Should Kids Be Taken If Parents Use Drugs? New Bills at State and Federal Levels Place Child Safety over Family Unity in Cases Involving Drug Abuse
Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
The recent death of a toddler in Sacramento, Calif., has revived a passionate debate over a vexing question: What should society do when drug addicts have children?
Authorities say little Rebecca Meza was drowned by her mother's boyfriend. Both the mother, who had a history of child neglect, and the boyfriend are alleged to have used methamphetamines, an illegal stimulant often associated with child abuse.
The tragedy has sparked outrage and calls for action in California's middle-of-the-road capital city, and the local child-welfare agency has been accused of coddling drug-using parents by emphasizing drug treatment over child safety. In Sacramento and elsewhere in the US, pressure is intensifying for child-welfare authorities to remove youngsters automatically from the homes of substance abusers - a marked shift from the family-preservation policies that have guided social workers for the past 20 years. "Too many kids are left in serious neglect situations," says Kathy Dresslar of the Sacramento-based Children's Advocacy Institute. "If there is drug abuse and neglect going on, the child should be temporarily removed." Nationwide, there is plentiful evidence of a close link between substance abuse and child abuse. Alcohol and drugs are factors in the placement of more than 75 percent of children who enter foster care, according to the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). "Drugs are the single-biggest risk factor in most of the families" in child welfare, says Michael Petit, CWLA deputy director. State and federal legislators are responding. A bill introduced by Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York would place children born with drugs in their system under child protective services. California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has proposed similar legislation as part of his welfare-reform plans. No silver bullet But child-welfare officials and others caution against simplistic approaches. Moving children into the overburdened foster-care system may only worsen their plight, some say. Most child-welfare experts argue, too, that family situations are too complex to be judged by set criteria. "You have to look at the given situation and determine the capacity of the family to function, and whether the situation is severe enough to pull a child from the home," says Mona Mena, director of the regional parental network for Alameda-Contra Costa counties in northern California. The current uproar is part of a broader debate over handling abused and neglected kids. In the 1960s and '70s, the prevailing approach was to remove children from their homes, but that shifted from the mid-70s, when family preservation held sway. …