Back in January, I wrote this piece about a young Scottish woman who had a mild learning disability. When she became pregnant by her boyfriend, she was informed that, because of her impairment, the child would be taken from her and placed in foster care as soon as it was born. Appalled, the pair fled to Ireland, but unfortunately for them, Irish authorities enforced Scottish law. When the baby was four days old, they marched into her hospital room and marched out with the infant who was placed in care.
At the time, I argued that that constituted an outrageous intervention by the state into private family affairs. In the first place, the young woman and man had had no opportunity to prove whether they were fit parents or not. Second, the state was using the mother’s disability to deprive the father of his parental rights. No one ever argued that he was unfit to be a parent, but he lost his child anyway due solely to some perceived shortcoming on the part of his child’s mother.
Then in February, it came out that the young couple were far from alone. In fact, Scottish authorities routinely take children into care immediately after birth if the parents are considered unfit in some way. That can be considered appropriate in some cases and overreaching in others. I wrote about that here.
Now there’s this case out of the State of Washington (Seattle Times, 7/29/2010). Samuel and Brittany Labberton are married and despite being only 25 and 21 respectively, already have two children and another due in four months. They’re also homeless.
Their first two children are already in foster care due in part to the fact that Brittany seems to have a hard time with the concept of weight. Specifically, she seems unable to distinguish a person with a weight problem from one without. She herself is 5′ 5″ tall and, prior to her pregnancy, weighed 90 pounds. She says Samuel has a weight problem. He’s 6′ 0″ and 180 pounds. Their first two children were taken from them because they weren’t being given enough to eat.
Brittainy Labberton was admitted to the hospital earlier this month after failing to eat enough to provide nourishment for her unborn child, according to court testimony.
So what, if anything, should the State of Washington do regarding the Labberton’s unborn child? That was the subject of a court hearing on July 29th in which the King County prosecutor requested a court order directing the hospital to take the baby away as soon as it is born. In short, the DA was asking the court to do exactly what Scottish authorities do often and would certainly do if the Labbertons lived there.
But unlike in Scotland, Washington CPS says it doesn’t get involved in cases until a baby is born. That’s why it’s the state’s criminal arm that went to court to try to get the no-contact order. And unlike in Scotland, the court refused. What will happen is that CPS is going to keep a very close eye on the Labbertons and their new baby. If it fails to thrive, if it gets fed a laxative like another of their children did, if it fails to gain weight appropriately, I have no doubt that it too will be in foster care in a heartbeat.
The case raises serious issues of the proper extent to which the state should intervene in family matters. The Labbertons, unlike the Scottish couple, have proven themselves to be, if not unfit parents per se, then at least parents in need of serious guidance and oversight in the raising of children.
But when states start taking children at birth for perceived failures of care of children in utero, the door opens still further to substituting the state for parents. Roe v. Wade probably prevents the most extreme examples of that, but not all. Women who ingest methamphetamine, crack cocaine or other dangerous drugs can have their children taken immediately after birth. But we can all imagine less egregious examples of parental behavior that states could one day become too interested in for anyone’s good. (Did Mom drink a glass of sauvignon blanc in her third month without the prior approval of her CPS caseworker? You get the picture.)
The judge’s refusal to issue the order the DA’s office wanted seems to be an acknowledgement of the danger of state overreaching in family matters. But where this judge did one thing, another judge could do the opposite. Count on it; this issue will be with us for a long time. The drastic rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing over the past 40 years has opened the door to states substituting their own decisions about children for those of parents. There is no evidence that, in general, they do a better job and a lot that they don’t.
What should happen is that, instead of increasing state power over children, we should increase fathers’ rights to them. We should bend heaven and earth to promote father care over foster care, but so far we’re doing the opposite as the Scottish case exemplifies.
And in that vein, it’s interesting to note that both the Times article and the DA barely notice Samuel Labberton. He’s the father and, as far as we can tell, has stood by while his wife maltreats the children. That may mean that he’s as much at fault as she is, but it may not. Whatever the case, no one seems to view him as a real alternative to care by the mother. Both the article and the DA seem to take on faith the notion that, if she’s unfit then the child has no fit parent. Samuel Labberton may be as bad a parent as his wife, but we aren’t told that. We aren’t told it seems because no one really considers him parental material.
Until we recognize in fact and in law that fathers are both qualified and entitled to act as parents, state intervention into family life will continue to grow, the sensible act of one Seattle judge notwithstanding.