Courts are expected to be unbiased. However, Vicki Lens found, in courtrooms mothers are routinely judged based on narrow expectations of motherhood that ignore their real-world situations and challenges.
Lens studied mothers’ treatment within family courts, observing approximately 100 child maltreatment cases from 2012-2013 in one U.S. urban courtroom in the Northeast. They found that judges based neglect and removal of children on gendered beliefs of “good mothers.” “Good” mothers are those that take primary care of their children and sacrifice for their children. In making decisions, judges were focused on beliefs about what it means to be a “good mother” and disregarded that motherhood also requires resources and social supports.
For instance, one mother was accused of educational neglect by a judge for failing to quickly find a tutor for her child. This was even after the mother fought to get her daughter on a wait-list for tutoring and the mom’s caseworker explained the difficulty in finding tutors. Instead of seeing the effort that the mother put forward despite challenges, the judge saw this as inherently negative for the child. The judge felt that a good mother would have put more effort into finding a tutor for her child while working at her job.
The norms and conventions of the court itself were another part of the problem for underprivileged mothers. Judges required that only attorneys speak for their clients in court, even though the attorneys often misunderstood the complexities of clients’ situations. This led to many underprivileged mothers having no way to communicate with the judge about the structural issues that prevented them from fulfilling this “good mother” role that was valued by the judges.
While based on just one family courtroom, this study shows how moms can be silenced and judges can mistake inequalities in resources outside of the courtroom as neglect. The end result is that underprivileged mothers, forced to defend their parental rights, face an uphill battle in trying to keep their kids. For the courts to act fairly, all legal actors must hear and value underprivileged mothers’ complicated experiences.