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No Jail For Mom In Son's Suicide

Judith Scruggs talks to reporters outside Superior Court in Meriden, Conn., Friday, May 14, 2004, after her sentencing.
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Judith Scruggs has lost her two jobs, her home and her privacy after being convicted of creating a home environment that prosecutors say contributed her 12-year-old son's decision to kill himself.

But she will not serve time in jail.

Scruggs, 53, was given a suspended sentence and five years' probation Friday in Meriden Superior Court. She must also undergo counseling and perform 100 hours of community service.

J. Daniel Scruggs hanged himself in his bedroom closet on Jan. 2, 2002.

"I'll miss him dearly every day of my life," she told reporters surrounding her as she left the courthouse.

Scruggs was thrust into the national spotlight following her conviction on a risk of injury charge. Legal experts said they believed it was the first time a parent had ever been convicted in connection with her child's suicide.

She could have gotten 10 years in prison, but prosecutor James Dinnan asked for probation. He said Scruggs abandoned her parental responsibilities before the boy hanged himself with a necktie in 2002.

Witnesses for prosecutors described a home where there was barely room to move because of clothes, boxes, papers and debris covering the floor. A sink held dirty dishes, spills and stains. The air was foul. The bathroom floor and tub were covered with clothes; the fixtures soiled.

Scruggs' lawyers disputed claims that her messy house played a role in J. Daniel's death, blaming it instead on violent bullying at school. In Connecticut, the case inspired a new state law requiring schools to report bullies to authorities, and many school districts revamped bullying policies.

Judge Stephen F. Frazzini said it was clear that Scruggs had not been convicted of causing her son's death. Scruggs was acquitted of charges of cruelty to persons and a second risk of injury charge that alleged she failed to provide proper medical and psychological care for her son.

But he also said that she has not taken responsibility for maintaining an unsafe living environment.

"The law requires parents and caregivers to protect their children, to keep them safe, to make sure they are not subjected to risks to their health," he said.

But as he left, he told Scruggs, "You have my deepest sympathy."

Scruggs' attorney, Reese Norris, described her as a single mother who received no child support and worked long hours to support her two children. Her home may have been messy, but so are many, he said.

"Judy Scruggs is never going to have a TV show on the niceties of decorating homes or a living magazine or be a sponsor of a housewares line at Kmart. She never will," Norris said.

Norris has called the case a "bullycide." In the school year leading up to his death, Daniel missed 45 days of school, and had been late on 29 other days. Scruggs told police Daniel was afraid of the bullies that had kicked him and punched him, and she kept him out of school on the advice of school leaders and a social worker.

"I can't even conceive of the mental anguish associated with bullying that caused this beautiful 12-year-old boy to believe that life is hopeless," he said.

Scruggs will be required to take parenting classes if she is responsible or helping to care for children under the age of 16 during her probation period. She must also get permission from a probation officer.

Prosecutor James Dinnan did not seek jail time, but sought the five years of probation because Scruggs' responsibilities as a parent were "thrown to the wind," he said.

"No child should have to live in a situation like that," he said.

Frazzini also waived all court fees for Scruggs, who has struggled financially since her conviction. No longer employed by Wal-Mart or as a teacher's aide at Washington Middle School, she has been working at a supermarket. She was evicted after a dispute with her landlord, and has been living off and on with friends.

She has filed a lawsuit against the city of Meriden and the school system, claiming they did not do enough to protect her son from bullies. Norris, who plans to appeal Scruggs' conviction, said that lawsuit is still in litigation.

The case drew a handful of anti-bullying advocates and parents to the courthouse Friday, waving signs protesting her conviction.

One held a handmade poster that read "Punish the bullies, not the grieving mothers," and another read "Indict the system, don't blame the mother."

Therese Toomey, a woman in her 70s from Wallingford, said she came because she remembered being bullied as an overweight child years ago.

"I was tormented, made fun of. It affected my whole life," said Toomey. "I really hoped it would be an innocent verdict. I can't see punishing a mother. I really don't see why she should be accused of anything."

Meriden resident Laura Tiezzi, a mother of two children, said the real people to blame in Daniel's death are the bullies, the school system and the Department of Children and Families. The child welfare agency closed its case on J. Daniel just six days before his death.

"Even if she doesn't get jail time, there's still a child who isn't there anymore," Tiezzi said.

By Noreen Gillespie
By Noreen Gillespie