A great deal of media attention has been paid to Nadya Suleman, the recent mother of octuplets by IVF. The general consensus is that there’s something wrong with an unemployed mother of six choosing to have eight more children. News pundits, psychologists, and the public have speculated about Suleman’s mental health, her motives, and her mothering abilities. Some have even questioned whether Suleman has had plastic surgery in an attempt to look like Angelina Jolie.
There’s no doubt that Suleman’s story is interesting, not only for its shock value, but because it opens up public debate on issues like parenting choices, child rearing, IVF, ethics, individual responsibility, and more.
I can’t help but wonder which horrific case of child abuse will open up the same kind of national debate. How many tortured children, infant rapes, dead bodies, and light sentences will it take before the public demands substantial changes to child welfare, adoption, and foster care policies?
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services estimated that in 2006, out of 48 reporting states, 1376 children were killed by abusive parents, relatives, and caregivers. (They estimate 1530 nationwide). In Florida, which ranks among the worst states for child abuse and welfare, 52 of the 140 children killed in 2006 had prior contact with “family preservation” (DCF) services.
Those are the children that died. 885,245 more were known to be victims of abuse in 2006 — a highly conservative estimate since many cases go unreported.
I’ve expressed my belief that child welfare agencies need a drastic overhaul before. It is unconscionable to me that an advanced society still views children as chattel, and confers what amounts to child ownership on the basis of DNA.
“Preservation of the family” methods, such as anger management or parenting classes for abusive parents, largely fail. The mentality of violent parents is not born of short-term frustrations. Even though perpetrators may place the blame on any number of stressors, from job loss to drug use, the essential fact is that the ability to choke, beat, stab, burn, rape or poison another person, particularly a child, doesn’t come from stress, or even from mere ignorance, but from an ingrained mental or character defect. Stress or lack of education does not cause people to throw helpless infants against the wall or immerse them in scalding water. If this were the case, humankind would not have gotten as far as it is now.
There have always been violent people in society, and unfortunately they have never seemed to lack for partners. One of the most appalling trends in child abuse has been pedicide caused by the live-in boyfriends of mothers. In many cases, women are choosing to live with men they’ve known only a brief time, and entrusting these men to care for their children.
Haleigh Marie Cain is only one of the many children brutalized by their mother’s boyfriend. Haleigh died from massive injuries at the hands of Dennis Creamer, who was angered by Haleigh’s request for juice and cookies before bedtime.
A course in anger management or proper parenting is unlikely to change men like Creamer, or people like Kimberly Ann Trenor and Royce Zeigler, whose all day torture session of two year-old Riley Sawyers resulted in her death.
While America holds fast to the notion of parenting as a right rather than a privilege, it has yet to provide a national Bill of Rights for its most vulnerable citizens. Individual states such as New Jersey, which recently introduced such a bill, come under fire primarily from conservative religious groups such as The Eagle Forum, which believes that giving rights to children “undermine(s) the sacred role of parental rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children“. The tone of dissent borders on hysteria that the State will interfere with the “rights” of parents to rear, educate, and control their children as they please, particularly when it comes to home-schooling.
One of the fundamental rights of children should be a well-rounded, quality education. While thousands of homeschooling parents immerse themselves in providing this, and ensure that their children have varied academic as well as social opportunities, others are sorely unqualified, largely unmonitored, and use homeschooling as a way to control and isolate their children, rather than to enrich their experiences.
While many would disagree with the State of California, which recently upheld a law stating that homeschooling teachers must be credentialed, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that parents who wish to teach at home show some qualification outside of a DNA relationship to do so. Even the children-as-chattel mindset cannot do away with the fact that eventually children become adults. There is no recourse for poorly educated, overly-sheltered children when they enter the world of adult work and responsibilities — if they enter the world at large at all.
Homeschooled children from religious cults, like those from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, are taught to fear the world outside of their sect. Most never attend school at all, and what little education they receive is from under-educated parents whose main concern is the indoctrination of their children into a set of cult beliefs and behaviors.
The call of neo-conservative religious groups to hold the rights of parents as “sacred” while denying children their own set of rights is transparent. They want exclusive dominion over their offspring regardless of what society may deem harmful or contrary to the best interests of children.
Unfortunately, the rights of parents are largely put above the almost non-existent rights of children. Thousands of children spend years in the limbo of foster care, unable to be adopted into loving families, while abusive, neglectful, and otherwise unfit birth parents hold onto their legal parental rights. Thousands more live unmonitored with people who have previously been convicted of violent crime such as rape, murder, assault, molestation, or child abuse. Under present laws, custodial parents may live with whom they please, and non-custodial parents don’t even have the right to demand a background check on those who will be involved in the day-to-day parenting of their children.
Social services for children is a nightmare of red tape, inefficiency, and outdated, provincial policies. Who was watching Donald Medsker, who was 26 years old in 1989 when he was granted custody of his 10 year-old half-sister? He started sexually abusing her right away, making her quit school when she became pregnant at age 14. Over the next 20 years Medsker’s sister, indoctrinated by him to believe that their relationship was normal, gave birth to six more children, two of whom were put up for adoption. Where were the social service follow-ups and the truant officers? How did a 10 year old child fall so completely through the cracks? Was Medsker examined and found to be the best parenting choice or was this, again, a case where a DNA relationship outweighed consideration of the child’s best interests?
America could do so much more to prevent child abuse. We could launch more comprehensive education and support programs for parents. Schools could demand yearly physical exams as well as immunization records. We could make it against the law for known violent offenders to live with children, at least without monitoring, and we could do much more for children living in isolation, such as those born into religious cults. We could certainly rewrite the “preservation of family” standard that returns children to abusive homes.
However, as long as children are viewed as chattel, and a parent’s rights lawfully outweigh those of a child’s, we won’t. We’ll just continue to be outraged — in the most empty way — because we’re not really willing or ready to give children a set of rights that would help ensure their dignity, education, or safety.