Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Child Protection's Parental Preference

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Child Protection's Parental Preference

Article excerpt


In March 2015, a dozen child welfare experts visited William & Mary Law School in Virginia for a symposium provocatively titled "The Liberal Dilemma in Child Welfare Reform."1

I was happy to have been chosen to join the group, which ranged from law professors to social work instructors to a journalist like myself.

Although some will blanch at the title of the conference and further recoil from the ideas shared in the pages of this symposium issue, one of the event's organizers, William & Mary's James Dwyer, was on to something very important.

Liberal-minded people rule the field of child welfare.2 This is understandable. Child maltreatment is highly correlated with poverty.3 Poverty is highly correlated with race.4 And the structural racism that consigns certain American populations to higher rates of poverty and, correspondingly, higher rates of child maltreatment, calls for a social justice driven response not typically considered the provenance of conservative ideology.5

And so it would seem that a liberal mindset would naturally fasten to child protection and serve the interests of children who have been, or are at risk of being, abused.

But if we are to take as truth the arguments written in this symposium issue and which were shared during the 2015 symposium, the liberal mindset may be unwilling, due to ideological rigidity and a hollowed empirical foundation, to choose the best interest of the abused child over the interest of an abusing parent.

Instead, according to some of the conference participants, the liberals who lead child welfare prefer to insist on defending parents' rights, even if those rights have been compromised by parental behavior that violates the rights of their children.6

This, according to conference participant David Stoesz, is compounded by the degraded nature of modern social work education, which has, in postmodernist fervor, thrown out institutional knowledge and science in favor of narratives of the oppressed and a soft set of "values."7

Devoid of scientific foundation, liberals, trained in social work, latch on to a social justice ideology which is partially blind.8 While they see the parentage rights of impoverished adults who may also be the victims of structural and generational racism in stark relief, they struggle to discern how their defense of those adults' rights can have lifetime consequences or be downright deadly for children.9 To the liberal mind, social justice for children depends on improving the lives of parents.10

As Elizabeth Bartholet argues, such a parent-first ideology is built on faulty research, and can have terrible consequences for children.11

The majority of the participants at the conference argued for more assertively using the coercive power of the state to enforce constraints against parents who are known to be a threat to their children.12 But, as they describe with precision, although laws exist that lean further toward the rights of the child, their interpretation by child welfare practitioners often strips those laws of their child-protective power.13

This aversion to employing existing mandates to protect children is not only felt in interpretation of the law but also in policy reform efforts that, in the name of social justice, would leave children at greater risk of harm.14 Inasmuch, there is urgency behind this conference and symposium issue.

In addition to a wholesale dismantling of the prevailing ideologies in child welfare, the participants offered some of their own solutions to refocus liberal thinking to better encompass justice for vulnerable children.15

Being a reporter, it is unsurprising that I was assigned the role of rapporteur and will in this Article do my best to synthesize the main thoughts shared at the conference and in the papers I have read.

I will start with an examination of the current legal framework that allows for the more aggressive use of removal to protect children, as described by conference participants. …

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