“So, Kellyanne, you’re going to fucking jail,” said 16-year-old Claudia Conway, daughter of former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, in a TikTok posted Monday night. She was reacting to news that a topless photo of herself was briefly posted to her mother’s Twitter account, the veracity of which she confirmed. In the same TikTok, Claudia said she suspected Kellyanne took a photo of the image months ago when her mother confiscated her phone. Claudia added that she believed her mother kept the photo to use against her. She said she was unsure whether it was posted on accident or due to a hack, and Twitter is reportedly investigating the matter.
The reaction was swift. Screenshots, sometimes censored, that purported to be of the photo made the rounds on social media in a righteous, if deeply misguided, attempt to help spread awareness. Claudia’s TikTok followers watched in real-time as the teen reacted to the news as any child would: Fear, anger, and actions Claudia herself would later describe as “irrational.”
“I’m shaking, I don’t know what to do,” Claudia said in a separate Monday night TikTok. “I’m literally at a loss for words... if you see it, report it. My mom deserves to go to jail, that’s unreal.”
By Tuesday morning, Claudia Conway was a trending topic on Twitter, and it wasn’t the first time. Just days prior, she posted a series of now-unavailable TikTok videos that allegedly document abuse by her mother. In the videos, Kellyanne is allegedly heard berating Claudia, calling her a “dumbass” and a “bitch” who is lucky her mother is “pro-life.” She also appears to strike Claudia in one instance.
Law enforcement made a visit to the Conway home in New Jersey after Claudia posted the footage. Claudia filmed the January 2 encounter and posted an edited version to TikTok. Kellyanne is seen telling an officer that her daughter is going through a “hard time.”
That wasn’t the only police encounter that the Conways have had in the last week. The Daily Mail published photos of officers arriving at the Conway home following the topless photo incident on Tuesday. In a series of sobering TikTok videos, Claudia begged viewers to stop calling the cops, noting that their involvement is only making the matter worse for her and her family.
“Yesterday when I was made aware of the situation, I was distraught and reacted very irrationally and impulsively and it’s something that I do regret,” Claudia said.
Claudia said she knows her mother would never intentionally publish such a photo and is convinced she was hacked.
“My mother and I, we fight like mothers and daughters, but we also love like mothers and daughters and I do love her,” she said. She insisted that she was not pressured to backtrack her statements.
please stop sending hate to my family. please. i am putting an end to all of this. i’m okay. we are okay.
Claudia’s father, professional Never Trump Republican George Conway, has been notably absent. He did, however, emerge Tuesday to share his daughter’s TikTok plea.
Claudia has had a very visible platform ever since she became TikTok famous for mocking her mother’s boss. While her account is riddled with plenty of standard other TikTok fare—dance challenges, duets, the like—Claudia’s criticism of Trump and, by association, her mother, put her on the map. But the videos about her mother became increasingly fraught. Claudia’s videos began to insinuate that her mother often screamed at her, and rumors of verbal abuse became commonplace. The increased intensity of Claudia’s videos prompted concern from observers about what exactly is being done to help the teen escape from her ostensibly abusive home life.
“As outsiders, we don’t know what’s going on... but it’s very clear that something’s not right there,” said Dr. Susan Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania Professor of Social Policy and Director of Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse.
What’s even clearer for Sorenson is that Claudia’s TikToks, while rarefied, illuminate how difficult it is for teens to get help in the covid-19 pandemic now that traditional forms of escapism have been upended indefinitely.
“Most of us knew a kid growing up who had a difficult circumstance at home and for many of those young people, they managed it by avoiding being home. They got involved in a whole lot of extracurricular activities,” Sorenson said. “They would spend many nights in which they would have dinner or stay overnight at a friend’s house. They would just avoid being home. And in the pandemic that coping strategy that has worked for generations isn’t as viable an option.”
Reports of domestic violence have increased during the pandemic, but there aren’t nearly as many articles about children living through abuse during this global crisis. Still, while there are similarities, there is a deep psychological difference between the relationship between two romantic partners and the complex relationship between mother and child.
“That bond is forever,” Sorenson said. “There are circumstances in which kids have some sort of cry for help, and then others get involved, and then they start to realize all the implications, and they pull it back. The same kids who have been harmed by their parents and are being taken away are reaching out sobbing for their parents. Because those attachments are really strong.”
A number of social workers spoke to Jezebel on background about the Claudia Conway ordeal and concurred: This is likely a scary situation for Claudia, especially with the involvement of agencies ostensibly poised to help her. But police are notoriously useless at handling abuse cases, and while contacting the state children and family services department is preferred, that poses its own set of problems. Reporting alleged child abuse to children and family services may prompt an investigation, but verbal and emotional abuse is much harder to prove than physical abuse. Claudia’s videos alone wouldn’t inherently warrant a visit from a social worker, and removal from the home is very unlikely unless it is established that she is in imminent danger.
Given the accusations, some have wondered why Claudia wasn’t removed from the home. One social worker I spoke to asserted that race and class play a role in response to cases such as Claudia’s, claiming that a Black child or an economically disadvantaged child would have been seen as a more compelling candidate for removal.
In the Conways’ home state of New Jersey, a 2015 investigation by WNYC found that, “black children are more than four times as likely as white children to enter foster care in New Jersey.” However, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency told WNYC that “substance abuse, personality disorders, and family structures could explain the disparity” and cited research that found socioeconomic circumstances are ultimately better indicators of one’s likelihood to land in foster care than race. And yet, narratives of racial disparity endure, from New York to Texas, where the state’s own Department of Family and Protective Services admits they have a racial disparity problem that they’re trying to reform. Even when controlling for classifications like family income, risk score, and more, Black families in Texas were 18 percent more likely than white ones to have their “investigation result in a removal.”
While these findings are in conflict with one another, Sorenson suggested that Claudia’s age might be the most important factor.
“The system just simply doesn’t deal with adolescents in the same way as it deals with younger children,” she said. “In theory, the system is built for all kids. But in practice... it is focused on young children and those who can’t speak for themselves... [those] who need, if you will, rescuing. We just don’t see adolescents in that same sort of way.”
Besides, removal isn’t necessarily the goal.
“Keeping families together with appropriate triage services and shepherding them to resources that will heal the wound in the family is where the work should live, not putting her in say, nonkinship foster care,” said MK Mullen, a clinical social worker who works in the family court and child welfare system. “Having her evaluated by a child or adolescent psychologist is a good starting point, and concurrent trauma-informed family therapy.”
Sorenson noted that most teenagers and parents need breaks from one another, even those with relatively healthy relationships. This is even more essential in abusive households, where the stress of covid-19 lockdown and cohabitation can quickly reach their boiling point in harmful ways.
The pandemic has limited much of what was once taken for granted. That includes teachers, who are often tasked with the heartbreaking job of spotting potential signs of abuse among their students. Without that, children are at a tremendous disadvantage. It’s not only visible bruises that are being missed. It’s much harder to tell that a student is oddly withdrawn or is lashing out via a Zoom class session. It’s why, for all the criticisms Sorenson has of child protective services as it exists today, she doesn’t believe mulling over reforms is what America’s children need right now.
The real priority, she argues, is covid-19 vaccinations.
“We need to get those vaccines and everybody so we make it up to systems back in functioning so that everybody can be back in school, because that really will help in terms of having putting less pressure on families,” she said. “Our systems are designed for normal times. This is not a normal time.”
What normal means for Claudia Conway is hard to define. For now, however, it will be offline and in the privacy of the Conway home: “We will not be dealing with this on social media anymore, and we are both going to take [social media] breaks to work on our relationships because we do love each other, very, very, very much,” she said in one of her last TikToks videos. “We would never intentionally try to hurt each other, especially not in the public eye.”