Ross Douthat: Defend Parenting or Face Police State

July 21, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

As with most phenomena, the New York Times was the last to learn about the burgeoning police state that’s growing up around the notion that any child who’s not within eyesight of its parent/caregiver, and preferably leashed to same is, in some way, in mortal danger. In fact, the danger is so grave as to require the intervention of the police, courts, child protective services, foster care and the like.

But learn about it the Times did, or at least Ross Douthat did here (New York Times, 7/20/14). Douthat’s piece comes literally minutes after my wife and I returned home from a few hours on the road. During that trip, I noticed a sign over Interstate 35 near Austin that said “Never leave a child alone in a car.” Really? Never?

The impetus for the sign of course was the danger of small children being locked in a closed car with no ventilation. That can be dangerous, and, after all, this is July in Texas. But “never?” Never pop into the bank for a five-minute transaction and leave little Andy and Jenny in their car seats? The idea that doing so endangers them is absurd. And that’s the nut of Douthat’s op-ed. He recounts a time when he was nine and had to walk a couple of miles home from Little League practice. In that more enlightened time, no one saw fit to call the police just because a nine-year-old boy was walking home. His parents escaped the type of censure they likely wouldn’t today.

For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar.

Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police.

Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.

Douthat recognizes what many of us have been complaining about for years – the overreaching of the state in the name of child protection. The simple fact is that, take that leash off for even a few minutes and parents risk jail and having their kids taken from them, sometimes for months, sometimes for years. The issue is far more important than mere meddling by the police or CPS. It’s reaching the long arm of the state into our homes and lives. It’s using the fact of children to place every detail of parental behavior under a microscope, to second-guess every parental decision. It’s enough to chill the blood of even the best parent.

As I wrote just last week, in Scotland they’ve made it official. By August 1, 2016, every child in the country (over 1.1 million in a population of about 5.3 million) will have appointed for him/her a “named person” with the power to oversee every aspect of the child’s life. Privacy? No, despite the law’s explicit justification being the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child that expressly guarantees the child’s right of privacy, the Scottish government has empowered complete strangers to examine medical records, school records, mental health records, anything and everything. Into the bargain, if the “named person” happens to decide something’s amiss, he/she can intervene and cause things to be done differently.

Do the parents think little Andy or Jenny is better off in School A than in School B? Too bad if the “named person” thinks differently. What about that medical treatment the child’s been receiving. The doctor may think things are going swimmingly, but if the “named person” disagrees, then it’s off to another doctor for another treatment. The parents? They can be consulted if the “named person” chooses, but their opinions carry no special weight.

Here in the U.S. we’ve not yet reached that level of outright madness, but where we are is bad enough. I don’t think a day goes by that a story doesn’t pass across my screen about the shocking overreach of child protective agency somewhere in the United States. Douthat didn’t even scratch the surface.

As usual, when government declares that it’s here to help us – or, in this case, our kids – whether we want it or not, it’s appropriate to inquire whether there’s actually a problem that needs solving. The answer is that, yes, parents and others sometimes abuse children and sometimes that abuse is horrific. Sometimes it results in death.

But the latest statistics from the Administration for Children and Families, that accumulates data from CPS agencies across the country, show that substantiated reports of abuse and neglect of children ran to about 686,000 cases last year and that one-fifth of those were of abuse. That’s in a nation with 73.6 million kids under the age of 18. We can all agree that a single abused child is one too many, but when a child runs barely a 0.9% chance of being abused or neglected and a less than 0.2% chance of abuse, the fact is there is no emergency requiring draconian state intervention in family life.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.

One of those forces is the United States government. It’s the one that pays states to take kids into – and adopt them out of – foster care. That’s one of the most important incentives for states to take children from parents who are at no serious risk. Just four years ago, National Public Radio quoted the former Chairman of the South Dakota Senate Judiciary Committee, Bill Napoli, saying that federal money radically altered state policy on child protective services. He said that “when that money came down the pike,” “that’s when we really saw an influx of kids being taken” into foster care. Moreover, the federal largess goes directly to the state agency that oversees CPS, meaning that taking children is a profit center for the agency. The more kids they take from parents, the more money they get from Washington and no one else in state government gets a share.

Douthat doesn’t know that, but he should.

What he does know is that it’s not the affluent or the well-educated who see their kids taken from them. It’s the poor who can’t hover constantly over their kids or hire someone to hover for them. And of course they’re the ones who are the least likely to know their rights as parents against CPS or be able to hire lawyers to represent them should the need arise. In short, they’re the weak and vulnerable of society, i.e. prime targets for CPS.

Douthat doesn’t get into it, but foster care, that’s so much the rage among state bureaucrats, is significantly worse for children than parental care in all but the most extreme cases of abuse. Even parents who are somewhat abusive of their kids turn out to be better for them than foster care. And of course those parents are there for life, unlike foster parents. Kids “age out” of the foster care system at age 18. Beyond that age, the state doesn’t pay the parents so, for the most part, foster kids are on their own.

Douthat ticks off some of what he says causes the desire to over-parent, but blames most of the problem on the parents themselves, or their neighbors. When he finally gets down to public policy, strangely enough, he misses the obvious.

And then finally there’s a policy element — the way these trends interact not only with the rise of single parenthood, but also with a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

Otherwise we’ll be throwing up defenses against big government, while ignoring a police state growing in our midst.

TANF isn’t the problem. The “police state growing in our midst” has been there a long time and it’s not going away. At least it’s not until conservatives, libertarians and liberals who care about it figure out that children in this country are generally safe, that parents generally aren’t abusers and that normal everyday activity like leaving a child in a car for a short time while Mom or Dad is absent doesn’t warrant the use of state resources.

Good for Ross Douthat for bringing the problem to a wider audience. Let’s hope he sticks with it and educates himself in the process.


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One reply on “Ross Douthat: Defend Parenting or Face Police State”

In my book the parental responsibility to care for a child as best as a parent can, comes with a privilege to an occasional mistake.

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