2023 Digital Video Storytelling, Long Form, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

The Mother Trap

About the Project

In the emotionally gripping 17-minute short documentary, “She never hurt her kids. So why is she in prison?,” filmmaker Mark Helenowski and reporter Samantha Michaels provide powerful insights into the life-shattering consequences of so-called “failure to protect” laws. These obscure laws disproportionately lead to the imprisonment of Black mothers, such as Kerry King, for abuse committed by their intimate partners against their children. The documentary serves not only as a wrenching account of King’s ordeal but also as a stark criticism of an unjust legal system that punishes victims rather than addressing the root causes of domestic violence.

King’s nightmare began when she found herself trapped in an abusive relationship. One night in 2015, her then-boyfriend, John, assaulted her 4-year-old daughter, leaving the girl covered in bruises and cuts. “It could get worse,” Kerry recalled thinking. “He could end up killing us.” After a tip from a neighborhood worker, the police arrested John. But then they returned for Kerry. “I told the truth, and I expected them to hear me and want to help me,” she explains. “But it doesn’t work that way.” After spending more than a year in jail while enduring a brutal trial in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Kerry was finally sentenced to 30 years in prison—12 more years than the man who had assaulted her and her daughter.

The documentary invites viewers to accompany Samantha to Oklahoma, where they meet Kerry’s family, hear from a juror with second thoughts about the trial, learn about the life-altering consequences of this legislation, and encounter a formerly incarcerated mother advocating for change. Through this unflinching examination of a flawed system, the filmmakers expose a little-talked-about but deeply ingrained inequality. The film ultimately serves as a challenge to society to confront and rectify an injustice that continues to shatter countless lives.

Additional credits on the documentary include Sam Van Pykeren as assistant editor; Maddie Oatman as story editor; and James West as producer.