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June 11th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
In the early hours of May 15th, Floridian Tonya Thomas murdered her four children with 18 shots from a .38 caliber pistol.  She then smoked a cigarette and killed herself with the same weapon.  Read about it here (Fox News, 5/18/12).

It’s a horrific story, made all the more so by the fact that, apparently, no one can figure out why she did it.  Although Thomas had a lengthy history with the state’s child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families, recent contact with caseworkers revealed nothing important amiss.   The children, ages 12 – 17, had been interviewed by DCF and said their mother was neither verbally nor physically abusive to them.  Caseworkers also contacted school officials and neighbors who reported no problems with the kids.

The fact that Thomas had even come under the watchful eye of DCF looks like more her 15-year-old son’s fault than hers.  It seems that he assaulted his mother and spent a short time in juvenile detention for his trouble.  But when he was due to get out, Thomas refused to come get him, “to teach him a lesson,” and that got the attention of DCF.

So it’s strange and unsettling that Thomas shot her four children who tried to escape to a neighbor’s house, only to be called back by their mother.  Astonishingly, they came and were shot to death at close range.  No one at this point can figure out why.

And that leaves the field open for speculation, and the direction of that speculation is indicated by the headline on the linked-to piece, “Fla. Mom Who Killed Self, 4 Kids, Endured Violence.”

A child welfare investigator who spoke with Tonya Thomas in the weeks before she fatally shot herself and her four children said there were no signs that the children were in distress or felt unsafe. But hundreds of documents released by state officials Friday detail a family tormented by episodes of violence over the years — including an attack on Thomas by the children’s father a decade ago.

That sketches an awful picture of a family marred by violence that the mother felt she could only solve by murder and suicide.  The only trouble is it’s not remotely true.  In fact, the article mentions just two episodes of violence, one of them a decade ago.  The second was when Thomas’ son Jaxs assaulted her and he went to juvy.  That was in April of this year and clearly resulted in no injury to Thomas.  The previous one occurred 10 years ago.

Violence in the family can be traced back at least a decade when the children watched as their father Joe Johnson yelled at Thomas for not making dinner, then punched and kicked her, knocking her into a wall in 2000, according to the documents.

Bad stuff, no doubt about it.  But later on it becomes clear that Thomas and the kids understood the incident to be what DV experts call “situational violence,” i.e. the kind that occurs only sporadically, under conditions of stress and not meant to control the other person.  Thomas told DCF that it was an isolated incident and that she had no fear of Johnson.  In 2002, Thomas herself was arrested for misdemeanor battery against Johnson, but charges were dropped.  The two continued living together, but in recent years, Johnson seems to be out of the picture.  DCF records from the incident with Jaxs indicate that Thomas had no romantic attachments.

The article does mention that Thomas experienced abuse or neglect as a child, but offers no details.

That’s pretty much it.  The violence she “endured” consisted of (a) a minor incident at the hands of her son that did her no harm and (b) an incident over ten years ago with Johnson that she seems to have shrugged off at the time.

The point is this: a woman murdered four children in cold blood and the article grasps at whatever straws are available to explain and forgive her action.  Face it, reaching back to a in incident over a decade ago that even Thomas didn’t think was a big deal, in order to explain away the slaughter of four children, strains credulity.  Whatever the reason Tonya Thomas killed her kids, neither their father’s actions that long ago nor her son’s in April explain or excuse what she did.  So why does the article’s writer seem to want them to?

The answer to me looks like the age-old double standard that asks us to believe that men act with free will, choosing their behavior with awareness of the likely results, while women are passive victims, unable to resist whatever influences may act on them.  In this case it’s suggested that two minor incidents of violence triggered her rampage.  Had Joe Johnson done the same thing, I can guarantee you there would be no article speculating about whether distant dust-ups forced his hand.  Do I have to add that nowhere does this article or any other on the shootings calls what she did “domestic violence?”

Don’t believe me?  Compare this article (Statesman Journal, 5/27/12).  It’s about a father, Nikolay Lazukin, who killed his three kids and their mother, before killing himself.  In other words, it’s very similar to the Thomas case.  And the article begins similarly as well, anguishing over the inexplicable nature of the terrible crime.  But this time it’s a dad who did the deed and what began with trying to fathom the unfathomable, quickly concludes that the man was a violent abuser who committed the ultimate crime in order to control his wife and family.

The community cannot bring back the Lazukins, the Bryants, the Morrises, the Longos, the Lavins and other Oregon couples and families who were killed in the name of ultimate control.

See what I mean?  Three hundred words previously, the writer bemoaned the fact that we can’t know what caused Lazukin to kill his family and himself.  With no additional information, he’s now concluded exactly why he did so – “ultimate control.”  The article about Thomas never even raised the possibility that she had murdered her children for the sake of control, but when a father does the same thing, it takes no time at all to reach that conclusion.  Again, fathers are active and corrupt; mothers, even those who murder their own kids, must be absolved of their crimes, if only in our own minds.

For some reason, we just can’t seem to treat mothers and fathers equally.  We’re bound and determined that, when a dad behaves badly, it’s his fault, but when a mom does, it’s someone else’s.  And it’s precisely that anti-father/pro-mother sexism that keeps kids from having equal relationships with each parent post-divorce.  Far too often, when a judge looks at two divorcing parent, he/she sees a saint and a sinner.  Pass all the laws you want, but as long as that’s true, fathers will never have equal rights in family courts, and children will continue to lose their fathers on divorce.

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