Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tashawnea Hill: Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

Some of the facts are not in dispute. Tashawnea Hill, a 35 year-old army reservist, was taking her 7 year-old daughter to dinner at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Poulan, Georgia on the evening of September 9. A White man was coming out of the door when Hill, who is African-American, and her daughter were about to go in, and Hill believed that he almost hit her daughter in the face with the door. She exchanged words with the man, and he beat her in full view of her daughter.

The only facts in dispute are what exactly Hill said to the man, whether, as he alleges, she spit on him, and whether, as she alleges, he shouted racial and sexist epithets at her as he beat her. The FBI is investigating this as a hate crime, and the police say that witness statements and surveillance footage indicate the attack was unprovoked.

The man who beat Ms. Hill is charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct. He is also charged with cruelty to children even though everyone agrees he did not hit the daughter. Let's hear it for Georgia law enforcement for understanding that damage to children doesn't necessarily require physical contact.

The police report described the daughter's reaction in vivid terms. When officers arrived, she was
crying uncontrollably and her body [was] shaking/trembling.

This is a very typical reaction for a child -- and for an adult -- who has witnessed a traumatic incident. In addition to watching her mother be attacked, this girl has to have feared for her own safety. And where does a 7 year-old run when her mother is being beaten? Where does she believe is safe? Probably nowhere.

I've written a lot in this space about the way trauma violates our world view. In this instance, that is doubly the case. While Tasha Hill knew before September 9 that the world can be dangerous, but probably did not operate with that in the front of her mind day in and day out. Her daughter, at 7, was most likely at a stage where she believed her mother was powerful and would keep her safe. Little kids scare more easily than adults, but they also fundamentally think adults can protect them. When this girl saw her mother beaten, she was suddenly and shockingly exposed to the danger her mother was in and the fact that her mother could not keep that danger away from her. That's a big lesson for a little girl.

And of course, that's without dealing with the obvious other ways this incident will affect Ms. Hill's daughter. She not only saw her mother attacked, but she allegedly saw her attacked for being an African-American female. That has to have an impact on a little African-American girls' sense not only of safety but of self esteem and self worth. The bottom line is, if I were she, I'd be shaking too.


Anonymous said...

This crime would be horrifying enough even if the daughter did not see it. I hope the suspect is convicted of the battery and disorderly conduct charges.

I worry, however, about the potential slippery slope of tacking on the cruelty charge, which has a lot more ambiguity and prosecutorial discretion attached to it. I would hate to see this applied to speech acts, for example: TV shows can be scary, books can be scary, and such an interpretation of "cruelty" puts an onus on publishers.

Also, given the choice between two evils -- I would much rather (or, for that matter, have my children experience) a vituperative verbal assault on a child (however insulting and degrading) than physical cruelty.

I remember seeing a PSA saying "Words hit as hard as a first. Watch what you say to your kids" and thinking, "Until we stamp out actual physical child abuse, it seems a little silly to be encouraging people to equate sharp words with sharp objects."

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

I'm not sure I agree, but I see your point. We charge people who show pornography to children with a crime. I think exposing them to violence first hand is probably worse. You are correct that there has to be a line drawn somewhere. I just think it can be drawn to include incidents like this one, which, as you say, is awful even without the daughter being present.

Colleen said...

Both verbal abuse and witnessing violence can cause lasting harm to a child. It is pointless to try to judge whether physical or non-physical abuse is worse. It's not like we are going to -not- prosecute someone for only hurting a child a little bit physically, because some kids are being hurt worse. If the law is written correctly, when we find an abusive situation, we can take the appropriate steps. Beating a mother in front of her child means that the beater hurt the child, too. Adding that on to the charges is simply the right thing to do.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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