Changing our Response to Infanticide

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The facts are still coming in. All we know is what the media is reporting: a newborn is dead, a 14 year-old girl has been charged with first-degree murder, and a grand jury indictment means she will be tried as an adult.

According to a news release from the local sheriff’s office, on Sept. 19, 2012, Cassidy Goodson went into labor in the bathroom of her family’s mobile home in Lakeland, Florida.  To hide her cries of pain, she placed a towel in her mouth and ran the water in the faucet. She used a pair of scissors to pry the nine and a half pound baby out of her womb and into the toilet, where she squeezed its neck until it stopped moving. Then she cleaned up the bathroom, showered with the dead baby, and placed the infant’s body in a shoebox along with her soiled clothes and towels.

Three days later, after smelling a strong odor coming from Cassidy’s room, her mother found the deceased newborn and placed a frantic call to the police. Upon questioning by homicide detectives, Cassidy confessed to choking the baby to stop him from breathing because she “didn’t know what to do with it.” Autopsy results have confirmed that the cause of death was asphyxia from strangulation and blunt force trauma. The ninth-grader is now being held at the county juvenile detention facility and ultimately could be sentenced to life in prison.

Of course, we’ve been down this road before. A teenage girl hides her pregnancy, gives birth in secret, and puts the infant in a trash bag or dumpster. The baby is discovered – sometimes alive, but more often than not, dead. The public responds with anger and disgust. The girl reports paralyzing fear and intense shame – for having sex, getting pregnant, not knowing what to do, and abandoning or smothering her own baby. The criminal justice system steps in, extracts a conviction, and imposes punishment – typically including a prison sentence.

In this instance, Cassidy Goodson, only 5’3” and 100 pounds, concealed her pregnancy with baggy clothing. Although family members suspected she might be pregnant, she produced home pregnancy tests that were negative. Some blame her mother for the infant’s death, claiming that Teresa Goodson was “in denial.” Others blame the girl, stunned by her seeming cruelty. “It’s repulsive and it makes us all sick to our stomach,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has publicly stated. He has also told journalists, “Her son was still connected to her by the umbilical cord when she choked him to death. I just can’t get over that.”

We are left with two central questions: how do we prevent these situations, and once they occur, how do we deal with them?

The answer on the front end seems easy, but in reality it is not. Although teen pregnancy has been on a long-term decline in the United States since the late 1950s, the teen birth rate remains one of the highest among industrialized countries. In 2010, more than 365,000 American teenagers bore children, with the highest rates for African-Americans and Latinas. Meanwhile, our government funds $50 million annually for the promotion of sexual abstinence outside of marriage and our schools teach about abstinence more frequently than methods of contraception – despite the lack of evidence that abstinence-only education is effective. Further, although most teens receive formal instruction about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV, roughly nine million new STIs occur annually among U.S. teens and young adults, with particularly high rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia.

As for what happens after a mother has committed infanticide (the killing of a child under a year old) or neonaticide (the killing of a newborn), the legal history is revealing. In 17th century England, single women found to have concealed the death of their infants were criminally prosecuted for murder and punished by death. By the late 18th century, acquittals for these crimes increased, and by the late 19th century, prosecutions decreased.

In 1922, England passed the Infanticide Act, amended in 1938, providing that a woman who killed her child would be prosecuted for the lesser crime of manslaughter. Since that time, the majority of women charged under the Act have been presumed to be acting under postpartum hormonal imbalance or a dissociative state; most receive psychological counseling and community service instead of prison sentences. More than 20 countries, including Greece, India, Italy, Korea, New Zealand, and Turkey, follow this approach.

In the United States, however, not much has changed in the past 400 years. The media sensationalizes the crime, and the public responds with alarm. The legal system shames and punishes the mother, and the cycle continues. Infant safe haven laws have been enacted in many states as an incentive for mothers in crisis to relinquish their babies to designated locations, but pregnant teens are poorly positioned to take advantage of these programs. If we are to reconsider how we respond to these acts, we must take steps to understand the causes of infanticide and deal with its complexity.

It may be too late to change the ultimate outcome for Cassidy Goodson, but thousands of other young girls are currently hiding their pregnancies in our neighborhoods and communities. They feel panicked, confused, and alone.

They are children having children, and we must help them.

30 thoughts on “Changing our Response to Infanticide

  1. Tamar despite what schools may or may not teach isn’t it truly the role of the parents to teach safe sex or abstinence? Parents know their kids best. What works with one may not work with another. Admittedly some teenagers have lousy non communicative parents. But it is NOT the role of government to parent or to correct parents short comings. The concept of liberty, on which this nation was founded, demands we let human beings make their own decisions and live freely to make mistakes. The government has been trying to insert itself into our bedrooms and homes for far too long. It has usurped parents for so long that many have just given up parenting! Wouldn’t you agree the narrative should be for parents to parent? This young girl clearly had non participatory parents. Teaching her sex Ed in school or informing her of safe haven laws would never have overcome the lack of parental involvement. So what do we as a society do about this? My argument is all we can do is lead by example. We can’t force our way in to their homes and correct them.

    • Karen, I agree that the key has to be the family, and that parents have a critical responsibility to support and educate their children about sex, consistent with their own values. The reality, however, is more complicated, beginning with the fact that no matter what is taught within a family, the peer group along with the media inevitably has equal or even greater influence on an adolescent.

      I found these stats quite interesting, again from the same study referenced above:

      • Adolescents consider parents, peers and the media to be important sources of sexual health information.[16]
      • Seventy percent of male teens and 79% of female teens report talking with a parent about at least one of six sex education topics: how to say no to sex, methods of birth control, STIs, where to get birth control, how to prevent HIV infection and how to use a condom.[11]
      • Girls are more likely than boys to talk with their parents about birth control or “how to say no to sex.”[11]
      • Even when parents provide information, their knowledge about contraception or other sexual health topics may often be inaccurate or incomplete.[17]
      • More than half (55%) of 7th–12th graders say they have looked up health information online in order to learn more about an issue affecting themselves or someone they know.[18]
      • The Web sites teens turn to for sexual health information often have inaccurate information. For example, of 177 sexual health Web sites examined in a recent study, 46% of those addressing contraception and 35% of those addressing abortion contained inaccurate information.[19]
      • Exposure to high levels of sexual content on television is associated with an increased risk of initiating sexual activity, as well as a greater likelihood of involvement in teen pregnancy.[20]

  2. And these code words “the right to control their own bodies” will not work with me. For you liberal women this means the right to murder their otherwise healthy fetus or newborn. It’s disgusting and yes, depraved. Perhaps if Cassidy grew up in a society that condemns all murder, especially that of innocent unborn children, she may not have felt so driven to snuff the life out of her own little boy. No. Women and girls have total power over their bodies. They have the power to not have sex. They have the power to not pull their pants down. They have the power to pop a pill. They have the power to respect themselves and their future spouses and save their virtue for a deserving man. They have the power to go to a hospital after a rape. They have MORE power than the liberal narrative allows them to feel they have.

  3. Hi, Karen,

    Okay — I hear you. Yes, I have school-age children, although the older one is just in 7th grade. I can tell you, however, that in her public middle school in North Carolina, there has been no discussion of safe sex OR abstinence — it could be coming, but so far the instruction has just been about anatomy.

    I understand that practices may be different in NYC and elsewhere, but please take a look at this comprehensive 2012 report that analyzes what schools are teaching across the country:

    http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-Teen-Sex-Ed.html

    Here’s an excerpt of the findings:

    • In 2006–2008, most teens aged 15–19 had received formal instruction about STIs (93%), HIV (89%) or abstinence (84%). However, about one-third of teens had not received any formal instruction about contraception; fewer males received this instruction than females (62% vs. 70%).[11]
    • Many sexually experienced teens (46% of males and 33% of females) do not receive formal instruction about contraception before they first have sex.[12]
    • About one in four adolescents aged 15-19 (23% of females and 28% of males) received abstinence education without receiving any instruction about birth control in 2006–2008[12], compared with 8–9% in 1995.[13]
    • Among teens aged 18–19, 41% report that they know little or nothing about condoms and 75% say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill.[14]

    I am not lying, only trying my best to rely on data. I hope this helps.

    Take care,

    Tamar

  4. What is your point about what churches preach????? What the heck does that have to do with this?! I was talking about schools!!!!! The narrative in schools is safe sex NOT abstinence! Do you even have school age kids? I do and I can tell you even in our conservative district the narrative is and has been safe sex for years! Please don’t sit here and lie. It doesn’t help the debate. Liberals have had their way on this issue for decades. My god in NYC they are giving away morning after pills to middle schoolers without parental consent!!!

  5. Hi, Karen,

    Getting our way for years…? Please look back at the stats (and links that I provide) in the article itself on the state of sex education in this country. The main focus of the curriculum in the vast majority of states is abstinence — not other forms of contraception or methods of safe sex to prevent sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. I would not characterize this as “getting our way” in the context of sex education.

    As for open access to birth control for minors, this does not violate the freedom of any religious organization. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions are given complete freedom by the U.S. Constitution to preach that sexual activity by minors and/or the use of birth control is immoral, but they have not been given the right to laws that would deprive their followers or employees of the right to disagree with those teachings. You may, of course, disagree with this interpretation of the Constitution, but that’s the precedent.

    Controlling the narrative about this for a couple of decades or more? Yes, American society has become a bit more enlightened about the rights of women — and girls — to control their own bodies, but given the power of the conservative media, PACs, and others, liberals are hardly controlling the narrative. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point.

    Finally, although you consider it “irrational and indefensible” to try to bring voice to girls like Cassidy whom you deem “depraved,” it is my right to do so in an open society (as it is yours to make that claim), and it’s one of the main reasons that I am proud to be an American.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Take care,

    Tamar Birckhead

  6. Ok but you liberals have been getting your way for years. Sex education in schools. Open access to abortion. Open access to birth control. You liberals have been controlling the narrative about this for a couple decades if not more. And yet these tragedies are on the rise. And then when they domicile you take the even more irrational and indefensible position that the actions of these depraved young girls is somehow understandable. It really leaves America scratching their heads.

  7. The notion that a mother killing her child immediately after birth acts with the same mens rea as a serial killer or a drug gang assassin is insane. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd “can’t get over it” because he’s a middle-aged man with income security who has been married to the same woman for 40 years, not a 14 year old girl in a situation she barely has the capacity to process, a situation that a good third of the country works hard to put her in and then make sure she’s ill-equipped to handle it.

    Unsurprisingly, googling his name reveals that he is not particularly enlightened: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1399-polk-county-sheriff-grady-judd-loses-fight-against-humanist-activist.html

  8. Hi Karen,

    I welcome your interest in this topic, and I’m glad you’re open to discussing the relevant issues.

    As for why I would characterize teens like Cassidy as “poorly positioned” to utilize safe haven laws, I mean that teens — particularly young adolescents — have no clue. If these girls had any idea of the options available in common life situations, they wouldn’t have had unplanned pregnancies in the first place.

    Who knows if someone like Cassidy even understands the basics of reproduction or anything about pregnancy — or when she even realized and understood that she was actually pregnant. In fact, we don’t even know how long she had been menstruating before having sex — maybe just a few months — and maybe she didn’t even understand fully what that was all about.

    So, to assume that teens in her position have been advised that there is such a thing as infant safe haven laws and that they are capable of researching whether such laws exist in their state, is unrealistic.

    But for the safe of argument, let’s assume that a teen does know of the existence of such a policy, that she knows that such a law has been passed in her state, AND that she also knows what the particular procedure is (policies vary from dropping off newborns at fire stations to emergency rooms, etc.). Even with all that, we still are dealing with someone who has little clue about childbirth (which seems to have been the case in this situation, as what rational person would insert a pair of scissors inside her own birth canal?).

    But, let’s say she makes it through the birth experience with her body, mind, and emotional state intact — which seems unlikely in this instance in which Cassidy is reported to have showered and bathed her deceased baby’s body and to then place it in a shoebox, as though she were preparing a beloved pet for a burial. These are not the actions of a clear-headed person intent on getting away with “beating and straggling a tiny helpless, defenseless newborn,” as you put it. They are, instead, consistent with someone who is completely out of it — or, more formally, in a dissociative state or experiencing postpartum hormonal imbalance.

    But, again for the sake of argument, let’s assume that she’s feeling just fine, can think clearly, and is completely rational. At age 14, Cassidy is still too young to drive. How can she arrange to bring the baby to the appropriate location on her own? Should she just call a cab? Take the bus?

    Remember, this is a teen who feels she has no real choice but to hide her pregnancy from her family and community for 9 months. Do we really think she can then get herself together to properly follow procedures to bring a newborn to the appropriate drop-off site on her own?

    Granted, there may be a good number of teens — even some as young as 14 — who are savvy enough to know all these things and to pull off the pregnancy and drop off successfully. I, myself, have a daughter this age – she is bright, capable, and mature — but there is no way on earth that she could handle this type of situation on her own.

    So, this is what I meant by teens being “poorly positioned” to utilize safe haven laws.

    And, yes, I am liberal — if liberal means opposing the warehousing of children in cages for decades when they pose no future danger to the community. I am liberal if it means supporting meaningful sex education that offers more than just abstinence. I am liberal if it means trying to find a way to prevent other girls — and their babies — from ending up in this tragic situation.

    Also, what does it accomplish to label either the act or the girl “evil”? Instead, let’s work together to help ensure that we don’t lose more newborns. This is not just about Cassidy Goodson; it’s about the society we’ve created and the values we want to perpetuate.

    Thanks again,

    Tamar Birckhead

  9. I also want to know how are teens “poorly positioned” to utilize safe haven laws? What does that even mean?

  10. Cold? It isn’t supposed to be warm and fuzzy. And I am not sure you can get much colder than beating and strangling a tiny helpless, defenseless newborn.

  11. Oh and to clarify Lynne said the ACT was evil. And it was. If we can’t describe the butchering and strangling and beating of precious newborn child as evil…what can we?

    • This is why I could never be a judge or serve on a jury for a case like this. The justice system is too cold for me.

  12. Tamar I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’re a liberal right? So as such you have to throw out false accusations or deliberately misstate the opposing position. I don’t believe anyone commenting on your blog has used the word “evil”. Ripping a newborn out of your own womb with scissors and strangling/beating it to death is criminal if not psychotic. Now I’m sorry I don’t feel as much compassion for this criminal as I do the poor dead baby who was totally innocent in all of this and never had a chance. So while you’re wallowing in your pity for the perpetrator (and yes I admit she is a young girl but not too young to know better) the rest of us are concerned with how to punish her for this murder and how to protect society from her and protect any future babies from her. The role of the legal system is to hold her accountable. Not hug her. Not pity her. But to bring some modicum of justice to the innocent life she took.

  13. I was going to try and respond to the hate-filled comments above, but Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice, an excellent criminal defense blog, has done so perfectly: http://blog.simplejustice.us/2012/10/06/when-babies-have-babies-and-murder-them.aspx

    Here is an excerpt from Scott’s post:

    So much for even the most minimal effort at thought. Fourteen-year-old Cassidy Goodson is “EVIL.” No need to deal with the problem, the tragedy of a baby murdered and a 9th grader who will be tried as an adult for it. After all, since she’s “EVIL,” and our beloved children are wonderful, there is no problem to fix. Evil people do evil things, and this has nothing to do with us, our children our world. Just rid society of these “EVIL” people and problem solved.

    What readers here, and people who are otherwise slightly attuned to the horrible reality that bad things happen at the hand of human beings, often fail to appreciate is that there are others in our society, a great many others, who have a solution to these tragedies when people like Tamar (and me) don’t. Just get rid of them. Easy, right?

    Did Cassidy Goodson wake up one morning with the purpose of someday choking a baby to death? Was she otherwise a relatively ordinary young teen, with dream of going to a prom, or being a volleyball player, or maybe attending college where she could learn to become a nurse?

    Did she make a mistake in having sex and getting pregnant at such a tender age? You bet. It’s a mistake made all too often, despite the plethora of efforts by the government, churches and parents to stop teen pregnancy. Something about hormones and human nature seems to keep getting in the way of solving the problem.

    But at the instant of giving birth, which she somehow concealed from her family and somehow felt was better concealed than seeking her mother’s help, with different raging hormones flowing through her body, she made the most horrific choice possible.

    Let’s be clear, what she did to her newborn baby was as horrible as could be. The act of infanticide is evil. But that doesn’t make Cassidy Goodson evil.

    To plumb the depths of what went wrong here would require far more words, and far greater understand, than I possess. To chalk it up to a facile attach of a child by calling her “EVIL” suggests that society has just given up on trying to solve our problems and resorted to the lowest, most ignorant, response.

    • I agree, although I think we are giving society too much credit by its “given up” because I’m not sure its even tried. I think calling somebody who is probably an otherwise good girl evil is appalling and is one of the most disturbing aspects of this case. Posters like Lynne above clearly don’t have children and if they do, I sure wouldn’t want to have any kind of typical teenage crisis in their homes.

  14. Poor cassidy. 🙁 Can’t we just let her go with some kind of probation? Maybe put her in a home with people who will actually love and protect her?

    • That’s a very reasonable question, WN. It’s one that I hope many, many others will pose to Florida State Attorney for the 10th Judicial District, Jerry Hill, whose bio states that he worked as a public defender for several years at the beginning of his career. Let’s hope that although State Attorney Hill felt there was no other choice but to charge and indict Cassidy Goodson for first degree murder, he will be amenable to a resolution of the case that does not involve further incarceration, which will only cost the state of Florida hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be better spent preventing future infanticides.

      State Attorney Hill’s office may be reached via email at this link: http://www.sao10.com/contact_us.asp

  15. Why are they posting pictures and the name of a minor. When three boys rape a girl, their names are not published. What is our limit of “heinous” in this society. What is the unwritten rule I’m missing here.

    • Great question, JW. In this context, Cassidy Goodson is not the “victim” of either rape or statutory rape but is a criminal defendant with no privacy rights. It would be ironic, however, if it turns out that the pregnancy was the result of an illegal act — rape, prostitution, etc. — in which this 14 year-old was the victim. But the state didn’t pursue this inquiry before charging her with first degree murder, locking her up, and indicting her as an adult.

      Speaking of which, your question reminds me of scenarios in which young girls are criminally prosecuted for prostitution when they, themselves, were instead the victims of pimps, johns, and other predatory adults.

      If you have an interest in this topic, you may download for free an article that I wrote last year on the history of the criminal prosecution/incarceration of minors for prostitution: http://works.bepress.com/tamar_birckhead/12/

      Thanks for your comment and for your interest in this issue.

      –Tamar Birckhead

  16. It is ridiculous and insulting to hear people blaming this on ‘mental illness.’ This was a purely EVIL act by a little teenage ho and I HOPE she gets nothing less than the rest of her life in prison. Her idiot mother should be in the cell next to her.

  17. “presumed to be acting under postpartum hormonal imbalance or a dissociative state”

    meaning, these ladies changed their mind about being a mommy and performed a late late late term abortion.

  18. And despite all the millions and billions of tax payer dollars that have been funneled to Naral and Now we still have teenage pregnancies and tragedies like this. This girl must be made an example of. Show other teenagers there is a punishment for murdering your baby and there is no EXCUSE for brutally murdering your infant ever. EVER.