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Is Being A 'Bad Mom' A Crime?

On Feb. 6, Michigan jurors returned a guilty verdict in the case of Jennifer Crumbley, whose son killed four students in a 2021 school shooting. It was the first time the parent of a school shooter had been charged for their child’s crime.

Ethan Crumbley opened fire at his high school in Oxford, Michigan, on Nov. 30, 2021, when he was 15 years old. He killed four of his classmates and wounded seven other people. He pled guilty to 24 charges, including murder and terrorism, and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Leading up to the shooting, Jennifer Crumbley purchased a gun for her son and took him to a shooting range to practice using it. She also bought ammunition for him. And she and her husband, James (who is set to stand trial in March on the same charges), declined the school’s offer to take their son with them to seek mental health treatment after a meeting with the school’s guidance counselor the morning of the shooting. The parents were called in after a teacher found a math worksheet on which Ethan had drawn a gun and a bleeding body and written the words “The thoughts won’t stop,” “Help me,” and “Blood everywhere.”

In her closing remarks on Feb. 2, before the verdict was handed down, Crumbley’s attorney Shannon Smith argued that convicting Crumbley for the murders her son committed would set an ominous precedent. “This case is a very dangerous one for parents out there,” she said. “And it is one of the first of its kind.”

Smith used examples from her own life to demonstrate that parenting is “messy” and that no one, including Crumbley, is ever a perfect parent. She implied that if Crumbley was convicted, it might put all parents at risk of being hit with criminal charges for some of their own lowest parenting moments.

Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald argued in her closing statement that because “just the smallest of things” on Crumbley’s part might have prevented the shooting, she should be found guilty.

“She could have stopped at home on the way back from the meeting,” McDonald told the jury. “She could have stopped on the way back to work. She could have searched the backpack. She could have asked her son where the gun was. She could have blocked the ammunition. She could have blocked the gun. She could have taken him home. She could have taken him to work.”

The defense argued that Crumbley could not have been aware of how events were going to unfold the day of the shooting.

“Can every parent really be responsible for everything their children do, especially when it’s not foreseeable?” Smith asked the jurors.

Prior to the verdict, HuffPost spoke with two attorneys with extensive experience in family law about the implications of this historic case.

The prosecution’s characterization of Crumbley as a bad mom was strategic.

Prosecutors made an effort to paint Crumbley as a bad mother whose love for her child was insufficient.

Over the course of the trial, prosecutors revealed Crumbley’s extramarital affair and raised the question of whether she was more committed to her horses than to her son, since she had more pictures of them on her phone than she did of Ethan. We also learned that when Crumbley called her father from jail, she asked about the horses, as well as the number of calories in a bologna sandwich, instead of inquiring about her son.

While disturbing, none of these actions are criminal. However, the inclusion of these details wasn’t accidental.

“The prosecutors in this case are deliberately trying to make this mother look to be a bad person,” Martin Guggenheim, professor emeritus at the NYU School of Law, told HuffPost. “Which makes complete sense, because jurors are people and people like or dislike people. It’s easier to find somebody to be a criminal if I don’t like you.”

“This community is reeling,” Guggenheim continued. As humans, we want to attach blame and assign responsibility, and it’s easier to do this when we’ve determined that someone is, in our view, a bad person.

However, in this case, Guggenheim actually thinks that painting Crumbley as a neglectful parent went against the prosecution’s argument that she had the ability to foresee, and therefore prevent, this crime.

In showing how uninvolved she was in Ethan’s life, unaware of the depth of his mental health struggles, the prosecution illustrated a key point on behalf of the defense: Crumbley did not have knowledge of her son’s intentions that day.

“Her bad mothering, as it were, is part of the defense. ‘I was a bad mother, and I didn’t know what he was about to do,’” Guggenheim said.

Poor parenting is not against the law — for good reason.

The law doesn’t require people to be great parents, or even good ones. The bar is much lower. We need only be “minimally adequate,” Josh Gupta-Kagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, told HuffPost.

Keeping the bar this low is protective for families.

“We should fear the state enforcement of a higher standard, which can lead to all sorts of harmful places,” Gupta-Kagan said. “We should fear such a standard being enforced in a discriminatory manner based on class and race. We should protect individual parents’ and different cultural groups’ ability to pass on what’s important to them — with limits, of course — but even if other groups, perhaps even dominant groups, might see it as dangerous or bad parenting.”

Protecting parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit also preserves families’ freedom to practice their religions and follow their own cultural traditions.

As it is, the families that Child Protective Services get involved with are disproportionally Black, Indigenous and Latinx. If the state had even greater powers to punish parents for what it deemed to be poor parenting, the effects would likely be equally discriminatory.

Even parents of privilege have been made uneasy by the spectacle of Crumbley’s parenting getting picked apart at trial.

“It makes us all a little nervous to think that our failures as parents could be used against us in this way,” Guggenheim said.

Parents should have latitude when it comes to decisions about their children’s mental health.

If you’ve ever tried to get mental health care for a minor, you know the current system can make this process incredibly difficult. Providers may be costly, medications out of stock and insurance policies inscrutable. Clarity can be elusive about the right thing to do when it comes to your child’s care.

“I think we need to we ought to be... very cautious about allowing the state to be second-guessing really hard mental health care decisions for parents,” Gupta-Kagan said.

For families under the scrutiny of Child Protective Services, not following a provider’s recommendation can provoke accusations of negligence.

“The scenario is someone with authority says, ‘Do this service or take this path to deal with this complicated scenario,’ and if the parent doesn’t, then they get labeled neglectful and are at risk of losing [custody of] their kids,” Gupta-Kagan explained.

“We should be wary of where this path leads, because it leads to some state official — whether the police or prosecutor or CPS agency or family court judge or criminal court judge or jury — substituting their judgment for that of parents,” he continued. “And the vast, vast, vast majority of times, parents are much better suited to make those hard choices.”

Gun regulations — or the lack of them — affect these kind of cases.

Had Ethan Crumbley’s crime occurred today, his parents could have instead been charged under a Michigan law, passed in 2023, that prevents children’s access to firearms. The law makes a gun owner liable if a minor accesses the firearm and has it in a public place, or “possesses or exhibits the firearm in the presence of another person in a careless, reckless, or threatening manner.”

Guggenheim refers to such laws as “upstream solutions.”

“If you broke a particular statute, you committed that crime,” he said. “You could have strict gun control laws that would make parents liable any time a child came into possession of a firearm in violation of the statute.”

Crumbley admitted to not knowing whether the weapon was securely stored, saying that using the safety lock was her husband’s responsibility. “It was more his thing, so I let him handle that. I didn’t feel comfortable putting the lock thing on it,” she testified.

James Crumbley faces the same four charges of involuntary manslaughter. His trial is set to begin March 5.

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