14-Year Old Girl Faces Life In Prison for Killing Her Baby: Is She a Victim Of Florida's Insane Abstinence Education?

Personal Health

This article originally appeard on xoJane.com.

14-year-old Cassidy Goodson was indicted by a grand jury on October 4 for the murder of her newborn baby. She’ll face trial as an adult for charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse and may serve a life sentence if convicted. 

Cassidy went into labor in her Lakeland, Florida mobile home, and gave birth to a 9-and-a-half-pound baby boy on September 19. According to authorities, she bit down on a towel and ran the shower to muffle noise from the bathroom for fear that her mother, also in the mobile home, might hear her. 

Upon discovering the bathroom mess, Cassidy’s mother took her to the emergency room, where she said she’d miscarried. Several days later, however, her mother discovered the body in a shoebox in her bedroom. 

Once arrested, Cassidy told police that she strangled the baby because she did not know what else to do with it, and further, that she did not want her relationship with her mother to change. 

In all likelihood, what Cassidy said is accurate; she simply did not know what else to do about her pregnancy and didn’t have the adult support she needed, from either family or school, to weigh her options.

This incident should be a wake-up call to proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum, and to educators who stand to effect change in the lives of students concerning healthy sex. Instead, both the media and the criminal justice system is operating fully within an anti-choice narrative that values fetal rights over those of the mother and ignores the physical and psychological health of pregnant women and girls in need to systemic support. 

Florida, where Cassidy lives, has historically been resistant to any kind of sex-education reform that promotes or mandates comprehensive education over abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. In fact, the state returned $4.5 million in federal funds as of 2010, awarded under the Obama Administration’s Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). Instead, the state accepted Title V funding, originally established in 1996, which allocates $50 million annually for grants to promote sexual abstinence until marriage as the primary means of preventing pregnancy and STDs. 

On its face, PREP is a sign of progress, allocating a minimum of $250,000 per state to provide comprehensive sex-ed in schools. However, states that didn’t apply to receive funding under this stream between 2010 and 2011 became ineligible to reapply for the next three years.

What’s more, the Secretary of the U.S. Department Health and Human Services can provide three-year grants to community-based and faith-based organizations and local entities in states that refused PREP funding using the allocated funds for Fiscal Years 2012 through 2014. That said, states like Florida that refused or returned funds don’t suffer for it, and actually enjoy similar benefits with less regulation. 

Title V enforces an 8-point definition of abstinence, including that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” 

As of October 1, 2012, the only requirements for sex-education in Florida were age-appropriateness and freedom for parents to opt out of enrolling their kids in “prevention” courses altogether. That classes should be culturally appropriate, unbiased or provide medically accurate information were not required according to a Guttmacher Institute State by State report

RH Reality Check, a non-profit online community and publication that works to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, published a comprehensive study on sex education in the state of Florida overall and by district in 2008 entitled, Sex Education in the Sunshine State: How Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs are Keeping Florida’s Youth in the Dark. The report, conducted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) targeted Florida specifically for its historic support and use of abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum in public schools. 

According to SIECUS, the report was compiled “in an effort to inform all of Florida’s citizens about the colossal failure of these programs and the ongoing waste of their money.”

According to this study, approximately half of the States in the country opted out of Title V funding from the federal government. An overwhelming majority, 80% of those states, cites research that belies the success of such curricula in favor of comprehensive sex-ed. Indeed, “a congressionally mandated study conducted over nine years at a cost of almost $8 million concluded that these programs are not effective in stopping or even delaying teen sex and have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

Polk County, where Cassidy attended high school, teaches community-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula in its schools. Nurse Jamie Kress facilitates Polk County’s Prevention Program that brings registered nurses to schools to cover a variety of subjects that might fall under the category of sex-ed.

According to Kress, contraception is only addressed within the context of marriage, and instead, the program promotes abstinence from all sexual contact as STD and teen pregnancy prevention. A student thinking about having sex, or who is already sexually active, would not be advised to use condoms or other forms of birth control. 

If a student were already under the impression that she has committed the one act that runs contrary to the basis of everything she’s been taught in school, I would argue that she would be less willing to approach adults at school with concerns that she is pregnant. Although little has been said about Cassidy’s character, or her home life, the facts of the case demonstrate that she was in dire need of support outside of her family regarding her pregnancy. 

According to Sheriff Grady Judd, Cassidy’s mother was “in denial,” ignoring family members who said that Cassidy might be pregnant and the bulge likely visible on Cassidy’s 100 pound, 5’3” frame. This is all the more reason that Cassidy needed an external support system, the very type of structure that sex-education programs ideally provide.

Families are imperfect and often adults are ill equipped to disseminate crucial information regarding reproductive and sex-based choices to children; that’s why public school sex-education exists. 

At 14, Cassidy is not old enough under the eyes of the law to drive a car, or to have sex at all according to Florida’s age of consent; why in this case, do authorities expect her to know the proper course of action for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy without guidance? Perhaps it is more frightening to face the failure of an entire infrastructure than it is to punish one child, and label her a kink in an otherwise functional system. 

Reports say that Cassidy’s mother gave her pregnancy tests in order to dispel rumors that she was pregnant, rather than telling her daughter that if she was pregnant everything would be okay. This sends the message that public perception is more important than her health and might have encouraged her to take measures to erase the pregnancy into her own hands.

Cassidy used a pair of scissors to pry the baby out of her body, risking her own safety in the process of trying to cover up the pregnancy. This speaks not just to her desperation, but also to the fact that the education she received indicated that her well being mattered less than avoiding a public confrontation about the pregnancy. The safety of two children was threatened; one albeit more catastrophically, but the charges Cassidy faces excuse the system that failed her entirely. 

Florida received $13,101,054 in federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in 2008 alone, second only to Texas in the entire country. In fact, since 2002, Florida received over $64 million in sex-ed funding from the federal government. This money goes towards spending on class materials like videos and books, guest speakers, and curricula that SEICUS states, “not only fail to provide youth with the information they need in order to protect themselves from the negative health outcomes that are clearly a problem in Florida, they also rely on fear and shame and present stereotypes, biases, and blatantly inaccurate information as truth.”   

This particular SEICUS report studied Florida prior to the implementation of PREP, however, because Florida opted out of money from this funding stream in favor of community based programming with Title V funding, it is likely that practices are largely unchanged. According to the SIECUS, the curriculum material reviewed was found to employ shame and fear based tactics, and further it contained outdated information.

In Polk County, federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding went to the Plant City Pregnancy Center, which provides abstinence education. Plant City features sensationalized descriptions of abortion on its website while purporting to be a resource for teens. 

It’s impossible to know whether Cassidy considered either having an abortion or putting her baby up for adoption, although the latter seems especially unlikely based on the measures she took. If she had been interested in an abortion, she might have contacted the nearest pregnancy crisis centers of the three centers closest to her high school: Your Choice Lakeland, Options for Women, and Catholic Charities of Central Florida. This is all assuming she had the resources and the sense of agency to contact these facilities in the first place. What’s more, the State of Florida requires that a minor obtain parental consent for an abortion, something Cassidy clearly hoped to avoid. 

According to the National Abortion Federation, such centers exist all over the country, presenting themselves as medical clinics when in fact they exist to discourage women from having abortions. If she did contact a crisis center, like for instance, Options for Women, she might have been confronted with the anti-choice rhetoric evident in the section of the clinic’s website that describes Post Abortion Syndrome. 

This fact sheet cites these statistics for women who have undergone an abortion: 61% report feeling guilty, 28% attempt suicide, 53% experience depression, and 45% feel anger and remorse. There’s also a quiz on the same page with a series of 14 questions, followed by the statement, “If you answered ‘Yes’ to two or more of the above questions you are at HIGH RISK for experiencing Post-Abortion Syndrome. (Their caps) “Are you 18 or younger?” and “Is having an abortion a difficult decision for you?” are among those 14. Given the reaction Cassidy had to the birth of her baby, she was likely under extreme duress, and is, of course, younger than 18. If those aren’t scare tactics what are? 

We have no way of knowing the intimate circumstances of Cassidy’s home life, or any intimate knowledge of her internal struggle. However, it is the responsibility of sex-educators and law enforcement to acknowledge and explore the possibility that this manner of “prevention” is not effective and may have contributed to Cassidy’s case. To blame a 14-year-old entirely for her reaction to a sense of helplessness exempts the system that was meant to prepare her. 

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