What can happen when a child is left in an abusive home: the sad case of Lisa Montgomery

Lisa Montgomery: Mercury News.com

Many Americans recall the horrific case of Bobbie Joe Stinnett, who in 2004 was strangled to death, her belly sliced open, and her baby removed. There is no doubt that the perpetrator was Lisa Montgomery, who brought the baby home, announcing that she had given birth. What most of us don’t know about is the nightmarish childhood that led to Ms. Montgomery’s crime, and the extent to which family members and authorities knew of her suffering and did not take action.

On January 12, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled for execution–the first woman to be executed on federal death row for 70 years. In a hearbreaking op-ed published by the New York Times, writer Rachel Louise Snyder explains Lisa’s hellish upbringing and the multiple failures that allowed the torture to continue.

As Snyder describes, Lisa Montgomery was born to a family “rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.” Lisa’s father left the family when she was a toddler. Her family moved once a year or more, spending time Washington, Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Lisa’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, abused her “in extreme and sadistic ways,” according to interviews with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. She was forced to sit in a high chair for hours if she did not finish her food. Her mouth was covered with duct tape so frequently that she learned not to cry. According to her mother, her first words were: “Don’t spank me, it hurts.”

Lisa’s older half sister, Diane Mattingly, told Elle Magazine that Lisa’s mother hit them with brooms and belts. She forced Diane to eat raw onions until she cried and once stripped her naked and put her out of the house in freezing temperatures, telling her not to come back. She made nightly trips to a bar, leaving the girls with “babysitters” who raped Diane, whose “sole purpose in life” was to protect her little sister. At the age of eight, Lisa lost her sole protector when Diane was removed from this home and placed in foster care with a loving family. Diane reports that she vomited all the way to the foster home, knowing the fate that awaited four-year-old Lisa without her protection.

Lisa’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, a “rampant alcoholic,” began to assault her sexually when she was about 13. He built a “shed-like room” next to the family’s trailer in Tulsa Oklahoma and kept her there. He brought friends over to rape her, “often for hours, often three at once.” As if that was not enough, Lisa’s mother began to prostitute her to pay household bills.

When she was 18, Lisa married her 25-year-old stepbrother, the son of her mother’s fourth husband, who also raped and abused her. By the age of 23 she had four young children (whom she in turn abused and neglected) and suffered from episodes of mania and psychosis. She eventually remarried. In the years before her crime, she repeatedly claimed to be pregnant and then to have lost the baby–despite the fact that she had been sterilized after the birth of her fourth child. One week before Christmas in 2004, Lisa Montgomery arrived at a meeting she had set up with a pregnant dog-breeder, Bobby Jo Stinnett, ostensibly to adopt a puppy. Instead, she took Stinnett’s life and left with her child.

Lisa Montgomery most likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and by the time she was arrested for her crime she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, and traumatic brain injury. Scans of her brain showed damage and abnormal patterns in the areas responsible for regulating social and emotional behavior and memory, which can be affected by trauma. Her “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACES) score was 9 out of 10 and global functioning score showed “severe impairment in daily activities.”

Perhaps the most shocking information in Dr. Snyder’s article is the extent to which many people in authority knew of her abuse and did nothing.

  • Lisa’s older sister was sent to foster care due to abuse or neglect, but there was no help for Lisa. In any child welfare system, Lisa’s life should have been investigated as well. If she was not removed, her family should have at least been monitored. (Her sister says she was afraid to say anything to her foster parents, not wanting them to know of her history of rape and abuse for fear they would send her away. She has regretted this decision for all her life.).
  • An A student in elementary school, Lisa was placed in special needs classes in middle school. An administrator thought this academic deterioration might be due to “deep emotional trauma” but it appears that the school took no action to uncover or report the underlying cause.
  • As a teenager, Lisa told her cousin, a deputy sheriff in Kansas, about being raped by Kleiner and his friends. He told investigators that he knew she was telling the truth and still regrets taking no action.
  • When Lisa’s mother divorced Jack Kleiner, she forced Lisa to testify about the rapes for their divorce proceedings. The mother sat unmoved during Lisa’s testimony. A social worker found Lisa’s claims believable and turned the file over to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, where no action was apparently taken.

It is difficult to understand how so many people in positions of authority knew about Lisa’s plight and did not interfere. The family’s repeated moves from state to state may have been part of the answer, as by the time a pattern was observed the family might have been gone. The events are too far in the past to determine who failed and why. But Lisa’s fate is a cautionary tale against ignoring any suspicion of child abuse.

Sadly, many child welfare leaders and advocates are currently recommending that state intervention in abusive and neglectful families be scaled back or even eliminated, just one more swing of the national pendulum on child welfare. There are concerns about the tendency for teachers and community members to over-report minor concerns that do not rise to the level of abuse. There are also criticisms that some systems are too quick to remove children from their homes instead of trying to help the parents take better care of their children. A new coalition calls for the elimination of “the forcible surveillance and separation of children from their parents.”

Lisa’s case tells us why we must not eliminate mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. If anything, we need to enhance training for mandatory reporters in order to increase the reporting of real maltreatment while reducing unnecessary reports. However, given the extreme costs of continuing abuse, it is better to tolerate some frivolous reports than to miss future Lisa Montgomerys.

Nor do we want to eliminate the forcible removal of children from their homes, as some child welfare critics propose. Rather, in the words of former child welfare administrator BJ Walker, systems must learn “to differentiate between the small fraction of parents who have neither the skill nor will to keep children safe [like Judy Shaughnessy], and those who have the capacity to learn, and overcome existing vulnerabilities and limitations.”

Lisa’s story is particularly timely now because abused children are more isolated than ever while school buildings in many places are closed due to COVID-19. Reports to child abuse hotlines dropped drastically around the nation as schools closed, but there is reason to believe that the job loss, deaths, and social isolation caused by COVID-19 have led to increases, not decreases, in child maltreatment. Who knows how many Lisas are suffering in silence now?

Studies have documented the relationship between child abuse and many of the adverse outcomes endured by Lisa Montgomery, including brain damage, diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills, poor mental and emotional health, post-traumatic stress, and adult criminality. Ending the suffering of children should be enough reason to require reporting and investigation of child maltreatment, the huge costs to society of severe child maltreatment provide another incentive to make sure severe maltreatment is found and stopped. If Lisa Montgomery could have been saved, Bobbie Joe would have been saved as well.

Note to my faithful readers: Please excuse the long gap in time since my last post. I’ve been busy working on my local blog, Child Welfare Monitor DC. That blog contains posts that are specific to the District of Columbia but may be of interest to observers of child welfare around the country. Please check it out and consider subscribing!