Elizabeth Crafton got a 20-year sentence for failing to protect her young daughter from abuse. Her boyfriend, who was convicted of abuse in the case, received an 11-year sentence. It’s just one example of how women bear the brunt of a criminal justice system some in Oklahoma feel have gone too far.
By Allison Herrera
Allison Herrera’s reporting was made possible by the Pulitzer Center.
It seemed like a normal weekday for then 21-year-old Elizabeth Crafton. On April 12, 2006, she’d gone to work with her mom, Anna Koski, at Eastwood Manor nursing home in Miami, Oklahoma, early in the morning. Crafton didn’t have a car and relied on her mom to get around.
When she returned home that afternoon, Crafton went to check on her 1-year-old daughter — we’re not naming her because she’s still a minor. Crafton’s live-in boyfriend, 20-year-old Chris Good, had been babysitting and claimed that her daughter was asleep.
“When I went in there, she was lying on her bed and her whole body was real tense,” Crafton said. “It just reminded me of somebody that had had a seizure or something where their body tightens up.”
With her mom’s help, Crafton immediately brought her daughter to the Integris Baptist Hospital Emergency Room in Miami.
There, the medical examiner took photos, as Crafton’s daughter had suffered multiple injuries. Bruises covered her small body behind her ear and on her head, face and backside. She also suffered bleeding in the brain and multiple fractures. Soon, the toddler was airlifted to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa about an hour and a half away.
The police and Department of Human Services questioned Crafton about her daughter’s injuries — she was a suspect in her daughter’s abuse.
A year later, Crafton went on trial for “enabling child abuse,” a state law otherwise known as “failure to protect,” when parents or guardians are prosecuted for failing to protect their children from another adult who is abusing them. In the end, she was found guilty and received a 20-year sentence while Good, who was convicted of abuse, got 11 years.
Now, advocacy groups in Oklahoma, who argue that the law is unfair to women, are fighting for Crafton’s release. The ACLU of Oklahoma, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and Another Chance Justice Project in Tulsa have filed commutation paperwork for more than a dozen women like Crafton, whose failure-to-protect cases they say deserve a second look.
Liz Charles, who works to combat domestic violence in Oklahoma, says the law often punishes victims of domestic violence. “What we are finding as we interview women who have been charged with failure to protect is the fact [that the] pattern of domestic violence is being used against them,” Charles said.
“DAs and judges are using this as a prosecutorial tool to say, ‘You should have known better.’”
Oklahoma has one of the nation’s worst records for domestic violence. Until last fall, it was in the top five states where women could be abused or killed by their partners. Now, it’s 13th, but that is on a per capita basis. Mackenzie Masilon who is with the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault says the number of domestic violence cases they hear about has increased.
“I don’t know if that’s due to more reporting or more awareness. But yes, domestic violence in Oklahoma is definitely high,” Masilon said.
Couple that with the fact that both of their funding sources remain flat. One such source is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which has remained unauthorized since February of last year. They are getting some money from the state, but Masilon says that is not enough to cover services-which remains high.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence, which puts out a yearly census calculating the number of women seeking shelter on any given day, reported that in one day 2018 Oklahoma turned away 130 women from domestic violence shelters.
A victim of abuse
Crafton began dating Good after her marriage to the father of her two children had ended. She married him when she was 18 and had her first child soon after. She said she was in love and hoped their marriage would last, but claimed his cheating led to their divorce.
When Crafton met Good, she was still getting over her ex-husband. Good seemed nice, she says — she didn’t know then that he had three “protection orders” from three different women in Ottawa and Delaware counties. Things changed, Crafton said after they were together.
Sometimes, she alleges, he hurt her.
“I was in an abusive relationship. I wasn’t aware enough to know that he did what he did,” Crafton said. “You know, he would be drunk or something. I would say something that would set him off. And at first, he would just kind of choke me out.”
She alleges that the violence against her went from choking to punching to death threats, and says it continued after they were both arrested on child abuse charges.
Still, she never imagined he would lay a hand on a child. He wanted her kids to call him “dad.” During their relationship, which lasted just under a year, though, she sometimes noticed her daughter had some bruises. One time, her daughter fell off the bed.
When she asked Good about it, “He always had a story for what happened like … He was holding her and you know, she slipped and fell or that she slipped and fell or the dog knocked her down. You know, he always had something,” she said. “And honestly, I believed it because nothing in my mind at that time ever fathomed that anybody would hurt a child.”
Crafton alleges Good threatened her with violence if she testified that he hurt her daughter.
In the end, she did testify. But she felt like she was the one who got into trouble for raising the alarm and taking her daughter to the hospital given the fact her sentence was nearly double his. Before his sentence was read in court, he took his own life.
Good’s mother, Rhonda Gowan, doesn’t believe her son was guilty.
“He was the victim of an unfair justice system,” Gowan said.
Today she prays for Crafton’s freedom. She affectionately calls her “Zee” and said in a text message, “I pray that Zee gets her freedom and to be part of her kids life. She’s a great momma.”
Advocating to change the law
Last year, a group of advocates including Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the ACLU of Oklahoma fought to change the sentencing guidelines in the law: Instead of imposing a life sentence on those convicted of failure-to-protect laws, the maximum sentence any judge could impose would be four years.
It didn’t get passed in the last legislative session, but they are bringing it forward again this year.
“I believe that failure to protect, at least in Oklahoma, was implemented with good intentions,” said Charles from the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition. She and her organization worked behind the scenes last year to try to change the language of the law.
“This was in an effort to ensure that responsible parties and guardians were reporting abuse … so action could be taken and prevention could be put into place to keep kids safe. Unfortunately, that is not how we are seeing it applied.”
The law enabling child abuse law, better known as failure to protect, allows people to be prosecuted for knowing and doing nothing when the abuse happened. That wasn’t the case until House Bill 2037 passed by the Oklahoma legislature in 2000. One of the bill’s authors, Jari Askins, was influenced by her time as a family court judge where she’d witnessed her share of child abuse cases.
Askins is from Duncan. She was elected to the Oklahoma state Legislature in 1995 and served six terms as a Democratic state representative.
In her final term, she became the first woman to lead the state’s caucuses. She was also on Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board.
She said there were several high-profile child abuse cases that ended in deaths of children, and she felt that these cases weren’t just one-time instances of abuse. There was a history of abuse in the home. She wanted to know how to prevent it. Thus state statute 843.5(B) was born.
“The belief was if there was a statute that, you know, would make it easier so that parents would know they had a duty to protect, not just to allow someone else to continue to abusing a child, but it required knowledge of the abuse,” Askins explained.
She said the purpose of the statute was always about protecting children.
“We hoped it would prompt whoever the caregiver was, whether it was the mother or the father or whomever was responsible for the child, that if they knew they could be charged with a crime that maybe that would give them some incentive to help take that child out of the home or where injury was occurring.”
Ben Loring says Crafton’s was a clear-cut case of failing to protect her young daughter from abuse. Loring is an Oklahoma state legislator who represents Ottawa County. His office sits in a low-slung brick building right off one of the main streets that runs through the town of Miami.
Loring was the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Crafton’s case.
To be clear, he said he doesn’t believe Crafton committed the abuse. But Loring did think that she needed to be held accountable.
“It would have been obvious to any reasonable caregiver that the child had serious things wrong with for a long time leading up to this incident,” he said. “But for the excellent medical care that this kid got, it would have died.”
Loring still believes in the failure-to-protect law. However, he thinks Crafton has served enough time and that she deserves a second chance.
That’s why he wrote a letter last year to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board on her behalf, which is included in her commutation paperwork. Her case is now part of a commutation campaign being put before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board for an early release.
“And so, I wrote this letter on behalf of Elizabeth Crafton’s application for commutation. Not even at her request, but because of my belief that granting [the] same is the fairest,” Loring said.
It’s not clear what the Pardon and Parole board will do. Last fall, they released Tondaleo Hall, another woman charged with failure to protect who was serving a 30-year sentence while her partner, who abused the children, got four.
Koski, Crafton’s mom, is hopeful that her daughter will be released soon.
She’s only seen Crafton’s two kids, her grandchildren, a couple of times, once by chance walking down the aisle at a nearby Walmart years ago. She believes their dad is raising them well, but she’s upset about the family being torn apart.
When Crafton was sentenced, she says, it was the worst day of her life: “After she was taken away, for a good six months I shut down.”
Koski, like her daughter, alleges abuse by her husband. “It’s hard to leave your abuser.” In 2001, Koski filed an order for protection against him.
Today, she is still with him, though, and says he has not hurt her since.
Now, in her 13th year of prison, Crafton goes over and over what she would’ve done differently. But mostly, she cannot forgive herself for what happened to her young daughter.
“I have hated myself so much every day for what happened to my daughter,” Crafton said. “I hate the person that I was, that I stayed in that messed-up relationship.”
Every day, she thinks about the implications of that life choice for her children. “I look at everything that my kids have had to go through. …
All this was without me, with everything that came from having a mom that’s in prison,” she said. “I mean, I know they were both so young that they … they’re not going to really remember everything, but they know that I’m not there.”
Crafton, now 34 years-old counts the days she can see her kids again and begin to build a different life — free from abuse and fear.
Allison Herrera’s reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Foundation