Hope and Thanksgiving for a Mother in Jail

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In writing a column for Thanksgiving week, I intended to pick some upbeat subject matter and say cheerful words about things we can all be thankful for. A good bout of encouragement and thanksgiving never hurts. As so often happens, however, I find a less upbeat story weighing on my mind, and I know that it's the one I have to write about. I do think we can find something to give thanks for in the end—and as usual, it will remind us of the affirmation of Psalm 115:1: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness" (NIV).

The story is that of Valerie Carlton, a Maryland mother in her 40s imprisoned for 13 months in 2009-10, on charges of child sexual abuse involving her daughter and a neighbor girl. (See additional materials here.) This case, like the somewhat similar case of Tonya Craft, a mother and teacher in Georgia, is a haunting counterpoint to the growing sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State University. In Valerie Carlton's case, the original evidence against her was extremely flimsy: a forensic psychiatrist said of the interview process that "for purposes of teaching social workers what not to do, you couldn't find a better example of bullying, leading, invalidating, and tormenting a child." All of the charges were eventually dropped.

But there is much more to the story than that, and it reminds us that the administration of our justice system is at all times a matter of individuals making decisions in a moral or an immoral manner. In Valerie Carlton's case, an allegation of child abuse lodged during a family break-up seemed to trump every other principle of American law, and leave Carlton stripped of the protections on which our nation prides itself for her rights and dignity.

Carlton's ex-husband had been physically abusive to her, but in 2006 gained custody of their child, Winnifer (then 4 years old), by depicting Valerie as bipolar and drug addicted, based on "expert" evidence presented by a close friend of his aunt. Although it seems hardly possible in modern America, the eventual complaint of sexual abuse, which led to a raid on Valerie's home, contained—as part of the complaint—the information that Valerie, an Orthodox Jew, had observed Jewish Sabbath rituals with Winnifer during their visitation periods. (Mr. Carlton is an Evangelical Christian; Valerie Carlton had come to re-embrace her Jewish faith after they were married.)

Trumped-up allegations of sexual abuse are becoming common in divorce and custody cases, and a review of the materials in the Carlton case revealed that if Winnifer had been abused, it was probably by one of her father's relatives. Winnifer never said anything to implicate her mother; according to records of her interview with authorities, what she did say was that she wanted to see her mother more. The neighbor girl, meanwhile, was the daughter of a woman with a history of making false complaints about sexual abuse.

The sexual-abuse allegations were made in 2009, when Valerie was pregnant by a man whom she had fallen in love with and hoped to marry. (The man ultimately collaborated with her ex-husband in attempts to get her to incriminate herself.) Four days after her son's birth, while she was still nursing him, she was sent to prison to await trial. Child services took him from her and placed him in foster care. Of the numerous, often unbelievable horrors that awaited her in the prison, the worst had to be the day when she was notified that her two-month-old son had died from neglect in foster care. The prison was not allowed by the prosecutor to use its normal procedure and have a chaplain break the news. Instead, Valerie was strapped into a "restraint chair" and informed of the death abruptly, with no show of compassion, by law enforcement authorities. Sobbing in agony, she began praying aloud in Hebrew, which was recorded in a prison document as "speaking in tongues."

Readers may be tempted to dismiss as incredible the litany of horrors to which Valerie was subjected in prison. (Phyllis Chesler has a painful summary.) But they are attested to in affidavits from witnesses, and found to be credible by experts with long experience in the penal and justice systems.