Professor Linda Fentiman challenges the way courts tend to reinforce cultural stereotypes

Mothers are both the angels and the scapegoats of our society, says Professor Linda Fentiman.

"This is not only bad for mothers but it is also bad for children because it means we are not dealing with the fundamental causes of children’s health problems," Prof. Fentiman says, referencing her legal scholarship.

Prof. Fentiman notes that when a child suffers from lead poisoning or inadequate medical care, courts often point an accusing finger at the mother as the responsible party while ignoring more complex societal and environmental factors. An example of effectively addressing the root cause of a problem can be found in the elimination of lead additives from gasoline. Enacted by the EPA in the 1970’s, Prof. Fentiman said the regulation resulted in a proportional reduction of lead poisoning in children.

“The need for ‘new,’ the need for ‘immediate’ makes public discussion of complex issues much harder,” she says.

Drawing upon her experience in criminal law and her time in the General Counsel’s office of the Environmental Protection Agency, Prof. Fentiman explores the ways that society assesses risk and she finds we tend to look in the wrong directions. Legal principles generally reinforce cultural stereotypes while ignoring true risk. While the Internet makes more information available to us, we appear to be ill-equipped to process all the information.

"The children who are most at risk are the ones who are poor," she says. "Environmental toxins; mental illness and substance abuse caused by domestic violence; inadequate medical care, including vaccinations and prenatal care-- these are almost all about poverty. Rather than address poverty, we look at women as the cause even though they have no control over most of these hazards. The person closest to the child, the one who is literally ‘proximate,’ is the one we hold accountable rather than address the real issues."