I. Introduction

Article excerpt

Embedded in the national consciousness, espoused by folklore and the media, is the notion that rural families live the good life. (1) Fathers work the land to provide for the family while mothers attend to domestic chores, and children play safely in wide-open spaces. The lifestyle is simple and tranquil. (2) According to these popular notions, even rural folks who are poor remain insulated from the difficulties that plague poor urban families. (3) Rural families, so the storyline goes, can provide for themselves through self-provisioning and the informal economy. (4) Their cost of living is low, (5) and crime is rare. (6)

Despite such nostalgic images of rural America, (7) structural challenges prevent many rural families from flourishing. (8) Compared to their metropolitan counterparts, nonmetropolitan families are more likely to live in poverty (9) and to face unemployment or under-employment. (10) Declining populations, eroding infrastructure, and economic instability plague many rural locales. (11) Further, rural spatiality contributes to families' immobility, making it difficult for them to gain access to public services and also to move to places with more services to offer. (12) A rural parent attempting to care for her children may find that inadequate housing, a dearth of acceptable and affordable childcare, and limited transportation options hamper her efforts. (13)

When rural parents struggle, their neighbors and communities judge them--and so may the state. When law and legal institutions judge rural parents, those parents may find their parental rights terminated in decisions in which place-related scrutiny plays a role. That scrutiny implicates a range of issues, from the physical characteristics of the parents' dwelling to its geographic location. (14)

This Article considers the role of place in the termination of parental rights in rural and nonmetropolitan contexts and offers three critiques of the state's intervention in disadvantaged rural families. First, many states assert that poverty alone is not a legitimate reason for removing a child or terminating parental rights, but in practice children often are removed from their parents solely on that basis. other scholars have made this point, but we focus on the particular impact on rural families due to high nonmetropolitan poverty rates and the added challenges that rural spatiality and its social consequences pose for these families. As a related matter, we assert that courts sometimes use rurality as a proxy for poverty to justify child removal and termination of parental rights when law forbids such actions based on poverty alone. Second, we observe that courts sometimes make decisions based on rural stereotypes, and these decisions may disserve rural families. Third, and in a similar vein, courts sometimes fail to account for rural realities when making child welfare decisions about populations and circumstances with which they may be less familiar. …