Written by Marta Ascherio
in 2019 I traveled weekly from Austin, Texas to Lockhart Women’s Correctional Facility, about 40 miles south of the city. Through the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI), I had the opportunity to teach college-level introductory sociology to incarcerated students.
One day in class I asked if any of the students had ever called the police. The students, of course, were completely silent. I then asked if anyone had ever called the police on them and they burst out laughing and exclaimed, “Of course! How else do you think we would have ended up here! The students then began to share stories where they were bullies, as well as stories where they were harassed, threatened and attacked. To protect themselves from criminals, they recounted many strategies, including locking their doors, hiding, and moving to another city. The students who eventually called the police did so because their children’s safety was at risk.
As I listened to their stories, I began to think of the presence of children as something consequential when the decision was made to call the police.
When and under what circumstances does family structure shape crime reporting? Could it be different for men and women? To learn more, a recent Gender & Society article drew on the US Census Bureau’s annual survey: the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS started in 1972, but I use the years 2002-2019 for this survey. the answers. During this period, more than 50,000 people disclosed incidents of violence to interviewers. These incidents include sexual assault, rape, robbery, simple assault and aggravated assault. In total, about half of these incidents were reported to the police, and about half were not.
Their analysis reveals that white women and Latinas are more likely than men to report violence to the police if they have children living home. However, black women are more likely than black men to report violence to the police, whether or not they have children. Household income and relationship to the perpetrator further shape these associations, the most telling of which is that Latinos are less likely than non-Latinos to report violence to the police when they know a perpetrator.
These different choices are interesting given the growing awareness of police violence against communities of color. Calls to 911 can result in the police injuring or even killing the caller, the caller’s children, family members or neighbors. So, there are important reasons no call the police. These data show that mothers must walk a fine line between protecting themselves from violence (calling the police) and protecting their families from criminalization (not calling the police).
Why do mothers report violence at a much higher rate than fathers, when there is little or no gender difference in crime reporting among the childless? One way to understand this is through gender inequalities in the context of childcare. Despite women’s progress in politics and the workplace, there are persistent cultural and structural expectations that women will care for children. So perhaps mothers report high levels of violence to protect their children from witnessing violence, but also to protect themselves as primary caregivers: if she doesn’t take care of her children, who will?
However, in this study, black women consistently report more than black men regardless of whether they have children at home. Although further research is needed to understand specifically why we see this pattern, we do know that black women are more likely than white women to care for, care for, and counsel children who are not biologically theirs. Therefore, the role of “mother” is more likely among black women in communities, whether they have children of their own or not.
Finally, the data also show that Latina women do not contact the police when the perpetrator is an acquaintance, family member, or romantic partner/ex-partner. Thus, when Latina women know a perpetrator, they are more likely to choose to protect them from police surveillance than to protect themselves from violence. Immigration scholars call Latinos’ departure from institutions a “chilling” effect of criminal immigration policies that can have consequences even for U.S.-born Latinos who should not be subject to immigration laws.
Taken together, these decisions to report or not to report violence to the police reveal how various social positions intersect to shape inequality. Although gender inequality exists across racial and ethnic groups and socioeconomic strata, women’s vulnerability is exacerbated by a social system that assigns primary childcare responsibilities to women. What is clear from these data is that when women with children experience violence, calling the police may be the only option to ensure physical safety for themselves and their children.
Marta Ascherio is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Latin American and Latin American Studies at Illinois State University.
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