Where’s the Mother? Where’s the Justice?

The constant need to question mothers when daughters are violated is rooted in sexism.

Houston Chronicle
Houston Chronicle

The gruesome gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, that made national headlines last March is back in the news again, reigniting debates about the role of sexism in sex crimes against girls and women.

You may recall the case in which 18 black men between the ages of 14 and 27 were arrested for allegedly gang-raping an 11-year-old Hispanic girl in November of 2010, right after Thanksgiving. The incident, which devastated the small town, went national when 16 men were arrested for the crime. Subsequently, two additional men were arrested.

The Liberty County District Attorney’s Office alleges that 19-year-old Timothy Ellis lured the girl out of her home by asking if she wanted to go “riding around.” Instead, Ellis is accused of taking her to an empty trailer, where he forced her to strip under threat of violence and several men allegedly raped her. Local authorities became aware of the horrific crime when cellphone video of the attack surfaced at a local school.

A pretrial hearing was held on March 5, 2012, and on March 15, a judge issued a a gag order barring investigators, attorneys and witnesses from discussing any information about the case with news organizations to prevent publicity that could influence the jury.

James C. McKinley Jr. of the New York Times was lambasted for publishing an account of the story on March 8, 2011, in which he quoted neighbors who said that the girl “appeared older than her age” and wore makeup and clothing inappropriate for her age. One of the neighbors asked, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

Interestingly enough, Anita Ellis Hancock, the mother of alleged ringleader Timothy Ellis, said the same thing in an interview with Fox 26. Hancock stated, “I’m not defending no child because if it were my child, I would feel the same way. My point is, where was her mother?”

How ironic is it that a mother whose child is being charged as the alleged ringleader of this horrendous crime is asking about the mother of the girl? It is clear that Hancock did not have the same expectation for herself that she had for the proverbial “mother” who should have been protecting the 11-year-old girl. Just who was supposed to be protecting or teaching Hancock’s son? I suppose “the father,” who somehow manages to escape blame or responsibility when sex crimes happen to women.

This type of gendered response is not unusual but is often the status quo, as is the need to figure out what the girl was doing or wearing to cause herself to be put in harm’s way. It is infuriating that deliberate measures like gag orders are put in place to protect the right of the accused from being prejudged, while an 11-year-old is prejudged based on her gender without protection from anyone, including Hancock, who is not only a woman but also a mother.

Questions like “Where was the mother?” — as if the father or lack of a male parental figure has no bearing on the behavioral outcomes of children — serve as a cultural shorthand that revictimizes girls and women who dare to speak about crimes of this nature.