The Criminalization of Bad Mothers

Posted on April 25, 2012


New York Times, April 25, 2012 by Ada Calhoun

On a rainy day just after Thanksgiving, Amanda Kimbrough played with her 2-year-old daughter in her raw-wood-paneled living room, petting her terriers and half-watching TV. Kimbrough, who is 32, lives a few miles outside Russellville, a town of fewer than 10,000 in rural northwestern Alabama, near the border of Franklin and Colbert Counties. Textiles were the economic engine of the area until the 1990s, when the industry went into decline and mills shut down. Now one of the region’s leading employers is Pilgrim’s, a chicken supplier. The median household income is $31,213, and more than a third of children live below the poverty line.

As family members came in and out of the room and one daytime show slid into another — “The People’s Court,” “Intervention,” “Jerry Springer,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” — Kimbrough talked about her arrest following the death of her third child, Timmy Jr. Born premature at 25 weeks on April 29, 2008, Timmy Jr. weighed 2 pounds 1 ounce, and lived only 19 minutes. When Kimbrough tested positive for methamphetamine, her two daughters were swiftly removed from her custody, and for 90 days, she was allowed only supervised visits. Social services mandated parenting classes and drug treatment.

That would have been a typical response in most places, but Alabama is different. Six months after Timmy Jr.’s death, the district attorney in Colbert County charged Kimbrough with chemical endangerment of a child, a Class A felony (because the infant died) that carries a mandatory sentence of 10 years to life. She turned herself in, and bail was set at $250,000. At the trial, the state completed its case in two days. On the advice of her lawyer, Kimbrough then pleaded guilty and received the minimum sentence of 10 years.

According to Kyle Brown, the chief assistant district attorney in the case, Kimbrough might have received far more time if a jury had found her guilty. “She caused the death of another person,” Angela Hulsey, an assistant district attorney on the case, said, “a person that will never have the chance to go to school, go to the prom, get married, have children of their own. You’re dealing with the most innocent of victims.”

When I met Kimbrough last fall, she was free on an appeal bond. (Her plea bargain allows her lawyers to appeal her conviction on constitutional grounds without contesting the specifics of her case.) Kimbrough said she never had a big problem with meth, but admitted that she started using the drug in her mid-20s, after her first marriage collapsed. When she was pregnant with Timmy Jr., she did meth only once, she told me.

“One time,” she said. “I don’t even know why I done it. I guess the Devil knocked on my shoulder that day.” Otherwise, Kimbrough insisted, she abstained from drugs during her pregnancy, even refusing painkillers for an infected tooth for fear they would hurt the baby. Timmy Jr.’s birth had many potentially complicating factors, including prematurity and a prolapsed cord. Kimbrough says she was eager to have the child — she had always wanted a boy. She and her husband, Timmy Sr., were told at an early-April prenatal visit that Timmy Jr. would likely have Down syndrome, and while abortion was an option, the Kimbroughs, who oppose abortion on moral grounds, did not consider it. “We didn’t care if he was special needs,” Timmy Sr. said. “We would have loved him.”

Kimbrough told me that she was devastated by the loss of her baby and scared of being locked up. She described a recent visit to her brother in prison, where he is serving time for burglary and other charges, and how upset she was by the place.

“I feel for people on drugs,” she continued. “You got to stay away from people that’s on them. I learned that in rehab, and I been clean ever since. I feel like I iced the cake with this one. To me, losing a child. ” She stared off into space.

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