed to testify against him.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And he outlined a picture of his hand. And what did he write--

Toni Hall: Yeah. He said, "Slap yourself, bitch."

Sharyn Alfonsi: From jail he sends that to you.

Toni Hall: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Yeah.

Toni Hall says the abuse she suffered was not introduced in her "failure to protect" case because she pleaded guilty. In hope of getting a light sentence. Instead, the judge accused the young mother of being "less than candid" about what happened to her children.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Tell me about when you were sentenced. And walk me through that day. What happened?

Toni Hall: My heart just broke 'cause I didn't understand, still don't understand. And then the next thing you know-- that's when I found out I got 30 years.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And what's going through your mind when they say 30 years?

Toni Hall: It's over. You know, my life is over.

As for Robert Braxton, he plead guilty to child abuse. The judge decided the two years he'd served awaiting trial in jail was enough. He walked free as Toni Hall went to prison.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How can that happen?

Megan Lambert: Sexism. The belief that women are culpable for everything that goes on in the home.

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Megan Lambert

Megan Lambert is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and a life-long Oklahoman. She became Hall's lawyer four years ago.

Sharyn Alfonsi: People will look at Toni's case and say, "Mothers know if a hair is off on the baby's head. They know when something's wrong. She should have known."

Megan Lambert: You don't always. The women are not always in charge of taking care of their kids. It is sometimes difficult to recognize those patterns of abuse, especially if you're in the throes of abuse yourself. Your entire worldview-- is clouded. And you are truly in survival mode. 

Sharyn Alfonsi:  Is her case that unusual case where they got it wrong? Was she that one in a million?

Megan Lambert: Unfortunately not.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What have you learned?

Megan Lambert: That one in four women sentenced for failure to protect receive a harsher sentence than the actual abuser.

60 Minutes examined public records and identified 14 other women in Oklahoma who've received harsher punishments for enabling child abuse than the man who abused the child.

Emily Redman: You can't have a cookie cutter for these cases. They're so different.

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Emily Redman

Emily Redman was not involved in the cases we examined but she is one of the few district attorneys in Oklahoma who has prosecuted failure to protect cases and was willing to talk to us about the law. The penalties range from fines up to life in prison.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think Oklahoma's got this right, the way that the law is written now?

Emily Redman: I think Oklahoma does have it right. I mean, to me, the most important-- duty that parents have, citizens have, is to take care of our children.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You like that the law is broad.

Emily Redman: I do. I have had-- defendants who were charged with failing to protect that got county jail time, because the case-- that's what it was worth.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But how do you make sense of these cases where the abuser, who's a man, goes to prison for less time than a woman who's charged with enabling?

Emily Redman: Maybe one party asked for a jury trial, and the jury is incensed by what they see and hear. Maybe the other party took responsibility early on, and-- and admitted their guilt, and-- and took a plea offer. So every case is different.

She says the case of Cheyenne Wolf is a good example. The 12-year-old endured abuse for years at the hands of her step mother, Denise. Her father, Abel Wolf, knew about the beatings and did nothing to stop it.

Emily Redman: He had become uncomfortable with the situation.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Uncomfortable?

Emily Redman: And he walked outside and smoked a cigarette while this--

Sharyn Alfonsi: So he left?

Emily Redman: He left.

Cheyenne died hours after a beating in their home. Emily Redman successfully prosecuted the stepmother on charges of abuse that resulted in five life sentences. The judge gave the girl's father a hundred years in prison for "failure to protect."

Emily Redman: This particular case, the facts were so bad, and the abuse went on so long, that the fact that that range of punishment is so broad was helpful because Abel Wolf deserved every second of time that he got.

But when it comes to failure to protect, there is a gender gap in Oklahoma. According to the latest data provided to 60 Minutes from Oklahoma's district attorneys, there are 41 women in prison for failure to protect, but just 16 men. Even though government statistics show men and women abuse children at nearly the same rate.

Kevin Stitt: What's workin' in the past has not got us where we wanna be.

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Kevin Stitt

Oklahoma's Republican Governor Kevin Stitt campaigned on a promise to take a hard look at the states laws and tough sentencing. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: With the enabling child abuse laws you can serve up to a life sentence. That's how broad-- that is right now, the sentencing. Does that sound right to you?

Kevin Stitt: It doesn't. It sounds-- it sounds too long. And-- and that's some of the things that we wanna-- we wanna address in our state.

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate for women in the country.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why are women being incarcerated at such a high rate in Oklahoma? I mean, it's double the national average.

Kevin Stitt: I think it goes back to our-- just laws, our sentencing-- over time has just kinda gotten away from us. If something should be six-month sentence, let's not give it six years just 'cause we wanna be tough on crime, right?"

Sharyn Alfonsi: What has the effect been, on the state, of these heavy incarceration rates?

Kevin Stitt: When you have heavy incarceration-- it affects everything in society. You think about the-- the foster system. And then the statistics, if you have a parent incarcerated-- the likelihood that the kid is gonna be there as well-- just goes-- up astronomically.

In November, Governor Stitt signed the biggest single day commutation in American history, releasing 527 non-violent offenders.

A week later, the parole board asked him to approve Toni Hall's release.

Kevin Stitt:  Anybody in that type of situation with abuse-- but especially someone who didn't commit the crime, it was time to give her a second chance.

After 15 years, Toni Hall finally walked out of the mabel bassett correctional center and into the arms of her children, now teenagers.

Dozens of inmates lined the fence to say goodbye.

Toni Hall: I love you.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's the thing you've enjoyed most about just being free?

Toni Hall: Man-- being able just to be around my children and the family, you know?

When we caught up with Toni Hall she told us she was rebuilding a relationship with her kids and savoring the get togethers she dreamed about while in prison. She has a new job as a hair stylist and plans to speak up for abused women who the law has failed to protect. 

Toni Hall: Some of the women that are in there, they are broken. They don't want to talk about it. So I just hope to help somebody, anybody.

Produced by Guy Campanile. Associate producer, Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Sheena Samu. Edited by Craig Crawford.