The blogosphere is abuzz today with stories about state parenting oversight gone awry. In one case, a mother who dropped her nine year old off at the park to play while she was at work was arrested for child abandonment. In another, a widow left her children at home alone for a few hours everyday by necessity; they were taken away from her and she had to go through hell to get them back. The media has been a bit too quick to sensationalize and gin up outrage about these stories, crying “Nanny State!” while glossing over the details. But they have struck a nerve for good reason, and when these episodes are placed in broader context, the growing power of Child Protective Services seems to parallel the disturbing growth of invasive state agencies in other areas.Rachel Aviv’s in-depth piece in the New Yorker last year explains how the child welfare system began to separate children from their parents more and more, intervening under increasingly ambiguous circumstances. Here are two key paragraphs from it:
For most of the twentieth century, the primary task of the child-welfare system was to keep families intact. Policymakers assumed that parents’ failures were due to social disadvantages, like poverty or lack of support, so agencies provided them with day care, counselling, and income assistance. Child abuse was rarely discussed by politicians or scholars. Then, in 1962, Henry Kempe, a pediatrician, and several colleagues published “The Battered-Child Syndrome,” a paper that revealed, through the analysis of X-rays, that many young children had mysterious bone fractures and cranial injuries. The doctors wrote that “the bones tell a story the child is too young or too frightened to tell,” and described the parents of these children as suffering from “some defect in character structure.” The “battered child” became the subject of numerous news articles, and within a decade every state passed laws that required medical professionals to report children who showed possible signs of mistreatment. […]The responsibility to look into all allegations of mistreatment soon overwhelmed the resources of child-welfare agencies. They largely cast aside their mission of easing child poverty and eventually began investigating the dysfunctions surrounding more than two million children a year. The interests of children were often pitted against those of their parents, who were treated as potential suspects.
Growing concern about child abuse, in Aviv’s telling, empowered an army of social workers to respond to the problem, and, eventually, overzealous bureaucrats instructed them to discipline and punish a wider array of supposedly suspect parental behaviors. Aviv notes that over time a consensus formed that keeping kids with their biological parents is largely unimportant; better for a child to be placed with a foster family than be subject to suboptimal parenting. The ongoing muscularization of CPS, along with an ideology that de-prioritizes family ties and devalues parental judgment, is the real story here, and something we should all be very much concerned about.