By Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy CEO Joe Dorman
Two issues we work closely on at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) are child abuse prevention and criminal justice reform. Since 2006, the high-profile case of Ms. Tondalo Hall has stood at the intersection of both. Ms. Hall is currently serving a prison sentence for a 2006 conviction under child endangerment, or “failure to protect” laws.
Ms. Hall’s boyfriend, who committed horrific abuse against the couple's children, received a ten-year sentence, with eight of those ten years suspended, meaning he was released after serving two years in prison. Ms. Hall, however, received a 30-year prison sentence which she is still serving today. She has been denied commutation twice, but the Pardon and Parole Board recently sent her recommendation of parole to Governor Kevin Stitt, who will make the final call on whether she can walk free.
Ms. Hall’s case is complicated, and she admits to having made many mistakes. One of those mistakes was to deliver misleading testimony in a misguided attempt to help her former boyfriend have the charges against him reduced. That dishonesty has cost her dearly and accounts for some of the lopsided nature of her prison sentence when compared to her boyfriend’s.
I hope Ms. Hall can leave prison as a reformed person, put things right with her children and share her story to help other women in the same difficult circumstances. There are 48 Oklahomans currently incarcerated on “failure to protect” convictions according to the District Attorneys Council. Of those, 16 of the 48 cases involved a child death; 20 of the 48 cases involved serious bodily and traumatic injury; 4 cases involved physical harm to the child but not serious bodily injury (ex. blackened eyes, bruises, but no broken bones); and 8 cases involved severity of undetermined abuse in the report. Statistically, 45.83% (22) of the cases involved multiple counts of abuse and/or neglect. As a state, incarceration should have a singular goal: to rehabilitate and get these parents to the point where they can be a constructive part of their children’s lives. Even those who experienced the death of a child at the hands of a significant other deserve a chance to reintegrate with society following just sentencing and successful rehabilitation.
That rehabilitative effort will require resources and a commitment to helping inmates address mental health issues rather than simply warehousing them. State Question 781, passed overwhelmingly by voters, authorized resources and processes needed for rehabilitation. The Legislature should pursue a significant investment, far more than the $26 million as provided by SQ 781 this year, for additional counseling, education and other rehabilitative services. Ms. Hall has received tremendous support to change through her work with criminal justice reform advocates, and we would like to see this widespread through the entire system.
In addition to funding for rehabilitation for inmates, we also hope that reforms to the criminal justice system will help to apply some common-sense: a person convicted of actual physical abuse should not serve a shorter sentence than a spouse or partner who, afraid to act, allows that abuse to occur. Rep. Tammy West has done work to review these laws and apply that logic to them, and we appreciate her leadership on the issue.
Above all, we hope that spouses or partners in abusive relationships take immediate action to help themselves and their children. They should start by calling the statewide domestic abuse helpline: 1-800-522-SAFE (7233).
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy was established in 1983 by a group of citizens, to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up amid poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk.
Our mission statement: “Creating awareness, taking action and changing policy to improve the health, safety and well-being of Oklahoma’s children.“