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Sara Mendez-Morales knew she was out of options.
Three months earlier, her daughter had come to her crying and confessed that Mendez-Morales’ then-partner “made her get naked and touched her,” as a court document would later recount. Mendez-Morales screamed, pushed him, told him to never touch her daughters. She tried to call the cops, but the man broke her phone in half. Then, he locked her in a room with her daughters and said that if she tried to report him, he’d flee with her youngest.
For weeks, Mendez-Morales says she tried to glue herself to her children. She quit her job to stay with them. She slept in the same bed as her older daughter. She tried to find another place for her family to live, but her status as an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala hindered her efforts.
So when Mendez-Morales, a cancer survivor, had a doctor’s appointment in April 2019, she saw her family’s shot at freedom.
“I can’t wait more,” Mendez-Morales told VICE News she thought at the time. “I don’t want to die, too.”
Mendez-Morales told her doctor what had been happening, an accusation that eventually made its way to law enforcement. Within days, her partner had vanished—and police had accused Mendez-Morales of waiting too long to report her partner and charged her with child endangerment and obstruction of justice.
She hasn’t seen or spoken to her daughters since her arrest, more than two years ago.
“I’m so sorry, every day. I don’t know why the police put me through charges,” Mendez-Morales said, in between sobs, on the phone from Butler County Jail in Hamilton, Ohio last month. “All I want is justice, for myself and for my family and for my life.”
Sentenced to a year and a half in prison, Mendez-Morales, 34, originally believed that once she served her time, she’d be free to return to her children. But the child endangerment charge that she’d been slapped with constituted a “particularly serious crime,” a deportable offense. The criminal justice and immigration systems were, at that point, on autopilot: Alleged child abuser? Deport them.
So, after she was released from prison in August 2020, ICE swooped her up. But now, the U.S. government is refusing to release her—despite a judge’s ruling that lets her remain in the United States to protect her from torture. Because she’s been behind bars, a judge ruled in April to strip her of custody of her two daughters. That’s a normal outcome when children have been in government care for so long.
“I’m so sorry, every day. I don’t know why the police put me through charges.”
No one comprehensively tracks how many battered women end up behind bars for failing to protect their kids from an abusive partner. But experts told VICE News it happens all too often. The criminal justice system casts people into one of two roles: victim or offender. If the child is the victim, then there’s only one other role left.
“Particularly when the legal system can’t get at the primary perpetrator of harm, it looks for someone to punish. And that person is often the mother,” said Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, who wrote a book about the criminal justice system’s response to intimate partner violence. “We have these expectations that mothers will do anything and everything to protect their children in any situation, without an understanding of the ways in which intimate partner violence and sexual abuse complicate their ability to do that.”
Mendez-Morales’ then-partner, who’d been waiting in the parking lot during Mendez-Morales’ doctor’s appointment, figured out what she’d done almost immediately, she told VICE News. He demanded that she leave with him.
“He ripped my shirt and he hit me,” Mendez-Morales said, between wracking sobs. “He said he was gonna take the baby, and I couldn’t let him do that.”
The man dropped Mendez-Morales and her daughter off at their house. His whereabouts are still a question mark, and the 12 charges that law enforcement eventually lodged against him—for rape and sexual assault—are still outstanding.
In 2014, a Buzzfeed News investigation found that 28 mothers in 11 states had been sentenced to at least a decade in prison for failing to protect their children from abusive partners, a tally that the outlet admitted was likely conservative. In all of those cases, there was evidence that the mother had been abused.
Tondalao Hall is likely the most famous face of this grisly phenomenon. At just 19 years old, Hall was arrested for failing to protect her children from a boyfriend who, Hall said, had choked her, punched her, and grabbed her neck on multiple occasions. The boyfriend was ultimately charged with child abuse after police said he’d broken the ribs and femur of the couple’s three-month-old daughter, according to the ACLU of Oklahoma. But the boyfriend signed a plea deal, with time served. He walked.
Hall, on the other hand, was charged with failing to protect her children and spent 15 years in jail and prison. She was released just two years ago, after a national outcry.
Cases like Hall’s snag headlines because they’re so egregious. But countless more abused women might face accusations of failing to protect their kids from abuse, without their cases ever creeping into the spotlight. Mendez-Morales could’ve easily been one of them.
Born in San Rafael Petzal, Guatemala, Mendez-Morales first started working at just six years old. By seven, she’d left school. By eight, her father had begun to physically abuse her, Mendez-Morales testified in proceedings to determine whether to grant her asylum. Mendez-Morales said that she’d also been gotten pregnant through rape while in Guatemala. She gave the child up for adoption.
The immigration judge who oversaw that request for asylum found that, if the U.S. government sent Mendez-Morales back to Guatemala, she faced a high enough risk of torture that she qualifies for help under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and so her deportation should be deferred. His decision is a clinical and concise account of Mendez-Morales’ life, one filled with vicious men and a desperate scramble to survive across two countries—neither of which offered Mendez-Morales many opportunities, let alone safety.
“She talks about abuse left and right,” Kim Alabasi, Mendez-Morales’ immigration attorney, said. “Dad, family members, coworkers, gang members—I mean, you name it.”
“She’s a really amazing person, and a fighter for sure,” Alabasi added of Mendez-Morales. “But I feel like she just hit roadblocks everywhere.”
Mendez-Morales couldn’t find a job in Guatemala, so she came to the U.S. in 2007 for a chance to expand her life. “I wanted some opportunity for my life. I want to work,” she said. “I am coming here because I [am] so tired [of] everything. I’m so tired.”
But once she arrived in the U.S., eventually settling in Tennessee, Mendez-Morales was essentially coerced into a relationship with a man who was also from Guatemala, according to her testimony. She said he frequently tried to harm her, including raping her. In April 2008, Mendez-Morales fled the man after he “placed her under scaling hot water and choked her,” as the immigration judge’s ruling describes it. He was arrested and deported back to Guatemala.
Now, Mendez-Morales “fears returning to Guatemala because he will try to kill her,” according to the judge’s decision.
By 2016, Mendez-Morales had two children and relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio. On the weekends, she loved to take them to breakfast at IHOP or McDonald’s, then to play at the park. She still marvels at how smart her older daughter is—how she got A’s in school, how she plays piano. Her favorite colors are purple and pink.
But Mendez-Morales can only speak about her children for so long before she starts to cry. In Cincinnati, Mendez-Morales had moved in with a new partner who, she testified, was “controlling and violent.” He was the man who would, eventually, abuse her older daughter, according to her testimony in immigration court. Mendez-Morales said he abused her too. He repeatedly forced her into sex, including during the months that she was trying to shield her daughter from him.
Women dealing with domestic violence get asked the same question over and over: Why don’t you just leave? These women, Goodmark said, are not paralyzed by their fear. Instead, they’re constantly calculating their options and what they and their families need to survive, to thrive. A woman in an abusive relationship is in the most danger when she’s trying to leave it, according to advocates.
“It’s about looking at the options to you and trying to assess, ‘What’s gonna happen to me if I choose this option?’” Goodmark said. “What happens if I call the police? Does he make good on his threat to take off with my other kid? Does he double down on his beating of me? Do I end up getting deported and therefore completely unable to take care of my children?”
Mendez-Morales confided in Sebastian Bliffeld, a New York family therapist she’d never met but with whom she shared a deep and unusual connection: Bliffield and his wife had adopted the child that Mendez-Morales had given up for adoption back in Guatemala. The Bliffields had been in contact with Mendez-Morales since 2014, when they found one another through Facebook.
“Her biggest concern, and honestly my concern, was her reporting something and being deported,” Bliffield said. He urged her to leave. He also gave her some fateful advice: “Talk to your doctor, report that it’s happening, so that they can immediately check her out.”
In April 2019, after Mendez-Morales talked to her doctor, police arrived at her apartment. An officer “assisted in translating” until an interpreter arrived, according to a police report. But Louis Valencia, the attorney who handled Mendez-Morales’ criminal case, told VICE News that “a number of mistakes” were made during that conversation.
Mendez-Morales speaks Spanish and Mam, a language spoken by Indigenous people in Guatemala. In interviews with VICE News in English and through a Spanish interpreter, it’s clear she’s not as comfortable speaking in English when talking about issues she feels passionately about—like what happened with her ex-partner and her children. A detective who worked on Mendez-Morales’ case didn’t reply to multiple requests to talk about the case.
Police accused Mendez-Morales of failing to report the child abuse for years, not months, Valencia told VICE News, adding that he felt that allegation would’ve fallen apart in court. But if the case went to trial and Mendez-Morales lost, he warned, she could be imprisoned for more than a decade. Mendez-Morales ended up pleading guilty to just the child endangerment charge, in the third degree, rather than risk watching the entirety of her kids’ childhoods from behind bars.
But after her stint in prison, Mendez-Morales was picked up by ICE and tossed into immigration detention in Butler County Jail. The U.S. government could have agreed to release Mendez-Morales when the immigration judge ruled that she faced too high a risk of torture, but it instead appealed, which ensured that Mendez-Morales would stay in detention as the case continued to unfurl.
Now, Bliffeld, his family, and a band of local activists are desperately trying to throw a wrench in the works. Alabasi has filed paperwork to obtain a visa for Mendez-Morales, arguing that she’s a victim of trafficking. More than 13,000 people have also signed a Change.org petition demanding that Mendez-Morales be freed from “unlawful ICE detention.”
(After the publication of this story, an ICE spokesperson told VICE News that the agency was prohibited from commenting on the case, noting Mendez-Morales' pending visa request.)
“She completed her criminal sentence. If she were not a non-citizen, she would be out among the community,” Alabasi said. “She was an abused, horribly abused, human being who was terrified, who was most fearful of something happening to her children—he threatened to take them—she was in a very difficult situation. In my opinion, she was doing everything she could to protect her children and report it as soon as she could.”
Mendez-Morales was recently transferred out of Butler County Jail, to another ICE facility that’s closer to Alabasi. It can feel, sometimes, like she’s drowning. But she exercises. She reads her Bible. She holds onto hope that, one day, she’ll surface.
“Every morning, I get up and I know that I’m going to eventually get out of here. I know it’s not going to be easy,” she said. “But I am going to return to my normal life.”