By Chip ScanlanSamantha Michaels was reading The New York Times one day in 2019 when she read a story about a case where the punishment seemed vastly disproportionate to the crime.
The situation involved Tondalo Hall, an Oklahoma woman who was leaving prison after her sentence was commuted. “She got 30 years behind bars because her boyfriend broke bones in her children’s legs and she failed to stop him,” Michaels recalled. “He’d gotten a much shorter sentence for committing that violence — two years in jail.”
Michaels, a senior criminal justice reporter at Mother Jones, soon learned that Hall’s case was just one striking example of an undercovered story: Harsh sentences that women, many of them Black, receive in so-called failure-to-protect cases. Theoretically, she told me, failure-to-protect laws “require mothers and fathers to stop someone else’s violence against their children. But in reality, it’s almost always mothers who are blamed.”
Last summer, after a year-long investigation, Mother Jones brought the hidden story to light. On Aug. 9, 2022, the magazine published Michaels’ 8,200-word story, “She Never Hurt Her Kids. So Why Is a Mother Serving More Time Than the Man Who Abused Her Daughter?” The project, partnered with a short documentary, won a 2023 National Magazine Award for best video and was a finalist for best reporting. It also won the 2023 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism from her alma mater, Northwestern University Medill School of of Journalism.
As a vehicle to drive the story, Michaels used the current case of another Oklahoma woman. Kerry King is serving 30 years for failing to protect her 4-year-old daughter from her boyfriend, who used violence against her and her child; his sentence was 18 years — little more than half of hers.
The narrative recounts King’s journey from abused woman to prison inmate. It is powered by dramatic, at times horrific scenes and buttressed by dialogue and vivid details. Michaels weaves the personal story with an investigation of the injustices at the hands of what she says is a sexist, racist and classist criminal justice system.
Michaels amassed a mountain of information: court documents, including audio, video, photos, transcripts and the police video of King’s interrogation. The state corrections system sat on her application to visit King in prison for months until the story was almost finished. Much of the reconstruction relies on more than 25 hours of phone conversations with King. Michaels also visited King’s three oldest children, who were living with her ex-husband, who had gained custody of them despite his own history of violence in their marriage.
The reporting was anchored by an estimated 160 hours of fact checking by research editor Ruth Murai and supported by a grant from Columbia University’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
Before joining Mother Jones in 2015, Michaels worked as a copy editor and reporter in Indonesia and then Myanmar. While at Irrawaddy news magazine in Myanmar, she traveled with rebel soldiers and other insurgents. Her colleagues — many of them political dissidents and some who spent time in prison — modeled formative lessons for a budding investigative journalist.
“Watching them do their jobs in rough conditions — sometimes with no electricity or internet, sometimes sharing a single phone in the office, sometimes trekking into war zones, and almost always covering violent atrocities and an unjust military dictatorship — reminds me what we’re capable of as journalists and why this work is so important,” she said.
In email conversations with Storyboard, Michaels described her reporting, interviewing and writing strategies, the granular approach she took to document her findings and how she structured a complex narrative. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity and is followed by an annotation of the story.
Why did you become a journalist?
I’ve always loved writing. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator. By middle school I was thinking about becoming a novelist. But I wasn’t sure how financially stable life as a novelist would be, so in sixth or seventh grade I started imagining a career in journalism. (How naïve I was to think journalism would be financially stable!) For a school assignment, we had to apply to our dream college and I chose Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. I ended up there and I soon realized that I loved reporting as much as I loved writing. I considered myself shy and enjoyed having an excuse to reach out to people I might not otherwise approach, and to ask them questions about their lives without the pressure to talk a lot about myself. When I got into a good interview, it was like I stopped noticing time pass, and I felt energized and engaged in a way I had never felt before. Journalism appealed to my adventurous side, my curiosity and my desire to help people, even if that just meant listening and helping them feel heard.
You’re now an award-winning writer focusing on critical social issues. What formative influences and/or people led you to this moment in your career path?
Maddie Oatman, the editor I’ve worked with for nearly nine years, is my biggest professional mentor. She helps me feel grounded during stressful moments and has probably taught me more about writing than any other teacher. I also owe a lot of gratitude to my former Burmese colleagues, easily the most badass reporters and editors I’ve ever met, and some of the most generous.
I also would not be where I am today without my family. For years after returning to the United States, I struggled with fears that I might get stuck copy editing and never become a full-time reporter. My family, especially my parents, stood by me through that anxiety and encouraged me to keep going. Another close family member is one reason I pursued criminal justice reporting in particular. As I was starting out, stories about violence, trauma and punishment struck a deep chord with me partly because of his prior experiences: He was stabbed in the chest by a stranger when I was in college, and I found myself thinking about that night—and the flood of adrenaline and fear it unleashed in me—when I started to interview crime survivors for my early stories at Mother Jones. I also thought about him when I began reporting on juvenile justice and the people serving life in prison for crimes they committed as teens. He was prosecuted in adult court when he was a kid, for a minor offense. He likely avoided a conviction and any lifelong consequences because of our privilege; my family is white and we could scrape together enough money for an attorney. When I began interviewing incarcerated people, I thought often how unfair it is that other people don’t receive second chances like he did.
To that end, some of my biggest influences have been my sources—the survivors of crime, police brutality and prison brutality who spent months opening up to me about their traumas. Each of them taught me about the ways that our law enforcement, courts and correctional facilities fail to keep communities safe, and about the capacity we all have for growth and redemption.
Are there writers whose work inspires as you produce narrative nonfiction?
So many! I read the Marshall Project’s criminal justice newsletter almost every morning. It helps me generate story ideas or learn more about topics I’m covering. Some of my favorite writers on this beat are Keri Blakinger at the Los Angeles Times, Jennifer Gonnerman and Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker, and Ken Armstrong at ProPublica. At Mother Jones, my editor Maddie encourages me and her other reporters to meet once or twice a month to discuss one long-form piece and dissect what techniques worked well or didn’t. Before writing my story about failure-to-protect laws, Maddie and I read Pamela Colloff’s award-winning feature “The Innocent Man,” about a father who was wrongfully convicted for his wife’s murder. The piece was beautifully written and helped inspire the lede to my story; I liked how Colloff started with a scene inside the prison, and she used the man’s letter-writing to quickly convey some of his central motivations, especially to see his son again. Kerry’s driving desire was similarly to see her children again.
What was your goal for the failure-to-protect story?
I wanted to show the sexism and racism inherent in these prosecutions, and how the punishments were often having unintended effects: Lawmakers wanted to protect kids from abuse, but the tragic consequence was that moms were being blamed and punished for violence they didn’t even commit. Sometimes the kids, ripped from their mothers, were sent to live in foster care or with other abusive relatives. I wanted my story to elicit an emotional response from readers, whether angry or sad, and potentially spark them to speak out and try to change this system.
This is a multi-media project involving complex social issues, multiple layers of sourcing, sensitive ethical considerations and graphic descriptions of violence. Credits at the end of the story show there were many colleagues and editors involved. How did all this come together wtihout losing the focus of the story? In addition to helping me prioritize and focus, Maddie Oatman was a sounding board during the reporting process as I navigated interviews with Kerry, her young children and their father, a man who also had abused Kerry. She helped me coordinate with Ryan Little, a data reporter who was instrumental in figuring out how common these prosecutions are in Oklahoma. Filmmaker Mark Helenowski wove together our reporting with heartbreaking footage of Kerry’s kids for the film; this was my first time working on a documentary, and Mark patiently coached me through things like script-writing and voiceover recording. Deputy editor James West shepherded the film, too, and former editorial director Amanda Silverman gave additional top-edits to the article, as did editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery. Finally, fact-checker Ruth Murai put in weeks of time to make sure the story was accurate.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Michael’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the right menu on you monit0r or at the top of your mobile device.
She Never Hurt Her Kids. So Why Is a Mother Serving More Time Than the Man Who Abused Her Daughter?
Failure-to-protect laws are incarcerating women all over the country—for other people’s violence.
A WEEK BEFORE Christmas last year, Kerry King helped three of her children build gingerbread houses in a prison visitation room in Oklahoma. King wanted to make the holiday special for the kids, even under the circumstances. But as the Black 35-year-old spread frosting on a graham cracker while dressed in her orange jumpsuit, her hair braided for the occasion, the mood still felt bittersweet. Why do you identify her by race? We decided this was relevant because we later reveal that Black women are disproportionately prosecuted for failure to protect. We also later identify that the officers who arrested her were white. Since she was incarcerated six years earlier, her kids could only visit once a month, and soon it would be time to say goodbye.
“Do you love me?” Lilah, 10, the most outgoing of King’s children, asked her mother as the visit was ending.
“Of course I do,” King answered.
Lilah thought a moment, her brown eyes serious, and then said something that caught King off guard. “Do you still love him?” she asked. “Because if you still love him, I’ll never forgive you.” Were you in the visitation room? If not, how did you reconstruct this scene? I wasn’t. For this scene I relied on interviews; I spent more than 25 hours on the phone with Kerry during the project. She mentioned the visit with her kids a couple of days after it happened, and I asked a bunch of specific questions like: “How did you decorate the gingerbread houses? What time of day was it? Where in the prison were you, and what did the room look like? How did you feel, getting to spend time with your kids before Christmas? What were you wearing and how did you have your hair? You mentioned Lilah made a comment about never forgiving you; do you remember how she started talking about that? What facial expression did she make as she said it, and what was her tone? Were you both sitting, or standing? How did you feel when she said that? Had she ever said anything like that before?” A few weeks later, I asked Lilah about the visit during an in-person interview. I fact-checked details about the scene with Lilah’s older siblings, who were there, too. What recording tools do you use to capture scenes, dialogue and details? If I’m recreating scenes that I didn’t witness, I’ll record interviews with my sources and type notes as we talk; I’ll also look for court documents, videos, and photos that can give me extra details. If I’m witnessing a scene, I’ll use my phone’s audio recorder app to capture dialogue and its Notes app to type quick notes, jotting down things my recorder can’t capture, like where someone is standing when they say something and what their facial expression is. And I’ll take photos and videos of what’s happening around me. The first break I get after the scene, I’ll try to flesh out my notes with extra information from memory. At the hotel that night I may flesh things out more, writing down why I thought that scene was important and where I could see it fitting into the story.
King’s heart dropped.
Her ex-boyfriend had abused them both, years ago. He was the reason King was in prison now. But her daughter had never said anything like that to her before. And there wasn’t enough time to have the long conversation they both craved. Why did you open your story with this scene and would you describe the thinking, writing and revision process it took? It captured the heart of the story quickly. Kerry is in prison, mostly separated from her kids, and Lilah is still trying to process what happened to them. The quote about never forgiving Kerry is also poignant because it introduces this idea of Kerry, the mother, being an object of blame. It took several revisions to write. Initially, I started the with the night of the abuse. At first, that scene felt like a natural launching point because it led to Kerry’s incarceration and I had so many gripping details. But my editor, Maddie Oatman, pointed out that starting there felt formulaic and could lead the reader to associate Kerry above all else with victimhood. We wanted to open with a present-day scene that helped the reader understand who she is and what her driving motivation is: to be a good mother, to get out of prison and to reunite with her kids.
Back in her cell, King agonized over whether a letter to Lilah would suffice. She had been mothering her children over letters and phone calls for too long. No matter what, King wanted to tell her daughter, I love you more than I could have loved anyone else, any man. And you should never, ever have to even consider whether I do. How do you know what was going on in her heart and mind in her cell? I asked her what she did when the kids left and how she felt in that moment. I also asked, “What are the things you wish Lilah would have known? What do you want to tell her?”
“I am not guilty,” King had said to me over the phone, months before the Christmas visit. How did you discover Kerry King? I learned about Kerry in 2019 when I asked an ACLU attorney in Oklahoma to share a list of failure-to-protect cases that were on her radar. I looked up Kerry’s court docket, read one of her appellate brief, and decided I wanted to know more. I called her trial lawyer, who was no longer in touch with her, and her appellate lawyer, who had a phone number for her mom, Lela. I called Lela and explained why I was hoping to speak with Kerry; Lela put in a good word for me. Then I wrote Kerry a letter. She called me soon afterward. “I just wanna go home. I wanna my see my kids so bad. It kind of eats you up.”
KING HAS SPENT countless nights tossing and turning in her cell, replaying the night that pulled her away from her family. (The following descriptions are confirmed in court records and testimony.) Why did you include summary attribution here? This is a legally sensitive section, so we wanted to show the types of sourcing we used. Referencing court records can provide us some legal protection as a magazine.
In January 2015, in the small yellow house she shared in Tulsa with her boyfriend and a roommate, King had been bathing Lilah, then 4, when she saw bruises on the girl’s legs and arms. Purdy “was mean,” Lilah said, sitting in the soapy water. John Purdy was King’s boyfriend at the time; he’d recently lost his telemarketing job and sometimes watched Lilah while King worked at a gas station. He’d been physically abusing King for more than a year, often high on heroin, which he’d recently forced her to try. But she had never seen him harm her children. When she asked about the bruises, he claimed Lilah had slipped on the ice.
Two days later, King woke up in the middle of the night and noticed Purdy was not in bed. She was groggy—he had ordered her to shoot up again—but saw a light on in Lilah’s bedroom. When she entered the room, Purdy was holding Lilah’s shoulders, with his fingers wrapped around her little neck. He said they were having a pillow fight, but Lilah whimpered beneath his grasp. “I thought he was hurting her,” King later told detectives. So she tried to free her daughter the only way she knew how, by clenching her fist and punching Purdy in the face. What makes you think you can hit me? she remembers him telling her, turning toward her. Why did you put Purdy’s challenges, here and below, in italics? I think it adds drama, but the primary reason was because King was recalling the quote; she hadn’t recorded it and it wasn’t something I heard myself. He slammed her head against a wall, insisting Lilah needed to be spanked.
King agreed to hold Lilah down like Purdy demanded, hoping that if she complied it would be over faster. But when she saw how hard his blows were, she threw her body over her daughter’s, receiving Purdy’s belt lashes on her own back. Purdy pulled King off Lilah, and King tried to run out of the house to get help from the neighbors or the police—but he blocked her at the door. You ain’t going nowhere, she recalls him saying. “I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,” she later told me, adding that it felt like she “had been in chains.” Purdy dragged King to the master bedroom by her hair and threatened to kill her if she didn’t stay there. He reentered Lilah’s room and locked the door, leaving King outside, listening to her daughter’s cries.
Purdy held King’s phone in his pocket, making it hard for her to call for help. She begged him to come out of Lilah’s room, and then asked him to take a shower with her, anything to distract him. Around 6 a.m., he directed her to lie down in bed. Still high, King reluctantly fell asleep. When she woke up, he wouldn’t let her or her daughter leave the house.
It wasn’t until later that day, when a contractor came to work in the yard, that King’s housemate snuck out and asked the man to call 911. The police found Lilah in a locked room, sobbing. Bruises covered her forehead, cheeks, ears, and neck, and belt lashes cut into her back. Chunks of her curly brown hair were missing. This passage puts the reader in the apartment that night. How you were able to write it with such granular detail? I interviewed Kerry extensively, but almost every sentence in this passage is based on court records: I had thousands of pages to pull from, including a 900-plus-page trial transcript, felony filings, warrants, affidavits, bond documents, sentencing documents, Purdy’s guilty plea, pre-sentence investigation reports, letters Kerry sent to court, and emergency protective orders. I also had trial audio, recordings of King’s jail calls, videos from her police interrogation, photos of the house and her injuries, drawings of Lilah’s injuries and audio of the 911 call. Writing this section was fairly straightforward, though emotionally difficult, because we had so much material. I tried to draw readers into the scene with sensory details and dialogue. I also tried to convey urgency and drama by using strong active verbs (clenched, punched, slammed, dragged, begged, etc.).
The police arrested Purdy. King, who had bruises on her own body, helped investigators take her daughter to a hospital. Then she returned home, exhausted. But her nightmare was far from over.
Less than a week later, King was sitting inside in her pajamas when a police car pulled up to her house around 11 a.m. Two white officers asked her to come with them for an interview. “I didn’t want him to hurt my baby,” she told them. “I was trying to prevent this.”
But the officers didn’t buy it. They wanted to know why King waited so long without seeking help for her daughter. Why had she held Lilah down for the beating? Why didn’t she call 911?
They arrested King and put her in jail, where she would stay for more than a year awaiting trial. They accused her of child neglect and permitting child abuse. Were you able to talk with the police about the case? No, but I obtained lengthy videos of their interrogation of King and watched how they questioned her. Two officers testified at Kerry’s trial and I had those transcripts. I also had police affidavits and their findings of probable cause. By the time it was all over, though she had never laid a hand on Lilah, she would be sentenced to 30 years in prison—12 more years than Purdy, the man who had assaulted both her and her daughter. The story is propelled by a singular focus through the prism of one Black woman’s experience. How did you settle on that approach? First, we had to choose a location. These prosecutions are common nationwide, and I initially pitched the idea of traveling to multiple states. We decided to focus on Oklahoma because it has one of the harshest laws in the country: Parents can be sent to prison for life for their supposed failure to protect, with no exception for moms who were victims of domestic violence themselves. The ACLU had also done a lot of prior work in the state to identify problems with the law. Next, we had to find a central character. Kerry King was an obvious choice; I couldn’t stop thinking about her story after I read some of her legal documents. In particular, I found it compelling that she physically threw her body between her boyfriend and her daughter, trying to protect the girl, and that she received a much harsher punishment than he did. Her case had a lot of court documents and evidence, including videos, photos, and audio, which would be helpful for fact-checking such a legally sensitive topic. Plus, while some other women were nervous about talking publicly about their trauma, Kerry wanted to share her story. Even after narrowing down the location, character and central premise, focus was difficult. My first draft was more than 13,000 words and the second more than 14,000, not counting annotations and notes. My wonderful editor Maddie Oatman encouraged me to tighten the piece by thinking through not just the surface-level plot (what happened to Kerry) and policy-related thesis (the law is unfairly incarcerating mothers), but also the deeper emotional question or, as reporter Brooke Jarvis put it in another Nieman Storyboard interview, the “philosophical grand narrative.” Mine was simple: “What makes a good mother, and how do these laws get in the way of that?” Keeping this question in mind during revisions helped me choose scenes and quotes and cut away words that didn’t contribute toward answering it. Were there others you auditioned before setting on King as your central character? The ACLU sent me 14 names, including Kerry’s. I googled them all and searched for them on Oklahoma’s state court website, reading whatever documents I could easily find. All these cases were heart-wrenching, but Kerry’s jumped out because she got such a long sentence and because the court records contained so much detail. Still, I didn’t reach out to her right away and considered other options. I spoke with a Tulsa public defender who was helping five other women with similar cases apply for commutations. He tried to connect me with two of them, but it never panned out. I think some survivors are wary of sharing their trauma with reporters, especially if they’ve been blamed for it previously. In the end, Kerry’s story was the one I couldn’t get out of my head, it had never been told before, and she was open to working with me.
IN A PARALLEL UNIVERSE, you could imagine the police leaving King in the care of a women’s shelter. But the detectives did not view her as a victim. That’s because of Oklahoma’s “failure to protect” law, which requires parents to shield their kids from physical harm if they’re aware or “reasonably” should have known that another adult was abusing or might abuse the child. Because of this law and how it’s interpreted, King was blamed for what happened to Lilah.
The law is “inherently problematic,” says Megan Lambert, the legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, who studies these cases. “A lot of times, motherhood is used as the grounds that they ‘should have known,’ simply because they are the child’s mother.” And mothers in violent relationships are especially vulnerable to prosecution: If they were abused by their partners, juries often believe they should have realized their children might be in harm’s way too. “Folks who are charged often haven’t actually engaged in any harmful behavior,” says Lambert. “They were put in impossible situations and were not able to act fast enough.”
Most states have similar laws, opening the door to anywhere from a few years to decades behind bars as a punishment. But Oklahoma, which incarcerates more women for all crimes than almost any other state, has one of the harshest penalties: Moms can be sent to prison for life for their supposed failure to protect, with no exception for women who were abused themselves. The ACLU estimates that Oklahomans convicted of the offense receive an average sentence of about a decade behind bars.
These types of laws aren’t talked about very much, but they are used to punish parents nearly every week. Last year, I found local news reports of 53 people across 29 states who were, within the span of just three months, arrested, prosecuted, or convicted for similar crimes. Why did you introduce yourself in the narrative here? It’s something we regularly do at Mother Jones. Our style is fairly conversational, so we’ll often write that a source “told me” something, rather than saying the source “told Mother Jones.” This sentence also refers to data work that I did by myself, as opposed to the data work referenced a few sentences later, which I did alongside reporter Ryan Little. Many more cases go under the radar. There are no national data sets to show how many parents have been convicted of failure to protect—in part because their convictions are often labeled as “child abuse” or “child neglect,” making them difficult to track down. But if Oklahoma is any indication, an enormous number of families have been ripped apart. When my colleague Ryan Little and I conducted a groundbreaking review of the state’s court records, we identified hundreds of people who were charged under the law since 2009, when a new version of the statute went into effect.
While the language of these laws refers to parents, prosecutors overwhelmingly target mothers, not fathers. Since 2009, at least 90 percent of the people incarcerated for the offense in Oklahoma were women. Attorneys in multiple states who specialize in this area of law tell me they have never seen a man prosecuted for failing to stop someone else’s violence against a child; Mother Jones found relatively few examples. “It’s sexism,” says Lambert. “It’s the assumption that women are responsible for all the goings-on in the home.” In Oklahoma, the vast majority of women convicted for failure to protect had no prior felony record.
Women of color are disproportionately prosecuted. Black people make up 8 percent of Oklahoma’s total population but 19 percent of those found guilty under the statute since 2009. These types of laws are “really enforced in a racist and classist way,” says Stacey Wright, a women’s rights activist who has also studied these cases. Why do you bring in multiple voices to buttress your assertions? Outside experts can connect dots and help readers make sense of all the numbers. Sometimes people’s eyes glaze over when they see a lot of statistics, so it’s nice when an expert can analyze the numbers and just hit the nail on the head: This is sexism; this is racism.
Not only are the laws used to prosecute women who, like King, are themselves victims of abuse, but there’s no proof these laws are successful in protecting kids. Separated from their mothers, children affected by failure-to-protect convictions sometimes end up in foster care or with abusive guardians, according to several attorneys who are familiar with the statutes.
These laws also create an impossible dynamic that makes survivors less likely to report what’s happening to police. When someone calls 911 after being abused by a partner, some cops open a child welfare investigation if there are kids in the family. So if a mother calls 911, she risks losing her kids; if she doesn’t, she risks being prosecuted for failure to protect. As one legal expert suggests, there’s no way to win. “It creates another barrier for domestic violence victims to seek help, because now they are also threatened with criminalization and incarceration, which also means losing their children,” says Lambert.
In essence, the criminal justice system makes these mothers ultra-culpable, blaming them for things that are largely outside their control. Mothers are punished not only for their partners’ violence, but for the violence that has been inflicted upon them—for the sexism that leads to domestic abuse, for the poverty that makes it hard to escape, for the racist policing systems that don’t protect them, for the circumstances that leave them with few options. As an untold number of women sit in prisons for these supposed crimes, their kids in someone else’s care, maybe the real question we should be asking ourselves is: Who is failing to protect whom? In this section, you stepped back from Kerry King’s narrative. Why? It was important to offer context for how Kerry’s story fits into a bigger picture and why we should care about it. The section functions like a long nut graf: It’s my attempt to answer focusing questions like: “Why does the story matter? What’s the point? What does the story say about life, the world, and the times we live in?” One sees this hybrid model, weaving dramatic scenes and expository context, in The New Yorker and from ProPublica writers such as Rachel Aviv and Lizzie Presser. Why do you think it’s so popular? It’s a simple structure that packs a punch: The scenes draw you in and give you a character to get attached to — a reason to ask, “What happens next?” The exposition offers the history and information to put that character in context. It justifies why I’m asking you to read this singular story and get emotional about it, and it helps convince you that maybe this story isn’t so singular after all. Your prose is so compelling. Could you describe the process you used to write and revise your story? Thank you. This story went through a lot of drafts. The writing process was atypical, in that I needed to file a first draft before I’d finished reporting or traveled to Oklahoma. I started by making a timeline of Kerry’s life and relevant events. I also made a short outline focused on structure—sketching out how I envisioned the beginning, middle and end. Then I made a MUCH more detailed outline (like…28,000 words): I read all my source material, copying the relevant bits and pasting it underneath the section headings where I thought it would fit. Then I refined that outline into a series of progressively shorter, better-organized outlines, eliminating material that seemed redundant or less interesting. Eventually I started drafting, going through each section of the outline and writing them out like an actual story. As I did this, I cut more material and continued playing with structure. I waited and wrote a kicker after my reporting trip to Oklahoma. The revisions were intense: My editor, Maddie, did a first pass focused primarily on big-picture top edits, like rethinking the lede, encouraging me to find a “philosophical grand narrative,” offering me some focusing questions. We went back and forth a couple of times, trimming the piece down, then sent it to editor Amanda Silervman and editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who weighed in. The story probably went through five substantial rounds of edits, plus several final rounds that were more focused on small line edits, fact-checking, and legal tweaks.
AT THE POLICE STATION, the detectives reprimanded King. During the videotaped interrogation, a female officer brought up the moment when Purdy locked the door to Lilah’s room. “You should have went and got help,” another female officer told her. How did you obtain the video? It was submitted at trial as evidence. I requested it from the Tulsa district court.
“You guys don’t understand,” King said, her voice quivering. “I was so scared myself.” She ran her fingers through her hair, near the scar on the back of her head where another man—her ex-husband and the father of her three older kids—once hit her with the butt of a gun. She had another scar from him over her eyebrow. And another near her wrist, where Purdy had cut her. “I didn’t know what to do,” she told the detectives. “I wanted to get in there and grab her away from him and hold my baby.”
“The problem is, you already held her once…while he whipped the shit out of her,” the first officer said calmly. Why did you use this adverb to characterize the officer’s demeanor? There was something jarring about the juxtaposition—how calm the officer’s tone was, but how sharp and accusatory her words were. It was like the officers wanted to convince Kerry they were gentle, that she could trust them, but they also seemed to have already made up their minds against her. “You should have ran for help.”
“That’s why you’re going to jail today,” the second officer said. “Because of the things you didn’t do. Your job as the mom is to protect your child.”
“And you failed,” both detectives said in unison.
They handcuffed her and prepared to lead her away. “I love my kids,” King said, crying. “I’m not a bad mom. I’m not.” How did you decide what to select from this extended interrogation? I tried to highlight main themes: Kerry’s quotes and actions show how she’s a victim. The officers’ quotes show how they blame her—and use language that sum up what “failure to protect” laws are all about. And Kerry’s final line comes back to her driving motivation to be a good mom.
THE OFFICERS DID NOT seem to care about the abuse King had endured, abuse that began when she was just a child. She grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the daughter of a Black mother who worked as a social worker and at the financial aid office of a junior college, and a white father who was a math instructor at Northeastern State University. King didn’t meet her father until she was 4.
When King was about 6, her mother, Lela Owens, grew suspicious after King accidentally peed in the driveway one afternoon while playing basketball. How do you know this? Primarily through interviews with Lela and Kerry. Owens took the girl to a therapist, who surmised she had been sexually abused multiple times. King remembers being molested by a preteen in a park when she was about 4.
As a kid, King liked animals and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian or a doctor; she wanted to take care of others. But by high school, King had lost much of that self-esteem and began hanging out with boys who used her for sex. “I wanted somebody to love me so bad, I didn’t care how they treated me,” she recalls. When she was 16, she met Ali Jordan Lalehparvaran, whom she would later marry. He was a couple of years older and seemed so sophisticated and kind. He would take her out for dinner or to the candy store for fudge. He bought her a diamond necklace. She’d never been treated that way by a boy before.
Months after they got together, Lalehparvaran learned that King had slept with other people before meeting him, and something seemed to snap. According to court records, one weekend they went boating and he smacked her on the head with an oar so hard she needed stitches. Another time, he broke her arm. How did you obtain these records? This came up during Kerry’s trial; I got the trial transcript by calling the courthouse and asking for the former court reporter’s contact information, then reaching out to her directly. I also obtained some of Kerry’s protective orders from the court. But “I felt like I deserved it,” she says. “Like there must be something wrong with me…I had been very promiscuous and felt like I couldn’t do any better.”
At 20, she got pregnant with their first child, Persia. She was thrilled—she and Lalehparvaran had been trying to conceive for a while. “I always wanted a family,” she tells me. She loved the feeling of the baby moving inside her. “It’s just the most beautiful thing ever,” she recalls. She imagined putting her child in colorful dresses and fixing her hair. “I was really excited about it. I could see myself being able to take care of a girl.” She hoped that having a daughter would calm Lalehparvaran down.
They married and had two more kids, William and Lilah, and the violence escalated. While she was pregnant with Lilah, Lalehparvaran pushed King up against a wall and broke her clavicle. She left him and went to stay with her friends. But because Lalehparvaran had paid her bills, a relative told her to go back to her husband, and she did. Another night, Lalehparvaran, who was drunk, smacked a gun into King’s head and shot up their home with an AK-47. As the bullets flew, King told the kids to lie on the ground, covering them with her body. “I was in survival mode. I wasn’t thinking of anything except, I have to protect my kids,” she recalls. Lalehparvaran was sentenced to seven years in prison; they divorced in 2013.
Afterward, King struggled. She had a job at a pharmacy that paid $10 an hour, but she had just $800 in her bank account, not enough to cover the mortgage and keep the power and heat on. She tried to help her young children, who were missing their father. She showed them how to bake banana bread and solve math equations. She regularly drove them an hour away to visit their dad’s mom. On birthdays she organized parties and baked special cakes. “She was a good mother,” says Kathleen Araujo, Lalehparvaran’s aunt, who still spends time with the children. “If she loved you, she would do anything for you,” adds Melissa Williams, Lalehparvaran’s mother. How many people in King’s orbit did you interview? How did you persuade them to talk with you? About 9-10 people, including her attorneys, her mom, three of her kids, her ex-husband, and Kathleen and Melissa. Initially, everyone seemed eager to talk because they believed Kerry was punished unfairly, and they hoped sharing her story would give her a better shot at a commutation or encourage lawmakers to amend the law. Her ex-husband, Lalehparvaran, was the toughest to convince He disliked that I was investigating his prior abuse of Kerr, and he feared I had a negative impression of him. With Kerry’s permission, I told him that his point of view was important if I wanted to understand the full picture. I said my reporting so far suggested that he had changed since he got out of prison, that he wanted to be a good dad and was doing the best he could for his kids. I also said it would be important for me to talk with him and the kids so I could capture how Kerry’s incarceration affected them. He relented and agreed to let me visit them, because he said his kids missed and needed their mom.
“I think a good mother is someone who can nurture them, loves them, and points them in the right direction,” King tells me. “Somebody that they can talk to, that they can rely on, that will always be there.”
She was 26 when she met John Purdy. Then 19, Purdy was handsome and athletic, with big brown eyes and chiseled, tattooed arms. And he made her laugh, a relief after such a volatile marriage. She sympathized with the challenges he’d overcome: As a boy, he’d been abused too. The bulk of your story is a profile of Kerry King. What advice would you give writers trying to create such a multi-faceted portrait? It’s important to build trust with the person you’re profiling and their loved ones. You can do that by spending a lot of time together, doing what you say you’ll do, being available when you say you’ll be available, showing compassion for how the interview process might affect them, and being kind and honest with them. Sometimes it helps to schedule regular check-ins: Even if you don’t have anything to discuss for the story, you can learn what’s new in their life and get a better sense of them as a person. Sometimes I’ll even ask how they describe their own personality or demeanor. It can be helpful to see old letters they wrot, or diaries they kept about a relevant event, and to talk with their family and friends. Before you start writing, ask yourself focusing questions, like: What is the main quality, ambition, skill or desire that readers must understand about this person? What is it about their story that is relevant to larger policy debates? In choosing which parts of their background to include, which anecdotes or details relate to themes you’re trying to convey?
In 2013, King got pregnant with their child, Trinity. “I was excited but kind of scared, because I wasn’t sure how he felt about it,” she says. Soon, court records show, the relationship took a turn. Purdy falsely accused her of getting pregnant by someone else. He started controlling her—dictating everything from her hairstyle to when and how she could use her phone.
Violence followed, she would later testify: One time he sliced through her calf with a kitchen knife and left a 2-inch cut. Sometimes he backhanded her or choked her. He did heroin in the house and demanded she join, even holding her arm down while his friend injected her. How do you know these things are true? What steps did you take to verify King’s story? These allegations came from court records: trial transcripts, restraining orders, etc. King’s story was also consistent over time—she told me the same version of events that she shared with law enforcement. Her mom offered corroboration. I didn’t speak with Purdy, but he admitted in court to abusing heroin; he did not admit to cutting King, but transcripts of his jail calls showed he threatened to carve his name into her skin. I tried to interview their roommate but never heard back. We ultimately attributed this graf to King’s testimony, rather than stating it as a matter of a settled fact.
She imagined kicking him out but worried he would retaliate. “I was really scared, more than anything. I felt kind of trapped,” she says. In fact, experts say that leaving an abuser can be dangerous for women, and that many mothers with kids struggle to get away.
Purdy sometimes apologized, vowing to be better. “I believed him when he said he was never gonna do it again,” King later told investigators.
But he did.
AFTER PURDY was arrested, Lilah went from the hospital to foster care and then to her paternal grandmother’s house, where she would stay as the investigation continued. King was devastated: “I was just in shock, just completely distraught, like I just didn’t know what to do,” she recalls of the separation from her kids. (Lilah’s older siblings, who had been living with King’s mom near Chicago, were allowed to stay there.) “It’s like my greatest fear came true.”
In jail, King was put on suicide watch, and she shivered and sweat as she withdrew from heroin. Her housemate bailed her out a few weeks later, but a court soon terminated King’s parental rights to Trinity, who was just 1 year old. Purdy also lost parental rights, but Trinity was adopted by his friend, a man who has prevented King from talking with the girl. Were you able to interview the friend to get his side of the story? Unfortunately I wasn’t, but I did get some corroboration from King’s mom. And I should note that after the story came out, Purdy’s friend allowed Trinity to get back in touch with King. It was “like my world was crushed,” King says. Unable to pay for a lawyer, King lost track of her court schedule and missed a hearing. As a result, she landed back in jail.
If she had any hope of getting her children back, King had to think carefully about her legal options. Her mom urged her not to plead guilty and instead to go to trial. It’s something she’s regretted ever since. “I gave her the most awful advice ever,” Owens tells me now. “I knew she wasn’t really guilty of anything, except being used and abused…[But] I should have told her to take the plea bargain.” At trial, “she went through hell, and nobody cared.”
FAILURE-TO-PROTECT laws sprang from changes to child abuse protocols in the 1960s, as doctors became obligated to report signs of mistreatment. The idea was to compel parents who witnessed violence to take action. But the provisions didn’t become commonplace until after a high-profile child abuse case in the late ’80s led to a media frenzy and one of New York’s first televised trials. How did you learn the history of the laws? I interviewed a lot of subject-matter experts, especially attorneys and advocacy groups, and I read law review articles and other scholarly work. I also read previous journalism articles; BuzzFeed had a fantastic investigation from 2014. How long did the story take, from concept through final revisions? After getting the idea in November 2019, I made a few calls but couldn’t prioritize the story because I was already working on another investigative piece. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, there was so much breaking news to cover that I had to put the idea on hold indefinitely. In the summer of 2021, when I finally had more time, I applied for and got the grant. I then spent a year reporting, writing and revising the article and documentary. We published the package online in August 2022.
In 1987, according to court records, 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg died in New York City after Joel Steinberg, an attorney who had illegally adopted her, beat her unconscious. His girlfriend, Hedda Nussbaum, a former Random House editor who helped care for Lisa, remained with the dying girl for about 12 hours without calling the police; Steinberg meanwhile freebased crack cocaine in their Greenwich Village apartment. Nussbaum, also high, said she believed Steinberg had supernatural healing powers. Only when Lisa stopped breathing did Nussbaum finally urge Steinberg to dial 911.
Prosecutors initially charged them both but dropped the charges against Nussbaum when the abuse she’d endured became evident, both by her deeply misshapen face and by X-rays and exams that revealed her to be anemic and malnourished, with broken bones and chronic infections. Doctors and other witnesses testified that years of beatings from Steinberg had left Nussbaum traumatized and physically incapable of wounding Lisa, or of intervening to protect the girl.
After watching Nussbaum testify, the evidence of her abuse clearly on display, the public became deeply divided. Some saw her as a victim, but others viewed her as a co-conspirator. A People magazine cover showed an image of young Lisa and the question “How could any mother, no matter how battered, fail to help her dying child?” Nussbaum’s critics wondered why she had covered up Steinberg’s violence, and why she hadn’t cried when the police arrived at their brownstone for Lisa. In court, she even testified that she “loved Joel more than ever” while Lisa lay dying.
“Why was Hedda Nussbaum given a walk?” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote. She was “a mother who did nothing as her daughter was brutalized—who put up with the most incredible indignities herself and who, even as Lisa was taken to the hospital in a terminal coma, attempted to provide Steinberg with an alibi.” Why did you rely on court records for such a highly-publicized case? How did you obtain them? We cited court records because of the legal sensitivity; plus, it’s nice to fact-check with primary sources rather than relying on news clips. I found these court records on CaseText.com from a Google search. How did you learn about the People cover and Cohen’s column? I read as much news coverage as I could find, including this Slate article that mentioned both.
The public backlash against Nussbaum likely helped spur lawmakers and prosecutors to ramp up passing and enforcing failure-to-protect laws, says Karla Fischer, an attorney and expert witness in Illinois who has assisted the defense of women in dozens of these cases around the country. Why did you insert “likely” as a qualifier? Fischer and other experts couldn’t prove what led to the uptick in prosecutions, but this was their hypothesis. Fischer believes prosecutors are especially hard on these mothers because of political pressure, perceived or real.
Oklahoma approved its first failureto-protect law in 2000. It’s one of several states, including Texas, West Virginia, and South Carolina, that allow maximum sentences of life in prison for the offense. But these prosecutions are not just a red-state phenomenon. They’re “a problem nationally,” says Colby Lenz of the nonprofit Survived & Punished, who points to California and Illinois as two Democratic-leaning states where parents are often imprisoned for similar crimes. What role did such advocacy groups play as you worked on this story? As I was starting to report, I spoke with experts from five or six advocacy groups, plus scholars and attorneys, to get a sense of the landscape. I wanted to know what they perceived as the main problems, where they thought these prosecutions were particularly common, which cases jumped out at them and what reporting challenges they thought I might encounter. I also asked for advice about how we might collect data. The ACLU of Oklahoma was particularly helpful, since its researchers had already done a lot of data work in their state, but the other groups offered good insights, too. I found recent cases across the country, from Massachusetts to Michigan to North Dakota to New York.
Today, at least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents for failure to protect against abuse. How did you nail down this figure? In 2014, BuzzFeed compiled a list of each state’s failure-to-protect laws. My fact-checker and I went through that list, looked up all the laws, and ensured they were still on the books today. Could you describe the fact-checking process? Mother Jones has an intense fact-checking process for magazine stories like this one. I started by annotating a draft of my article — basically inserting footnotes that showed my sourcing for just about every sentence or explained how I reported it, so Ruth could retrace my steps. That first annotation was about 40 pages. I also organized all my source material and shared it with her. She went through the piece and verified every word, making a great effort to ensure that legally sensitive sentences could be traced back to privileged documents like court records. She and I also did some fact-checking interviews with my sources. We reviewed the article with a Mother Jones attorney as well. All told, Ruth spent an estimated 160 hours on fact-checking. In many places that don’t, prosecutors take similar actions under more general laws—like charging a woman with murder even if her boyfriend killed the child, and then using legal theories about failure to protect to convict her. Some prosecutors are now extending similar logic to fetuses, charging women who self-abort. “There seems to be a strange obsession with our lawmakers when it comes to asserting control over women’s lives,” says Wright, the women’s rights activist.
And it is almost always women who are held responsible. Alexandra Chambers, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt who is tracking these cases in Tennessee, sees a religious underpinning of these prosecutions—springing from the Christian myth of Eve, who was blamed for the fall of Eden, and sexist traditions that dictate women be the “moral center” who rein in men’s worst impulses. “Women are judged by what their partner does in a way that men aren’t,” she says. “And it can be seen as a moral failing that she didn’t have the moderating influence” to stop the abuse.
“It becomes insurmountable, the number of things [women] have to do in order to be in compliance with what we think is a good mother,” Colleen McCarty, an attorney who worked on commutations in these cases, told Tulsa People in 2019. Why did you use a secondary source instead of interviewing McCarty yourself? I actually did interview her — she makes a big appearance in the documentary. But I loved this quote and she didn’t say anything quite like it to me. Clorinda Archuleta, an Oklahoma mother who’s serving a life sentence for neglect and permitting abuse while her boyfriend serves 25 years for the same charges, believes she was punished so harshly because she didn’t appear sorry enough; according to a local news organization, the prosecutor described her emotional demeanor as “flat.” Did you speak with Archuleta? No. I spoke with one of her attorneys, looked at her court records and pulled from news clips.
Juries are also much more likely to deem Black women as bad mothers, reflecting a structurally racist legal system. Black women face higher incarceration rates than white, Hispanic, and Asian women, and they’re more likely to experience domestic violence and poverty. Black parents also face stricter scrutiny from the child welfare system, which investigates more than half of all Black kids nationally, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health. “Black families get scrutiny that white families don’t get,” says Cindene Pezzell, the legal director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.
On top of all this, failure-to-protect laws ignore how often abuse of a child overlaps with abuse of a parent. One 2006 study sponsored by the Justice Department found that kids are more likely to face mistreatment by either parent if the mother is being beaten by her partner. Your reporting is so thorough. How did you keep track of the information you gathered? I collected thousands of pages of court records, plus all the other court evidence I’ve mentioned (photos, audio, and videos), interview notes and audio from dozens of sources, plenty of studies and academic articles, state statutes and a lot more that I’m probably forgetting. I organized these things into folders (within folders within folders) on my laptop, trying to label things carefully so I could find them later. We also did a lot of data reporting. My former colleague Ryan Little, who specializes in data, scraped more than 1.5 million court records from Oklahoma’s state court websites so we could figure out how common these prosecutions are and whether they are disproportionately leveled against women. I’m not sure how he organized the raw data—he stored it on his own computers and did a lot of the technical analysis himself, while I helped guide him by asking outside experts for suggestions about our methodology, pointing him to particular sources of data, and giving him focusing questions for what we were looking for. I also read hundreds of news clips about child abuse to find dozens of recent failure-to-protect cases outside of Oklahoma. I organized those links into a spreadsheet, which I color-coded, with information about the location, defendant, type of charge and time peg. For the documentary, filmmaker Mark Helenowski kept a lot of the raw footage and audio on his computer. I organized other footage (mostly from court evidence) into folders on my own. This project was a big team effort with so many contributors. Memos, Zoom meetings, and shared Google Drive folders helped us all work together and stay on the same page. A survey of 6,000 American families found that half of men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently harmed their children. So it’s not surprising that so many mothers locked in prison for failure to protect are also victims themselves: In Oklahoma, roughly half of the women convicted under the law between 2009 and 2018 were experiencing intimate partner violence, according to an ACLU analysis of 13 of the state’s counties. “The law should treat someone who’s a co-victim as a co-victim, as someone who is in need of support and resources, and not as a co-defendant, as someone who is in need of prosecution and incarceration,” says the ACLU’s Lambert.
Only a handful of states make exceptions for domestic violence survivors. “We weren’t thinking about domestic violence,” former Oklahoma state Rep. Jari Askins, who wrote the state’s failure-to-protect law, told BuzzFeed News in 2014. Why didn’t you interview her? I reached out to her but didn’t hear back. Askins argued that women in abusive relationships could tell the court about that history to receive leniency. In reality, such history is often used against them, as prosecutors convince juries that suffering through years of abuse without leaving is a sign of bad parenting. What do you base this conclusion on? This is something I heard from a lot of attorneys, scholars and people directly impacted by these prosecutions. It’s also something I saw firsthand in the transcript for King’s trial.
“It’s hard for people who are on the outside looking in to understand how someone could harm their kids or submit to an abuser’s demand to do that, but survivors know what the consequence of each choice is,” says Pezzell. A mother, for instance, might follow orders to hold her daughter down or even hit her child because she believes that obeying his commands will keep him from going harder against the kid. And for these women, dialing 911 can be dangerous. “If the police don’t believe her and send her home, then she feels he’s gonna kill [her]. Why did you put this word in brackets? I tweaked that word for clarity. Originally, Fischer said “me” rather than “her,” which made sense during the conversation but seemed confusing on the page. And if she’s dead, he has unfettered access to the child,” says Fischer, the attorney in Illinois. “Battered women are forced into a position where they think differently about what’s safe and what’s not.”
King says society has unrealistic expectations. “They think we’re supposed to be like he-man women, like super strong and able to beat men down whenever they come at us,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, how you could expect us to be able to take down a man.” (When survivors do kill their abusers, they frequently end up in prison.)
Courts often don’t consider the catch-22 that such moms find themselves in. In 2015, a man in Frederick, Oklahoma, fractured a toddler’s skull, and the boy later died. The jurors convicted the man and recommended a 17-year prison sentence. Another jury recommended that his girlfriend, who was the boy’s mother and had been asleep during the injury, go to prison for life. “A lot of the disproportionate treatment is rooted to our psyche in this state: We tend to get madder at the woman who we felt like didn’t protect the kid than we do the man who abused the kid,” says Tim Laughlin, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, which defended the mother in Frederick. “It seems to be part of our collective consciousness,” he adds. In Oklahoma, at least 15 women accused of failure to protect received longer sentences than their male partners who were accused of abuse. On average, these women got 20 years of prison or probation, while the men got less than eight.
KERRY KING AWOKE before dawn on the first day of her trial, on Halloween in 2016. “Inside I was like an earthquake” of nerves, she recalls. A guard handed her a plum-colored dress that her attorney had sent for her to wear to court. Nobody had asked for her size, and it was far too small, the fabric clinging tightly to her hips and thighs. “I felt immodest, like I was stuffed into it,” she says. “Like, how would that look to the jury? I was so upset about that dress.”
When she arrived at the Tulsa County courthouse in the plum dress, King faced prosecutor Sarah McAmis, who was seeking a decades-long sentence. McAmis had told Tulsa World that it disturbed her when mothers entered romantic relationships with men they didn’t know well and then chose not to intervene against abuse after warning signs. “If you bring a child into this world,” she said, “you must do everything necessary to protect the child.” She said she believed child murder victims “are watching from heaven and…know we are able to get justice for them.” And previously she had employed an extreme tactic to win in another trial, punching and kicking a doll in front of the jury to demonstrate the injuries to a child, even though there was no evidence the child had been kicked in real life. Why use a secondary source here? McAmis declined to speak with me. The Tulsa World article from 2016 was not specifically about King’s case, but it conveyed McAmis’ general approach to child abuse prosecutions.
Her boss, Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, told The New Yorker in 2018 that a prosecutor’s job was to “teach people the morals they either never learned or they somehow forgot.” His approach to criminal defendants, he added, was similar to the way he disciplined his daughters: “There are times when your kids need a lecture, times when they need a grounding, and times when they need a spanking.”
McAmis began her opening statement to the three men and nine women of the jury, all but one of whom appeared white, by painting King as complicit: “[W]hen [Purdy] came back with the belt, this defendant held her daughter down.” Were you present for the trial? If not, did you reconstruct the events? I wasn’t there, but I read the entire trial transcript and listened to a lot of the trial audio. I also interviewed people who were there, including one of the jurors. The prosecutor declined to talk with me, but I interviewed a spokesperson at her office. McAmis soon called Kristi Simpson, a child welfare investigator, to the stand, and asked whether King should have done more after discovering the bruises on Lilah in the bathtub. King had stayed home from work afterward to watch her, but “it was not enough,” Simpson replied. At the hospital after the final attack, Lilah could not stay calm while she received a CT scan or an MRI. “We were trying to explain it to her,” Simpson recalled of the procedure. “And she was crying and saying, ‘Please don’t. I’ll be good. I’ll be good. I’m sorry.’”
“Myself and the medical professionals, we teared up,” Simpson added. “We had not seen anything like this.”
At a table beside her attorney, King cringed. The prosecutor’s questions, she recalled, felt “like a battering ram.” McAmis emphasized to the jury that King did not call 911 to save Lilah. And it was true, she never did. But King had tried to get help.
As King would later share in court, she had asked Purdy to shower with her when he emerged from Lilah’s room around 4 a.m. After the shower, Purdy briefly left King’s phone within her reach. When he walked away, she texted, “Help me,” to her mom, then deleted the message from the phone so he wouldn’t see it. Since you have already recounted the horrors of that night, how did you choose what to include in this section that returns to it? I liked the idea of transitioning from this moment where Kerry and Lilah couldn’t speak—Purdy’s hand was literally over Lilah’s mouth—to the next section, where Kerry is taking the stand to finally share her side of the story. I also thought it was important to elaborate on the question of why Kerry didn’t call 911.
Moments later, the phone rang. When Purdy answered, Owens, King’s mother, who’d been roused from a deep sleep by the text, was on the other side, asking for answers. Purdy hung up and then pushed King up against the linen cabinet. What did you say to your mom? he asked before hitting her in the face. What is your source for this? Most of this graf comes from the video of King’s police interrogation. (I also got some corroboration from Owens.) King told me the detail about Purdy’s hand on Lilah’s mouth. Purdy demanded that she call Owens back to say they were all just fine. So she picked up the phone and dialed.
Everything is just fine, she told her mother, trying to hide her terror as he sat on the couch opposite her, holding Lilah’s mouth closed so she wouldn’t cry out.
ON THE FOURTH DAY of the trial, King took the stand, hoping to finally share her side of the story. But during the cross-examination, McAmis “got under Kerry’s skin,” her attorney Brian Boeheim says. “And that nice, sweet girl that was testifying got angry and got snippy with the prosecutor. That was it for the jury. They saw her as someone who could be aggressive and could allow somebody to do this to a child.”
Testifying can be an agonizing experience for survivors of domestic violence, forcing them to recall painful moments in vivid detail. Prosecutors sometimes use the same intimidation tactics that abusers employ, retraumatizing them. How do you know this? Partly by interviewing attorneys, partly by reading Kerry’s trial transcript and speaking with her, partly by speaking with other people at the trial, and partly by reading law review articles and scholarly work, including a 2020 paper in the Arizona Law Review and a 2021 article connected to the Boston University School of Public Health. McAmis suggested that King was dishonest because a few parts of her testimony did not perfectly match statements she’d made immediately after the assault; decades of research show that some survivors can recall certain moments of abuse in great detail but, because of the fear response in their brains, may have only fragmented memories of other moments.
Throughout her questioning, McAmis often framed the abuse King had endured as evidence that she’d been a bad mother to her children. “Were they having fun after they saw you get pistol-whipped and the blood gushing from your head?” the prosecutor asked her, referring to the night when Lalehparvaran shot up their home while the kids were inside. And when King brought up the ways she had also been a victim, McAmis suggested she was unsympathetic to her daughter’s injuries. “Are you telling this jury you have had a more traumatic experience than what Lilah experienced that night?” McAmis asked, referring to Purdy’s beating. “Surely you are not minimizing what your daughter went through?” she added later. (McAmis did not respond to requests for comment.)
McAmis’ approach, says the ACLU’s Lambert, is “heartbreakingly indicative of the attitude behind failure to protect. Prosecutors are using this tool for the noble purpose of protecting children from child abuse, but with the horrific method of criminalizing and vilifying the nonabusive parent who is often the victim of that same abuse.”
Before King left the stand, she kept looking over at the judge, wondering, Are you for real gonna let her say these things to me?
“This is exactly what survivors fear will happen when they tell someone they are abused,” Lambert adds. “To not be believed, and even worse to be blamed.”
During closing statements, McAmis focused on how Purdy repeatedly called King from jail and King kept talking to him.
“Those jail phone calls, they’re disgusting,” McAmis told the jurors. Then she mockingly offered her interpretation of King during the calls: “‘Bummer for you, Lilah. Mommy is still in love. You’re on your own, kid.’” On the phone with Purdy, King said she loved him and even wanted to have another child with him.
That “sunk the ship,” Boeheim, her attorney, recalls. “You could just see the jury fold up.”
Boeheim had tried to tell the jury that during the calls, Purdy incessantly begged King to say she loved him and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t. At one point he said he’d take the baby away if King didn’t stay in a relationship with him. According to a court document, he said he’d shoot bullets at her kids, kidnap her, tie her up, and rape her:
Tell me you love me. When I get out of here I’m going to drop kick you. I’m going to kick your teeth in. I’m just kidding, baby. I’m just kidding. Tell me you love me. You want to marry me. Come on, just go run down to the courthouse and you can marry me. You can marry me. Come on, we’re soulmates. Tell me you love me. I’ve got to hear you love me. I’ll carve your face. I’ll carve my initials in your face. Come on, you know I’m just joking, baby. Quoting Purdy seems complete and word-for-word from the court document. Why did you set it off in italics? I like the look of it, but there are some other reasons: In the trial transcript, Boeheim reads this graf to the jury, quoting Purdy. When I went back to listen to the jail call recordings myself, I knew Purdy didn’t say all these things one right after the other; he was having conversations with Kerry.
King talked with Purdy initially because she “wanted to understand why he did what he did,” she tells me. She doesn’t know why she kept talking with him after that. But experts say it’s not uncommon for survivors to continue engaging with their abusers, and that it can be difficult to cut ties. “I really thought I loved him,” she says.
During his closing statement, Boeheim tried one last time to convince the jury that his client did not deserve punishment because she had not been the true perpetrator. “He’s the monster. He’s the predator,” he said of Purdy.
But he may have been fighting an uphill battle. In Oklahoma, “juries are extremely punitive toward women who have children being hurt in their home,” McCarty, the attorney who has worked on commutations, tells me. “It’s a cultural more, especially in the South or the Midwest, that our job as women is to take care of our children.”
The jury deliberated for less than an hour. King’s muscles tensed as the foreman read the verdict—guilty on both counts—and recommended 30 years in prison for each. King dropped her head and started to cry.
“It was a travesty,” Boeheim says.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Araujo, King’s ex-husband’s aunt, who attended the trial.
“It was like my life was over. Like I’m not gonna see my kids grow up,” King recalls.
Only later did the jury learn that Purdy took a plea for 18 years in prison—12 years less than one of King’s sentences. “I was sick to my stomach,” juror Misty Reed, now 37 and with children of her own, recounts. “If I would have known that the boyfriend had gotten way less years, it would have definitely changed my mind” about the proposed sentence for King, she says. “And I guarantee it would have changed many others on the jury as well.” (Other jurors did not respond to my calls or declined to comment.) How challenging was it to get Reed on the record? Challenging! I cold-called her (and texted and emailed) after finding her name in the trial transcripts. She texted back but then ghosted. I left another voicemail when I got to Oklahoma, adding that I wondered if I had some information about the case that she might not know. Then she called back, asking what I knew. She seemed nervous, especially about going on camera for the film, but she also wanted to help; she was upset about the disproportionate punishments and had spent years thinking about the trial. How would you describe your interviewing style? It really depends on the source and situation. I often start by briefly explaining what the story is about and why I want to talk with a source, and asking if they have any questions for me; I want to put them at ease. If I’m asking them about trauma, I’ll let them know they can take breaks or decline to answer questions or end the interview whenever they want. Again, the idea is to give them power and help them feel comfortable, and I don’t want to retraumatize them. I’ll have a detailed list of questions that I use as a guide, though I often depart from it or skip questions that seem less relevant. I may reiterate what I’m hearing, as a way to help them feel heard and ensure I’m actually understanding. I’ll embrace silences, giving them a chance to add more if I think that might lead to good material. I’ll normally end by asking if there’s anything else they want to add that I didn’t ask about, or if there’s anyone else they think I should talk with. Of course, my style is different if I’m interviewing an academic or an antagonistic government source; I might be quicker or focus less on giving them power and helping them feel heard. All interviews have slightly different goals, and so my interviewing style changes to reflect those goals.
With the trial over, King braced herself for the sentencing hearing. “All I ask is that you don’t make this the end of my life with my children,” she wrote to the court. The judge took some mercy and allowed her sentences to run concurrently. It was positive news, but little consolation: By the time she gets out of prison, she will be about 60 years old, and her children will be grown.
But for now they were still young and needed a permanent home. King had lost parental rights to her youngest daughter, Trinity, who was adopted by Purdy’s friend. What about the other three? The state of Oklahoma sent her daughter Lilah to live with Lilah’s father and King’s ex-husband, Lalehparvaran, despite knowing about his violent criminal record and history of substance abuse. Lilah’s older siblings, Persia and William, then 9 and 7, soon went to live with him too.
That state officials would condemn King as a bad mother for the way she had dealt with her ex-husband’s violence, and then send her young children to live with him while locking her away in prison, felt like the epitome of a double standard. “My heart sank,” King says. “I lost all faith in justice. I lost everything. What was I ever thinking in trusting a system that was not for me? I didn’t realize the depth of how much it wasn’t for me.”
KING ENTERED Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma’s biggest prison for women, in May 2017. They handed her an orange jumpsuit that was too small, and a prisoner ID number and told her to memorize it. She would have one locker for her belongings: a bottle of shampoo, a tiny toothbrush with toothpaste, a bar of soap, two pairs of socks, two bras. Why was it important to report these details? Sometimes the more specific or intimate you get with the details, the more universal it feels, as Nieman Storyboard editor Jacqui Banaszynski put it in a writing class recently. If you just say she didn’t have a lot of belongings, that might not strike a reader, but everyone can imagine how they would feel if they only owned two pairs of socks. Within a week, she watched someone get beaten with a shower rod.
In Oklahoma and around the country, the vast majority of incarcerated women are mothers: National data is scant, but studies have found that upward of 90 percent of them experienced physical or sexual violence before landing behind bars.
In 2018, King learned that she wasn’t the only person at Mabel Bassett serving time for failure to protect. Attorneys and advocates from the nonprofit Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, frustrated by lawmakers’ lack of action to reduce mass incarceration, had begun a commutation campaign to help incarcerated people petition the state for shorter sentences. Lambert, the ACLU lawyer, joined the effort and introduced King to several other women in the prison who had been convicted under the same law. All were women of color. “It made me see how messed up this state was,” King tells me. “There are so many of us in here that really should not be in here.”
In November 2019, one of them received good news. Tondalo Hall, now 38, had already served half of her 30-year sentence for enabling child abuse. Her ex-boyfriend Robert Braxton broke several bones in two of her children’s legs; he served only two years in jail before he was released on probation. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, agreed to shorten Hall’s sentence as part of a mass commutation of more than 500 incarcerated people around the state—the biggest commutation in US history.
When Hall learned that she would be freed, she could hardly believe it. It had been more than a decade since she’d spent much time with her kids; two of her children were younger than 2 when she was first incarcerated. When she walked out of the prison gates later that week, she started crying as she hugged her family, rocking back and forth with her son Robert, now a teenager. Did you witness the reunions? I watched a video of the reunion (filmed by a local news crew) and interviewed Tondalo about it. From inside the prison, inmates cheered Hall’s reunion loud enough for her to hear them. “I love all them ladies,” Hall said to TV cameras as she looked back toward them. “I’m coming back to help a lot of them.”
But since Hall’s release, Oklahoma’s pardon and parole board has rejected all the other mothers with similar cases who applied for a commutation. Other potential avenues for relief have also closed. In 2019, advocates pressured Oklahoma lawmakers to amend the failure-to-protect law to make it more lenient for survivors of domestic violence. Yet lawmakers balked after prosecutors claimed they needed the law’s life sentence provision to properly prosecute child abuse and to use as leverage to convince mothers to testify against their abusers. Around the same time, a committee charged by the legislature to reexamine the maximum punishments for a wide array of crimes recommended that people convicted of permitting child abuse be limited to 40 years. But that change has not yet been approved, and even if it were, it would not be retroactive, doing little for women like King.
In states like California, Illinois, and Tennessee, activists are trying to help incarcerated women in similar situations, but their cause hasn’t gotten much traction. “These are hard fights,” Lenz of Survived & Punished says of the moms pushing for mercy around the country. “There’s a fear for politicians of looking like they are excusing child abuse.”
Oklahoma continues to pursue failureto-protect cases at a swift pace. In November, a Cleveland County jury convicted 30-year-old Rebecca Hogue of first-degree murder after her boyfriend beat her 2-year-old son to death while she was away at work. Her boyfriend later died by suicide in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where investigators found the words “Rebecca is Innocent” carved into a tree next to his body. The judge did not allow a photograph of the carving to be shown to the jury, deeming it “hearsay” on behalf of the boyfriend. The jury recommended that Hogue go to prison for life with the possibility of parole. How is this possible? She was convicted under the failure-to-protect law. I wrote another story about it, which you can read here.
DURING KING’S first year in prison, her children were not allowed to visit her. She was furious that Lalehparvaran had received custody of them. She didn’t think he would physically abuse them—he never had—but she worried he wouldn’t properly care for them. When they lived together, it had always been on her to hold the family together, to make sure the kids had warm coats and gloves for the winter. How and why did you decide on what appears to be a near-chronological structure for Kerry King’s narrative? Sometimes writing chronologically is the simplest; it’s easy to follow and how a lot of us naturally tell stories.
When mothers are convicted of child abuse crimes, some children are sent to foster care and others to live with relatives, but it’s not unheard of for them to go to a partner or ex who was previously abusive, or to the ex’s family, according to attorneys who monitor these cases. After a mother named Ashley Garrison went to prison in Oklahoma about a decade ago for child neglect, her abusive ex-husband got full custody of the kids and prohibited Garrison from contacting them, according to Tulsa People. Garrison, in handcuffs, gave birth to another child the day she was sentenced, but the baby soon went up for adoption and her parental rights were terminated. She attempted suicide in one of the prison showers. How many of these kinds of cases did you turn up in your investigation? How did you decide which ones to use? This graf is mostly based on comments from experts; I didn’t track where the kids went for the hundreds of failure-to-protect cases we found. Beyond King’s case and Garrison’s, I’d heard of one other woman in Oklahoma whose kids went to live with her co-defendant’s mother. I thought Garrison’s case was compelling and tragically demonstrated how much pain it could cause to separate a mother from her children.
Fortunately, Lalehparvaran seemed to have turned over a new leaf. “After prison, he’s changed; he’s a hard worker,” said Williams, his mother. Lacking a driver’s license, he rode a bicycle to the classes he needed to get certified for his HVAC job. He made sure the kids did their homework and the chores. “I think they like living with their dad. They feel safe,” Owens, King’s mother, told me. The kids said the same thing.
But even when there’s a decent guardian to step forward, losing a parent to prison can have ripple effects. According to a study by the federal government, kids with incarcerated mothers or fathers are more likely to struggle with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and they face a higher likelihood of medical problems as adults, from asthma and migraines to substance abuse. Teenagers with incarcerated mothers are significantly more likely than other teenagers to drop out of school and be arrested themselves.
King tried to stay in touch with her kids however she could. She called them several times a week and wrote them letters. When Persia eventually started her period, King drew diagrams to show her how to use pads. She knitted them socks and blankets with yarn she’d bought at the commissary.
But Trinity’s adoptive guardian, Purdy’s friend, doesn’t answer when King calls. King heard that Trinity likes unicorns, so she sent her a unicorn stuffed animal. No reply. She hasn’t been able to learn much else about her daughter.
About a year into her stay at Mabel Bassett, King’s older kids were finally approved for visitation rights, and they’ve been going to meet her about once a month ever since. After Christmas, King looked forward to seeing them in January, when she hoped she and Lilah might continue their conversation. But then King and Lalehparvaran had a disagreement over the phone, and he refused to bring them. She was devastated, she tells me. After all these years, she still had so little control in their relationship and much of the rest of her life.
The day after their missed visit, I met the kids at their house in Stillwater, the same city where King grew up. That evening, they planned to celebrate Lilah’s 11th birthday. In the afternoon, they sat side by side on the couch as they flipped through an album with old family photos, giggling about how they looked as babies.
But Lilah’s cheerful demeanor faded a few hours later, when, in the privacy of her bedroom, she began to talk with me about her mother’s incarceration. It still confused her. “Like, I kind of know why she’s in jail, but I know she’s not supposed to be there,” Lilah said, beginning to cry.
“I just really miss her. I just want to talk to her,” she said, imagining what it might be like to see her mom every day, not just once a month. “You can’t really make memories on a phone.” How do you gain a child’s trust so that she will confide in you? Did such an interview raise any ethical questions in your mind? I wanted to know how the kids viewed King’s incarceration and how it changed their lives, but I worried about interviewing them because they were so young. I think I gained their trust by gaining the trust of their parents. King and her ex-husband approved of me meeting them and asked the kids if they would talk with me. When I arrived at their house, I spent some time just hanging out and getting to know them, asking for a tour of their rooms, asking them about their hobbies, before we started formal interviews. As I would do when interviewing an adult about something traumatic, I asked if they were okay talking about the issue and told them they could skip questions or take breaks or stop the interview at any time. I tried to physically position myself at their level; for one interview I sat on the floor, because King’s son was sitting on a very low bed. I did not ask them to rehash any of the violence they witnessed, because I didn’t want to retraumatize them, and I focused mostly on how they felt about their mom being in prison. I asked if they were okay with me writing about their family’s story and naming them, and they said yes because they hoped it might help their mom get a commutation or encourage lawmakers to change the law. There were a lot of ethical questions, including whether to name them in the story. We decided to use their first names but not their last, with their parents’ permission. Using fake names didn’t make much sense because they were appearing in the film, so they would be recognizable.
She composed herself and went back downstairs, where she ate dinner with her family and joined a game of hide-and-seek with her siblings. Then they all gathered around the table for cake. Lilah blew out the candles and smiled as they sang to her. Her brother, William, snuck a taste of the white icing speckled with rainbow sprinkles.
Dozens of miles away, King sat in prison, missing it all. In May, her ex-husband, Lalehparvaran, was arrested and charged with burglary and reckless handling of a firearm. The kids went to stay with another relative.
Lately King wonders whether someone might take mercy and grant her a commutation, let her “get out of here, be there for them, and be the mom that I always knew that I was.” Reed, the juror who spoke with me, recently got in touch with King and apologized for recommending such a long sentence.
During one of our many conversations, I ask King what she wishes people would understand about her case. “I was just as much of a victim as my daughter was, and they should not just look at that one day,” she says. “They should look at every day and see all that I went through, and how I had gotten to the point of that day.” Why did you choose this comment to end your story? We considered many alternatives. In early drafts, I ended with Kerry in prison, missing her children, but used different kicker quotes that emphasized her desire to be a good mom and her sadness at being separated. I also toyed with ending on a quote from Lilah, explaining how much she missed her mom. Ultimately, we chose to give Kerry the power of the last word because this is really her story, and we used her quote above because it emphasized two key points: that she is a survivor, too, and that those who condemn her should remember everything that led to her incarceration, and all the ways that cops and courts and everyone else failed to protect her when she needed it.
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Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute for 15 years. He publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons and has two books, ”Writers on Writing” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.”