Blame The Mother: The Case Of Judith Scruggs

According to Cynthia Enloe, in the international (as well as the domestic) sphere, women are called upon as daughters, mothers, wives, givers and takers of service—that is, in any role solely in secondary or subordinate relation to men. Because this is the only way they are often seen, when something goes wrong in respect to that role, the woman is usually held solely accountable—regardless of outside factors that may contribute to the failure.

This is particularly evident in the legal system of the United States (and other Western countries). The criminalization of prostitution and female circumcision illustrate this. “The current treatment of prostitutes as criminals” allows the other profiting participants of prostitution—the patrons, pimps, and traffickers—off the hook. In fact, in this situation, the woman has the least control over her role as a prostitute—she is often coerced, economically or otherwise—while the others involved do so willingly.

The West’s response to female circumcision is another case, one that is insidious because of its claims to help eradicate violence against women. In France, the practice has been illegal since 1983; of those convicted, most were the mothers of the girls who underwent the procedure. The court deliberately ignores cultural evidence and only begins to question how to deal with such a “barbaric” ritual that is “performed by women on women and girls” (yea, it’s called hegemony). This seems to be more of an “easy way out”—acceptable because its pattern is not questioned—than a genuine attempt to deal with a complicated issue.

I believe that these patterns are actually a tool of systematic oppression to keep women “in their place.” Women are keenly aware of the blame that will be placed on them, often internalizing it and holding themselves responsible, and therefore put all their effort into making sure everything flows smoothly: whether in their home, their relationship with men, with raising their children. This alleviates men of the burden of their responsibility in areas maintained by women, so that they can lead a freer, more “public” life.

The case of Judith Scruggs exemplifies the growing pattern of “blaming the woman” and of its continued acceptance among the masses.

Scruggs’s son, J. Daniel, was twelve years old and a victim of relentless bullying when he committed suicide on January 2, 2002. On October 7, 2003, Scruggs was convicted of a felony of “putting her child at risk by creating a home environment that was unhealthy and unsafe”

During the trial, the prosecutor kept the case “narrowly focused” on the condition of the Scruggs’s apartment in Meriden, CT. After Daniel was discovered hanging in his closet, police arrived to investigate. What they found there was a “chaotic and cluttered scene… unhealthy… a nightmare of dirty clothes, dishes, and debris… among the worst-kept homes he [the detective that led the investigation] had ever seen… ‘absolutely disgusting.’” The prosecution also claimed that Scruggs did not do enough to help her child, who took to defecating in his pants and not washing himself to avoid going to school and having to face almost ritualistic bullying. (He had missed 74 out of 78 school days at the time of his death.) They accused Scruggs of negligence, charging her with two felonies of putting her child at risk and a misdemeanor of cruelty.

The defense presented the story of a single mother struggling to support two children by working sometimes seventy hours a week at two jobs (one as a teacher’s aide at the middle school her son attended and another at Wal-Mart). Her ex-husband, Daniel’s father, had left them when his son was three months old and has spent most of the last decade in prison. They said that the Scruggs’ apartment was particularly messy due to Christmas; and that though Scruggs was not the best housekeeper, the prosecution’s claim of such filth and negligence was exaggerated, as there were no vermin in the house, and there was never a lack of food or heat. They also said that Scruggs did indeed try to address her son’s being bullied, but the school’s administration did not address the problem. An investigation by the state’s child welfare agency closed a week before he died. Scruggs didn’t think Daniel needed psychological help, because she felt that the reason for his eccentric behavior was due to his situation at school, and that “‘once he got away from the bullying, then I would ascertain whether he needed counseling or not.’”

It is not debated that bullying was most likely the main reason for Daniel’s suicide. It is not debated that he had few places to go to for comfort, and that there were “‘so many failures in this young boy’s life.’” Regardless of which reality each side of the case presented one chooses to believe, the controversy is whether or not Judith Scruggs should be criminally punished for what amounts to bad parenting, while no one else is being held accountable.

If one believes that someone must be held criminally liable for Daniel’s suicide (which I personally don’t believe, but that’s a topic for another paper entirely), who should it be? Everyone who neglected to recognize his dire situation before it was too late? Just his mother, as her jury of six (only one of whom was a woman) declared? Why just the mother? Do we as a society really feel that it is the mother who is ultimately responsible for every part of her child’s life? (Does she really have that much control?) So we can “‘believe we have the power to stop events like these from happening’”? Or is it part of a systemic approach that blames women—specifically, “the mother”—for everything that goes wrong in the family setting?

According to Scruggs herself, “‘I think we all failed him at some point.’” In this statement is where the answer lies. Judith Scruggs’s so-called lack of parenting or housekeeping skills is not what drove her son to suicide. It was arguably a contributing factor. There were arguably a lot of contributing factors. According to the old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The bullying at school ranged from “being pushed off gymnasium bleachers to having ‘kick me’ signs stuck to his back.… [to being] spun about by a classmate,” to being spat on, to having his Game Boy stolen. Everyone knew (students, teachers, guidance counselors, nurses), but nobody ever did anything in response to these daily, repeated actions. According to Melissa Smith, a student at Daniel’s school, “‘Occasionally a teacher would tell students to stop, but they wouldn’t listen.’” At times it was ignored. At times, “teachers [were] not only denying there [was] bullying going on, but in some cases contributing to the bullying. One teacher used to obviously cover her nose and mouth when Daniel passed by, setting a fine example for Daniel’s peers to know that Daniel was a condoned and legitimate target.” In addition, a truant officer was assigned to investigate Daniel after he had repeatedly been absent to school; he failed to follow up.

And yet, no teacher was charged for contributing to the boy’s suicide. No student who had made Daniel’s school life a living hell. No member of the administration. (In fact, after her son’s death, Scruggs had planned to sue the school system; instead of investigating that, the police arrested her.) School was one place where Scruggs had no control over what happened to her son. She made documented attempts to help Daniel, from looking into enrolling him into another middle school to confronting the administration. But, as activist Lisa Toomey said, “‘Perhaps it was different because she relied for food on their table on the same people she was complaining to.’”

What about the state’s welfare agency, whose investigation was closed six days before Daniel killed himself? Their report found his home life to be adequate, and held him responsible for his circumstances.

And what about the boy’s father? John E. Scruggs, Jr. had left Judith Scruggs when their son was three months old; he has spent much of the last decade in prison. His role in Daniel’s suicide is never questioned; he has been absolved of any accountability before it was even brought up.

Only the mother is being blamed for her son’s suicide. This is not uncommon. According to Cheryl Meyer, author of Mothers Who Kill Their Children, this is the result of “‘society’s construction of motherhood, which includes the idea that mothers are responsible for almost anything that happens to their children’.” Meyer has investigated a number of cases where mothers are convicted and often imprisoned for such “criminal negligence.” There are no cases of fathers even being implicated in such cases.

The ultimate result of Scruggs conviction was, according to her, “‘The prosecution tried to send a message to the people that this is a bad mother. This is a cruel mother. This is a mother who has no care about her children.… Walk a mile in my shoes.’”

Scruggs told the detective leading the investigation the events of the night before Daniel hanged himself. It was New Year’s Day, 2002. Scruggs was working at Wal-Mart, and took her son with her, where he played video games. On the way home, they brought home pizza and watched Pearl Harbor with Daniel’s then-seventeen-year-old sister Kara. Afterward, Daniel “tucked his mother into bed and kissed her good night… she could hear Kara and Daniel laughing in the kitchen while she was in bed.”

Does this sound to you like the most wretched home life one could imagine, one that would, on its own accord, drive a child to suicide? I think not. Perhaps the result of this trial suggests something just as sinister than that which leads such a young boy to believe that the only way to escape the harsh realities of life is to kill himself.

(references & works cited currently unavailable)

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One response to “Blame The Mother: The Case Of Judith Scruggs

  1. I have the impression from this article that the writer is a strong feminist and believes that charging the mother was an attack on women. I disagree. The mother was (wrongfully) attacked, but this is a reflection of the power of the teacher’s union. It is the teachers that should have protected the child from the bullies. However, the teacher’s union, in its fervent belief that teacher’s are immune from any type of responsibility, created the narrative that the mother was to blame. As always, follow the money and you can figure out what happened.

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