Analysis Violence

A ‘Grim Tally’: Abusers, Guns, and the Women They Kill

Andrea Grimes

While the broken-record question “Why didn't she leave” may never be satisfactorily answered in every situation, we know, definitively, how most U.S. women killed by abusive partners meet their end: They are shot to death.

Karen Cox Smith worked a little later than usual on January 8, 2013, typing up the minutes from a board meeting at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the prestigious training hospital in a sprawling medical district on the west side of Dallas where she worked as an administrative assistant. Smith was the kind of worker who liked to do things right the first time, and she wanted to type up those notes while they were fresh on her mind.

As board members and doctors left for the evening, they asked her, “Why not walk out with us, like usual?” Ever since her estranged husband, Ferdinand Smith, had assaulted her in December, she’d been leaving work with others, just in case he showed up to cause trouble.

“No,” Smith told them. She’d be fine. She said she’d call security before she left, so they could escort her out.

A few weeks before the recent Christmas holiday, Ferdinand Smith cornered his wife on her way to work, dragging her out of her car in her own driveway. He strangled her and told her that he’d been thinking about it for a while, and he’d decided “today is the day you’re going to die.”

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Desperate, she’d talked him down with pleas and promises of reconciliation, then got back in her car and drove to her office as if nothing had happened.

As it happens, on that January day when Smith was working late, she had called police to confirm her husband’s address. She believed they were on their way to finally arrest him. So when Smith finished up for the day—it was nearing 7:30 p.m.—she didn’t call security, because she didn’t believe she’d need to.

As Smith sent one last email to police, thanking them for finally taking action to pick up her husband, he waited for her out of sight in the hospital parking garage, hidden behind a bank of elevators between a skywalk and her silver Mustang.

This time when he confronted his wife, he was armed with more than a bad temper and brute strength. He came with a gun, and he wasted no time using it on the woman with whom he’d fathered three children. The can of mace that Smith always carried was no match for her husband’s weapon.

When Karen Cox Smith was laid to rest, the only parts of her body made visible were her arm and her hand.

When police finally arrested Ferdinand Smith in the early morning hours of January 9, it was not for shooting his wife to death in a parking garage hours before—which he ultimately confessed to doing—but for that earlier assault in her driveway, back in December.

Ferdinand was asleep when cops knocked on his door. If they’d arrived a few hours earlier, they might have caught him on his way to murder his wife.

Karen Cox Smith’s story is full of might-haves, should-haves, and could-haves, but her mother says she can’t think about it that way, even as she remembers the warning signs she’d seen, but not always recognized, throughout the couple’s 19-year marriage.

“We can second guess ourselves to death,” Sara Horton told Rewire, as she recounted the last few hours of her daughter’s life, as reconstructed for her by Dallas police. “If this had been done or if that had been done.”

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that, on average, more than three women a day are killed by current or former intimate partners in the United States, and many of the should-haves and could-haves that pepper Smith’s relationship with her estranged husband are the same should-haves and could-haves thrown at the thousand or more women who are killed by their partners in this country each year: should have gone to a shelter, should have taken a lethality risk test, could have filed charges, could have testified against him.

The problem with that should-have, could-have conversation is the popular implication that the ability, and the responsibility, to change the behavior of abusive men lies not with the abusers, but with the partners they strike, strangle, and shoot.

It’s why the question “Why didn’t she leave?” is far more common than, “Why did he abuse her?”

But research shows us why she, whoever she might be, didn’t leave: she didn’t have the money, she didn’t want to take the kids out of school, she couldn’t find a shelter, there was no shelter, she was embarrassed, her pastor or her mother or her father or her sister told her a good wife doesn’t give up, her self-esteem was in shreds, she had literally nowhere to go, or she knew that, in leaving, she would put herself in more danger than if she stayed.

But if women can’t be blamed for inciting violence in their partners, or at least scolded for not bailing at the first red flag, the problem of why intimate partner violence happens in the first place, and what to do about it, becomes much more complicated than asking the broken-record question, “Why didn’t she leave?”

What hard evidence does show is that while the “why” may never be satisfactorily answered in every situation, we know, definitively, how most U.S. women killed by abusive partners meet their end: They are shot to death.

According to a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the risk of homicide against women increases 500 percent when a gun is present in domestic violence situations, and the FBI estimates that in 2010, 64 percent of women murdered with guns were killed by a current or former intimate partner. The Violence Policy Center reports that in 2010, the number of women shot and killed by partners was six times higher than the number killed by strangers using all other weapons combined.

In Texas, the numbers echo national estimates: the Texas Council on Family Violence reports that, in 2011, firearms were used in 64 percent of 102 cases where women were murdered by current or former intimate partners. The FBI also estimates that, in states where a background check is required for every handgun sale, 38 percent fewer women are shot and killed by abusive partners. Texas is not one of those states.

When it comes to the should-haves and could-haves of domestic violence murders, one “should” appears to be clear: Domestic abusers should not have access to firearms. But abusers can easily sidestep background checks by purchasing from private sellers, or shopping for weapons at a gun show, and efforts to close those loopholes have been thwarted.

Earlier this year, pressure from the national gun lobby overshadowed the overwhelming evidence connecting domestic violence homicides to guns when the U.S. Senate rejected tougher gun laws that would have expanded those background checks and banned some semi-automatic weapons.

Paulette Sullivan Moore with the National Network to End Domestic Violence says that the Second Amendment and tougher gun laws are not mutually exclusive, which makes the Senate’s rejection of the firearms bill that much more heartbreaking.

“The reality is that responsible gun owners also want other gun owners to be responsible,” said Sullivan Moore. Her organization has been speaking with senators who voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act but who are against gun reform, senators who she says are seemingly “unable to make the connection between prior armed violence and violence against women.”

In their 19-year relationship, there’s no evidence that indicates Ferdinand Smith threatened his wife with a gun before he shot and killed her on January 8. But, according to an affidavit written by Karen Cox Smith in her own hand in 1999, he had often hit and strangled her and stalked her in her own home, and he had threatened her with knives on multiple occasions. He also raped her.

Sara Horton said she wished she’d been able to do something to stop her son-in-law over the years, before he got the gun.

“People like him should not have access to guns,” said Horton. “Guns don’t kill people. They don’t shoot themselves.”

What if men with a demonstrable history of domestic violence—men like Ferdinand Smith—couldn’t just walk into a firearms shop or a gun show and purchase a weapon?

Each year, the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) releases a report, “Honoring Texas Victims,” that names each woman killed by an intimate partner that year. Sixty-six of the 102 women killed by male partners in 2011, the most recent year for which TCFV has data available, were shot to death. Four of those victims had active protective orders out against their killers; two of those murders involved a firearm, despite the fact that persons with protective orders against them are prohibited from possessing firearms in Texas.

“Firearms are a definite problem in intimate partner relationships,” said TCFV Policy Director Aaron Setliff. He calls his organization’s report a “grim tally,” meant to “change the conversation a little bit,” to tell the stories of women killed by abusive partners.

Female victims of domestic homicide come from across the state, and are of all races and ages, according to the TCFV report: In San Antonio, Aileen Harbridge, 27, was shot and killed at her workplace by her ex-boyfriend, and Antoinette Haynes, 70, was shot and killed by her husband on Thanksgiving Day. In Dallas, 25-year-old Autumn Carey was shot and killed in front of her two children by her ex-boyfriend, who also killed Carey’s stepfather and her sister’s boyfriend.

In far West Texas, Destiny Ann Pickett, 39, was shot and killed by her husband, Clifford, at a motel. He also killed one of her co-workers. In Houston, 45-year-old Lisa Campos was shot in her car by her husband while “in the process of ending their relationship.” Ricky Campos also shot himself. In East Texas, Micah Brown shot his 35-year-old ex-wife in her car while her children were riding with her.

In Corpus Christi, 18-year-old Viviana Amaya and two of her friends were shot and killed by Amaya’s boyfriend. In Fort Worth, Michael Nichols shot his 56-year-old wife, Patricia Jean, as well as her mother. In Austin, 37-year-old Sylvia Richardson was shot and killed by her boyfriend in front of her four children in their home. In Port Arthur, 33-year-old Anna Tran was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Vinh Le, who later shot himself.

These women, coming from a vast array of backgrounds and circumstances, all had one thing in common: They were unable to escape abusive partners who had access to firearms and who used those weapons to kill their partners and, in many cases, the people who tried to intervene.

Aaron Setliff noted that Texas has a five-year prohibition against owning firearms for anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, and while federal law places a permanent prohibition on that same group, the loopholes offered at gun shows and through online purchases make it relatively easy to sidestep that law.

And with some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation already on the books, the Texas legislature this year passed 13 laws making it even easier to obtain and carry firearms.

The occasion was called “Gun Day,” and the new laws ranged from allowing students to carry weapons on state university campuses to reducing the number of classroom hours required to obtain a concealed handgun license from ten to four. The legislature also passed a state law that would “refuse enforcement of any new federal gun laws.”

As a state, says Aaron Setliff at the TCFV, “Texas has a very robust sense of the average person’s ability to possess a firearm.”

In light of “Gun Day,” that may be an understatement.

Where Ferdinand Smith obtained the gun that he used to shoot and kill Karen Cox Smith is, so far, unclear. According to arrest records, he told police in his confession that he obtained his weapon as part of his job as a security guard at a Dallas faith-based charter school, but school officials told Rewire that they never issued Smith a gun as part of his duties. Horton said police told her that they have not recovered the weapon used to kill her daughter. Dallas police have refused to comment on any aspect of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

What is clear is that for the majority of her 19-year marriage to Ferdinand Smith, Karen Cox Smith lived in fear of her husband. The two had known each other growing up in small-town Daingerfield, Texas, but it wasn’t until college, after Karen had moved back home from Texas Tech University to attend community college near her family, that they began seeing each other. When she became pregnant with their first child, who is now 18, they married.

According to court documents, over the course of their relationship Karen Cox Smith filed for two protective orders against him, the first after he raped her in 1998 at knifepoint in their home county.

Later, in an April 1999 Dallas County affidavit seeking her second protective order, Karen Cox Smith detailed years of abuse, written in two pages of tight cursive:

– “In 1993, Ferdinand threw a can of starch at me, my arm was so swollen I went to RHD [a local hospital] for examination.”

– “When I was pregnant in 10/97, Ferdinand took a butcher knife, pointed it at my stomach, and told me he would kill the baby and I if I ever went to sleep.”

– “Once, he choked me with his hands to the point I lost consciousness. He left me laying in the bathtub while he tried to decide what to do with my body.”

– “I have suffered black eyes, knots on my head, blurry vision, headaches, busted lips, soreness and hoarseness in my throat, handprints on my neck, and cut [sic] on my arm requiring stitches, bruises on my body and legs.”

Then, on March 30, 1999, when the Smiths were separated, Karen came home to find Ferdinand, dressed all in black, hiding in her closet. In her affidavit, she wrote:

“I told him to leave. Ferdinand was in the house for an hour using the phone to call for a ride. I was very afraid. Ferdinand finally left on foot when the ride never appeared. I went around and locked all of the doors that had been unlocked. When I looked on the back porch Ferdinand had come back and was standing there. I was even more afraid.”

Smith let her husband in, telling him she was about to leave. But he blocked her exit. She tried to call the police. Then:

“Ferdinand grabbed me by the shirt and put the knife, a long steak knife, against my throat. He said, ‘I’m going to kill you and kill myself.’”

Ferdinand Smith told his wife that if her mother came to the home, “there would be two dead bodies.” He stabbed a Styrofoam cup that Karen had been holding and told her to sit on the couch, where she pleaded with him to let her go. She wrote that he had two more knives in his pocket as he was “pacing back and forth, crying and screaming that I was taking his children.”

Finally, Smith’s mother, Sara Horton, telephoned as Ferdinand Smith held his wife at knifepoint, and Horton then called 9-1-1. When they came to arrest him, police found another knife that Ferdinand Smith had hidden on his wife’s back porch.

A little over two weeks after the March 30 assault, Karen Cox Smith discovered what she described as “hand restraints” taped to the bed she slept in. After that, she filed for the protective order.

“I believe that the physical violence will continue if I do not receive protection,” she wrote.

It did, but this time the abuse was kept secret as the couple reconciled after Ferdinand Smith spent time in jail and underwent counseling for domestic abusers—“The kids wanted their Daddy, she wouldn’t testify,” remembers Sara Horton. The family began attending a megachurch in South Dallas. Ferdinand Smith volunteered as an usher, said Horton, and he sang in the choir. “From the outside in, it looked like he’d gotten it,” she remembered. “But he hadn’t.”

Karen Cox Smith started spending as much time as possible at work, said Horton. She knew her daughter had a good work ethic—all three of her children did, it was a point of family pride—but looking back now, she realizes it was one of her daughter’s survival tactics.

“[Karen] would work late a lot, and I finally realized after the fact that it was because she didn’t want to come home,” said Horton. “To prevent a fight from happening. Anything to prevent a fight.”

Over the years, Horton and her husband—she divorced Karen’s father in 1994 and moved to Dallas—always planned their bills around whether Smith would need money for her family. Horton said that Ferdinand Smith would often spend great deals of money on himself, leaving his wife with very little in their shared bank account. He never really managed to keep a job. Instead, said Horton, he relied on his wife to be the breadwinner, and when he’d go on spending sprees, he always made sure to bring home shoes or other expensive items for the kids to smooth things over.

Horton said the pastor at the church the family attended, the Inspiring Body of Christ, was no good for her daughter. She said whenever she tried to talk to Karen about the ongoing trouble she suspected at home, Karen would tell her, “I’m just trying to do what my pastor tells me.”

That was frustrating, said Horton, because she doesn’t believe, as that church does, that “any husband in the home, father in the home, is better than no father in the home. That’s not right.”

By late 2012, the couple had separated again, and Karen Cox Smith was living in a home next door to her mother in Dallas. Horton laughed when remembering drive-time phone calls between mother and daughter as they took similar routes to and from work.

“If I’d be ahead of her, I’d tell her, don’t go this way!” Horton said. “I just miss talking to her. I miss her terribly.”

But protective orders and counseling and religious intervention never turned Ferdinand Smith from a violent abuser into a loving husband. And when he got a gun, he became a murderer.

Despite time spent in jail for missing a hearing, Ferdinand Smith received an adjudicated sentence for the 1999 knife assault of his wife, which meant that domestic violence charges would never have shown up on a gun background check after he finished his ten-year probationary period.

It’s possible that Smith purchased the gun he used to murder his wife on the black market, but Texas gun laws are so lax that, even as a convicted domestic abuser, he’d likely have had no need to go to those lengths.

In Texas, where there are no required waiting periods for the purchase of firearms, Smith could have purchased the weapon at a gun show, ordered it online, or purchased it from a private seller without ever going through a federal background check. If he had a concealed handgun license, he could have purchased it directly from a gun store in the state without a background check. Concealed handgun license records are not available to the public in Texas, and there is no statewide gun registry.

Smith’s ability to carry a weapon was a twofold failure. Not only would current gun regulations have allowed him plenty of leeway to obtain a firearm, but checks currently in place would have missed his violent history.

At least in Dallas, in the wake of Karen Cox Smith’s murder, the conversation around domestic violence and guns is changing. In March, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings officially launched an initiative called “Dallas Men Against Domestic Violence” at a rally attended by thousands, featuring former Dallas Cowboy football players, religious leaders, television personalities, and corporate representatives from Verizon and Mary Kay cosmetics.

Volunteers and workers from local domestic violence shelters helped staff booths at the rally, and Paige Flink, executive director of Dallas’ Family Place, says she’s glad to see city leaders come out strong against domestic violence, not in urging women to do more to report it, but in urging men to stop it before it starts. Part of doing that, she says, is to focus on taking guns out of the hands of abusers.

“It’s absolutely concerning that a person who has committed a violent crime can keep a gun and the gun isn’t removed,” she told Rewire. “It is easier to kill someone with a gun than it is to beat someone with a cinder block.”

Jan Langbein, executive director of Dallas’ Genesis Women’s Shelter, said that “the courts have to get the guns away from these guys. It’s so much easier to pull a trigger, plus they can shoot everybody in the room.”

That’s just what Aaron Setliff at the Texas Council on Family Violence, is working on: gun surrender. Instead of working legislatively to change statute, Setliff says his organization works more “programmatically,” on “policies and procedures that work at the local level,” and he’s specifically enthused about programs that create a system for convicted abusers to surrender their weapons to law enforcement.

“This is one area … where we can get both sides of the aisle to move a little bit away from where they have been in the overall gun debate,” said Setliff. “People aren’t necessarily feeling like they are targeted in terms of gun rights when we’re talking about batterers.”

Setliff cited the work of Judge Patricia Macias in El Paso, who in 2005 organized the Domestic Violence Firearm Surrender Advisory Committee to create protocols for the surrender of weapons possessed by domestic abusers. The impetus for the project was not specifically a domestic violence murder, but the death of an El Paso police officer who was shot by an abusive husband while responding to a family violence call. Now, the committee is working on “integration and institutionalization” of the surrender protocols, which detail where, when, and how firearms can be retrieved by law enforcement, whether or not a firearm was used in a particular incident.

“Fatality is the ultimate when it comes to domestic violence, and it’s pretty easy to link it to firearms,” said Setliff. But police need to know when and how they can confiscate weapons, and convicted abusers need to know when and where they should surrender their weapons.

“One of the best indicators of a victim being murdered is a previous instance of domestic violence, so you already have a predictor,” said Setliff. “But going forward, if they haven’t been convicted, the gun issue becomes even more poignant at that level.”

If Ferdinand Smith had somehow been flagged—despite his adjudicated record for the 1999 assault—he might have been stopped from purchasing the gun he used to kill his wife.

Until legislators at the state and national levels draw the connection between the presence of guns and domestic homicide, we can expect to see many more Karen Cox Smiths in the news—though, as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates, 1.3 million women experience physical abuse at the hands of their partners every year in the United States; it’s more than likely that the newspaper is not the only place Americans will come to know the names of domestic violence survivors and victims.

They are our coworkers and our friends, our relatives and ourselves. And the culture of shame that surrounds domestic violence—that erases the responsibility of abusers and places the blame on their partners—obscures the fact that one in four adult women are beaten or raped by a partner.

Sara Horton told Rewire that she has to believe that her daughter’s murder, as violent as it was, happened as it did for a reason, and that she wants to do whatever she can to raise awareness around domestic violence in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. Horton says that after 19 years of abuse, she believes her daughter may have finally reached peace, where she could never find it in her life with Ferdinand Smith.

“I think God scooped her up and took her immediately to heaven,” said Horton. “I think she was gone before she ever hit the concrete. That may sound like Pollyanna, but that’s how I have to look at it in order to get up and go to work every day.”

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

Investigations Media

Exclusive: Law Enforcement Calls Daleiden ‘Uncooperative’; Documents Reveal More CMP Lies

Sharona Coutts

“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” a spokesperson at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office told Rewire. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”

See more of our coverage on the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress here.

In late May of last year, David Daleiden was reaching the culmination of a project he had been working on for three years. Over that time, the anti-choice activist had been living a lie of his own creation. He had set up a bogus company, complete with a fake website, and corporate officers whose names were in fact aliases.

He had enlisted half a dozen other anti-choice activists to help him, most notably Sandra Susan Merritt, a 63-year-old resident of San Jose, California, who—using the alias Susan Tennenbaum—posed as the CEO of the bogus company, Biomax Procurement Services.

Together, Daleiden—going by Robert Daoud Sarkis—and Merritt hopscotched the country, traveling from California to Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Texas, and Washington, D.C. They attended conferences for abortion providers and parlayed those attendances—and the trust and credibility they engendered—into visits to abortion clinics, where the pair secretly recorded meetings and site visits and tried to goad their targets into making statements that could be twisted to look like evidence of illegal activities.

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By May 21, Daleiden was nearly ready to bring his elaborate scheme to a head. The next night, he and “Tennenbaum” were scheduled to have dinner with executives from StemExpress, a tissue procurement company based in Northern California. As he had done for virtually every encounter as a Biomax official, Daleiden planned to secretly video record the meeting and then to release doctored versions of that footage to the public.

But this time, Daleiden did something different. On the eve of this particular meeting, he delivered a bundle of so-called evidence of alleged wrongdoing by StemExpress to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that the company had engaged in a range of crimes including trafficking in human organs and human tissues, and “homicide of babies born alive during the abortion procedure,” according to legal documents obtained by Rewire.

In a deposition taken late last year, Daleiden would claim—in sworn testimony, under penalty of perjury—that the purpose of his meeting with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was “to coordinate [his] investigations going forward on how to bring StemExpress criminal conduct to light.”

Following his lawyer’s advice during that deposition, Daleiden refused to say more about that meeting, or the other authorities he had supposedly “coordinated” with in his spying campaign, but he did heavily imply that the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was just one of the “governmental authorities” that he met with “contemporaneously with the actual undercover operation.”

The notion that law enforcement authorities were actively colluding with Daleiden and his associates in conduct that has resulted in criminal indictments is curious, to say the least.

It’s just one of the loose ends that surrounds Daleiden’s project, a year after he released the first smear video against Planned Parenthood (the organization and some of its individual employees), abortion providers in general, and companies that assist in the procurement of tissue for medical and scientific research. 

Despite the dozen-odd state and federal investigations his project sparked, the multiple civil and criminal cases it sent ricocheting through state and federal courts, and the untold damage it caused to companies, organizations, and individuals targeted by his group, many questions remain about who funded Daleiden, which politicians supported him, and who else was involved in his operation—including the identities of the other operatives that posed as Biomax employees. 

Using freshly obtained legal documents, Rewire has taken a look back at some of the most mysterious aspects of the Daleiden affair, comparing what we have learned since the videos were first released with what remains unknown or unclear.

What emerge are some disturbing claims that have yet to be fully resolved, not least of which is the extent to which members of Congress were aware of—or involved in—planning or executing Daleiden’s campaign.

El Dorado Sheriff’s Office: Daleiden Was “Uncooperative”

When Daleiden met with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, he handed over a report he had prepared containing his “best kind of summary or list of the different California and federal laws that are implicated in the actions between StemExpress and Planned Parenthood,” along with “a few representative examples of the evidence that CMP gathered that indicates probable cause for violations of those laws,” according to a transcript of the deposition he gave on December 30, 2015.

When Rewire contacted the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office about this anecdote, its spokesperson, Jim Byers, said he clearly remembered Daleiden’s visit, but disputed Daleiden’s characterization that his office was “coordinating” with the spying project.

“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” Byers said. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”

Byers said that it was unclear to his colleagues what exactly Daleiden wanted them to do with the information he had provided. Flipping through the report while speaking with Rewire, Byers explained: “It just says that he had been conducting a multiyear investigation and was going to go public with it and wanted to make this report to us, but when we asked him to hold off so we could investigate his claims, he went ahead and went public anyway.”

The reason the sheriff’s office asked Daleiden not to go public was because doing so would hamper any investigation they might do into the allegations Daleiden had made. “That’s very common, for us to ask something like that, because then the people we need to talk to aren’t going to talk to us,” Byers said. “He declined to follow our request.”

Regardless, the sheriff’s office spent months investigating Daleiden’s claims; they found no evidence of illegal conduct by StemExpress. As is routine, the sheriff’s office then referred the matter to the El Dorado District Attorney for further review. Dave Stevenson, the spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, told Rewire he was unable to comment on the matter as the investigation is ongoing.

If it seems odd that Daleiden would make a report to law enforcementbut not give them any time to actually investigate the allegations he’d made and actually jeopardize those investigations—that might be because the act of making the report itself was part of Daleiden’s legal strategy.

Daleiden was consulting with the Life Legal Defense Foundation for at least two years prior to releasing his videos, according to published reports. It’s therefore likely that he knew that California creates criminal and civil penalties for people who intentionally make a secret recording of a person in a private meeting without their consent. And indeed, that’s one of the key charges within the lawsuits that have been filed against Daleiden and his co-defendants.

It’s also likely that Daleiden and his advisers knew that there is an exception to that law for people who make a secret recording “for the purpose of obtaining evidence reasonably believed to relate to the commission by another party to the communication of the crime of extortion, kidnapping, bribery, any felony involving violence against the person.”

Throughout the deposition he made on December 30, Daleiden maintained that he believed he was exposing criminal conduct as a justification for his spying activities. Merritt made similar claims in the deposition she gave in the same case, on December 29. In particular, both insist they believed they were recording evidence of murder.

It appears plausible that Daleiden made his report not because he thought the county sheriff’s office would really investigate, but because he anticipated that once he published the illegally taped videos, he would be charged with a crime, and he was simply laying the groundwork to be able to show a court later on that he had filed the criminal report as evidence of his belief that he had uncovered a crime.

Daleiden did not reply to Rewire‘s questions about whether this was in fact his legal strategy. Catherine Short, his lawyer at Life Legal Defense Foundation, did not immediately respond to our emails seeking comment. 

However, for that defense to work, a person must show they had an honest and reasonable belief that they were uncovering a crime. And when it came to the specifics of the supposed crimes they were uncovering, both depositions are striking for the extent to which Daleiden and Merritt refused or were unable to give clear definitions of those offenses.

For instance, both Daleiden and Merritt were reluctant to answer questions about who, if anyone, they believed had actually committed the murder they were supposedly reporting, despite that being one of their key allegations. Both Daleiden and Merritt made vague statements about “doctors” being responsible, or about the “abortion industry” writ large, but when it came to the specifics of how anyone at StemExpress could have been guilty of murder, their answers were evasive. 

In one chilling passage, Daleiden gave stammering and elusive answers to questioning over whether he believed that one of the people who assisted him in his smear campaign—a former StemExpress employee named Holly O’Donnell—had provided him with evidence that she had herself committed murder. Discussing O’Donnell’s account of one incident she related where she claimed to have procured fetal brain tissue, Daleiden initially said he did not believe O’Donnell had murdered that fetus. But under questioning about the overall processes involved in preparing tissue samples, Daleiden’s answers became confused.

After Daleiden noted that O’Donnell went with him to his first meeting with El Dorado law enforcement, the StemExpress lawyer asked: “Did you ever tell Holly that you thought she should be investigated by El Dorado County for her conduct?”

Daleiden never definitely said “no,” but rather, “I think that, you know, the testimony of people who worked at StemExpress is—you know, is relevant to that investigation but I think the ultimate culpability is with the—with the business entity.” He also said he would “put culpability on the doc,” but then he said:

I’m not sure what Holly’s obligations were there. But, you know, but this is—this is highly speculative and, like I said, this is why I think this is really serious information that I—and really serious allegations and actions that—that needed to be brought to law enforcement, which is what I did.

Ultimately, Daleiden’s lawyer summarized his client’s position on O’Donnell’s potential guilt thus: “He explained as best he could that it would be the doctor or it would be [a different StemExpress employee] and it’s ambiguous as to Holly’s role at that point.”

Merritt appears to go further. Towards the end of her deposition, she was asked to clarify whether she believed that any StemExpress employees had committed murder. She described what she believed O’Donnell had done, and then said, “Yes, I believe that to be murder.”

One can only wonder whether O’Donnell was aware that Daleiden considered the possibility—or perhaps, had not considered the possibility—that he was giving law enforcement authorities evidence that she had committed murder, when she accompanied Daleiden to their offices and helped him with his “investigation.”

Rewire’s attempts to contact O’Donnell for her comment on that question were unsuccessful.

Further Evidence That Daleiden and His Associates Are Not Reporters

The very fact that Daleiden claimed—albeit incorrectly—to have been “coordinating” with law enforcement further undermines his dubious assertion that he is an investigative reporter. Reporters would seldom coordinate their efforts with law enforcement, except for rare instances where, by way of example, they might inform law enforcement if they had learned of an imminent risk to a person’s life or to national security.

The deposition also revealed Daleiden’s investigative methods to be far from objective, and in some respects, amateurish.

Under questioning from StemExpress’ attorney, Daleiden explained that much of his knowledge of how tissue or organ transplantation worked was based on “research,” which comprised Googling for journal articles, which he admitted to cherry-picking. He also based most of his understanding of the equipment used in heart transplants on watching videos that the equipment manufacturer had posted on its website and YouTube channel.

He relied disproportionately on the expertise of a scientist whose otherwise impressive credentials are marred by her support for widely debunked theories that vaccines are linked to autism. He used this patchwork knowledge to cobble together flawed theories about how fetal tissue is acquired, and the circumstances in which it could be used for research.

He even made assumptions about what medical professionals meant by the words “case” or “specimen”—he said he believed the people he filmed were referring to a fetus, when in fact those words can also refer to a particular organ or piece of tissue. He said that he didn’t give the subjects of his secret video recordings the opportunity to clarify what they meant by these terms because he didn’t want to blow his cover—or as he put it, he didn’t want to get greedy for information and “get lost in the Cave of Wonders like Aladdin and go like looking for all the other treasures.” He just ran with his own assumptions, something no professional reporter would do. 

And he acknowledged that the reason he embarked on his project was because he had formed an unshakable belief that abortion providers engaged in unlawful trafficking of human organs and tissues, instead of remaining open-minded about the facts and attempting to report against his own biases, as a real reporter would do. None of the multiple investigations into Planned Parenthood have found any evidence that substantiate Daleiden’s allegations. Indeed, Daleiden manipulated his videos to omit passages where the targets of his campaign explicitly told him that profiting from human tissues was unethical and illegal.

Merritt’s deposition is even more astonishing in terms of just how flimsy her claims to be a reporter turn out to be.

Like Daleiden, Merritt is trying to assert that she is a reporter and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

A lawyer for StemExpress asked Merritt, “Do you consider yourself a journalist?”

Merritt answered, “Yes.”

The lawyer then asked, “Have you ever published any articles?”

Merritt answered, “I have not.”

She said she didn’t do any original research. She didn’t do any writing. She didn’t edit. Merritt specifically told the lawyer for StemExpress that her sole role in the ruse orchestrated by Daleiden was to wear a video recorder while playing the part of Susan Tennenbaum, which may explain why Daleiden has frequently referred to his associates as “actors.”

Wearing a camera does not a reporter make.

Which Members of Congress Knew About the Planned Smear Campaign, What Did They Know, and When? 

An especially curious aspect of this saga is how some members of Congress had seen at least one of the smear videos before Daleiden released them to the public. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) both told Roll Call that they had seen the first video about a month before it was published. How and why they came to see the video, and what their role was in helping plan the political response to the tapes, if any, remains unclear.

But the following exchange during Daleiden’s deposition provided a tantalizing tidbit about that mystery.

In his December 30 deposition, Daleiden declined to answer the following questions from StemExpress’ lawyer:

When is the first time you spoke with anybody from, or had any contact with anybody from Congress?


When is the first time you provided any materials to anybody that is a member of Congress?

Daleiden responded: “I don’t think the answer to that question is a matter of public record so I’m going to follow the advice of my counsel.” He declined to respond.

Ostensibly, the reason Daleiden declined is that he believed it was outside the scope of that particular deposition, which was confined to some narrow legal arguments. However, there is an implication in the December 30 deposition that those questions were within the scope of a related case, along with questions about who funded Daleiden’s efforts, and information about the specific role of his board member, the anti-choice extremist and head of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman.

A year has passed since the videos were first released, and a lot of time and taxpayer dollars have been spent as a result of Daleiden’s endeavors. But a year is a short time in the life of a lawsuit, and many cases are still wending their way through state and federal courts. As they do, it is possible that we will learn more about these unresolved questions.

Time will tell whether the pattern Daleiden has established will continue: Instead of exposing wrongdoing by others, the only wrongdoing he has thus far managed to record and expose was his own.