Legal Expert: Seriously Doubtful ‘Gorilla’ Mom Committed a Crime

The story of the mom whose toddler fell into a gorilla pit is dividing Americans into two camps: 1) those who think the mother was unforgivably negligent and should face the full wrath of the law; and 2) those who believe the mother is blameless because the whole incident was a freak, unavoidable accident.

Any consequences the mother could or should face must be viewed within the context of the duality that exists between criminal law and child-protective law. Criminal law focuses on what happened. People are prosecuted for having committed bad acts or omissions. By contrast, child-protective law views bad acts only as indicators of children’s overall safety in the future. Criminal prosecutors look in the rear-view mirror, while child-protective prosecutors look at the road ahead.

Sometimes, the two areas of law are in sync. For example, in the case of a parent who beats and injures a child, the beating would be a crime; that crime would also be the basis for removing the child from the parent’s care. But there are plenty of times when criminal and civil child-protective laws do not work in tandem. For example, a parent could be criminally convicted for the commission of a serious crime (drug dealing, domestic violence, even murder), and if the crime wouldn’t affect the child’s future, there would be no child-protective consequences. Conversely, many forms of child neglect (such as keeping a dangerously dirty home, or failing to ensure school attendance) are not criminally prosecuted, but are often the basis for removing kids from their parents’ care.

Did the mother commit a crime? I seriously doubt it. Unless she threw her three-year old into the gorilla pit, I can’t imagine how she would ever face criminal charges. But what about child-protective consequences? Should this incident be the basis for state-mandated supervision or a removal of her children from her custody? I think that one is a solid maybe.

The proper outcome rests on whether the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo was a symptom of a larger pattern of neglect or simply an isolated, unusual accident.

I’m troubled by witness accounts that immediately prior to climbing into the moat, the child had been talking about wanting to do just that. I’m also troubled by the mother’s public statements showing no trace of guilt or responsibility.   Perhaps most importantly, I am disturbed by my own common-sense knowledge that a toddler doesn’t end up in a gorilla pit unless someone seriously screwed up. None of those factors are dispositive, of course – but they do paint a larger picture of neglect and lack of accountability.

Inadequate supervision cases are extremely challenging for child-protective professionals. We know that kids get themselves into all sorts of unpredictable danger, and that even the most careful parent can’t prevent every accident. But a blanket, “this could happen to anyone” isn’t an appropriate response; there are some minimum standards of supervision that we expect all parents to meet. Child neglect is a serious thing that can have consequences every bit as profound as intentional child abuse – and the responsibility is incumbent on all of us to protect children.

Most parents have seen children who are victims of inadequate supervision. There’s always that one clueless mom on the playground who is conveniently absent whenever her child misbehaves or gets a skinned knee. Or that one dad who lets his child roam the neighborhood for hours unattended. The rest of us notice and resent these people. We also supervise their children, provide snacks and bandages, and try our best to fill the void. And while we honestly hope no harm befalls these children, we aren’t remotely surprised when it does. If we could all focus our efforts on speaking up (to parents, to children, to authorities) before an accident occurs, instead of gossiping and judging afterward, we would do well by all our children.

As for ‘gorilla’ mother and her family, the proper outcome should include a child-protective investigation to determine whether her kids are generally safe, or exposed to ongoing risk. The findings of that investigation may dictate remedies such as mandatory parenting classes, state supervision, or even (in very extreme circumstances) a change of custody. The Cincinnati Zoo may even consider initiating a civil lawsuit against the mother to recover the cost of Harambe. After all, its loss may be legally attributable to the mother’s negligence. Mother herself must take some degree of responsibility; had it not been for the actions of her child, a rare and beautiful animal would still be alive. The extent of the mother’s responsibility is likely something that only she truly knows, and it is my hope is that she takes appropriate action to keep her children and those around them safe in the future.

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