by Elizabeth Bartholet
Elizabeth Bartholet points out the unwelcome truth that both left and right wingers argue for the rights of bad parents, ethnic groups, and local communities over the rights of severely abused children. Childrens’ rights to good homes carry little weight with either ultra-conservatives or ultra-liberals, a fact hidden by propaganda.
Bartholet contrasts the therapeutic approaches of the child welfare system with the approaches of womens' rights movements. Womens' advocates fight for power, protection, prosecution, and punishment—shelters, stalking laws, and other protections. Violent relationships between adults are not sent to the mandatory family preservation repair shop. Women can liberate themselves. Children cannot, and they do not have the power to change legislation. It is often their mothers that children need liberation from. Women commit about 75 percent of child fatalities and severe assaults. Homicide from abuse and neglect (about 2,000 per year) is among the top child killers.
Bartholet argues that parenting skills classes and similar remedies do little to help screwed-up families (families having severe crime, money, and substance abuse problems). Bartholet writes that an explosion of multiple drug use—especially cocaine and alcohol—in the 1980s is a cause of some of the worst families. “Drinking during pregnancy is the primary cause of preventable mental retardation in this country.” (Funny how pro-drug arguments pretend children do not exist.)
One-third of first time child abuse and neglect allegations end up being substantiated. Of the remaining two-thirds, 60 percent are the source of new allegations, which suggests the majority of allegations are true, though ethically bankrupt prosecutors have persecuted some innocent parents. The three million annual cases of severe abuse and neglect equals about five percent of all children. Some might view one in twenty as minor. Not Bartholet. And remember that is per year. The probability of severe abuse and neglect over an entire childhood is higher.
Despite the pro-child sound bites in the media, the current disaster arose within legal, social, and economic traditions that variously treat children as property, autonomous or nonexistent, depending on which adults stand to benefit. For bad parents, the philosophy behind these practices can be summarized in two words: Family preservation. Actions that would get a person sued or thrown in jail if practiced against an adult are accepted against children, yet both ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberal cultural activists support family preservation programs. This asinine situation is not surprising. Bad parents get what they want: Little inference and much enabling behavior from the state. The childfree get what they want: Low cost children to cover the costs of their public and private retirements.
The rights of biological parents receive more weight than the claims of children and adopting parents. The rights of children can be summarized as the right not to be treated similar to someone in a concentration camp after having been treated that way several times while the parent has had years to attempt rehabilitation.
The author documents numerous horror stories of repeated beatings and burnings. Many children spend years in foster care limbo until the day they go back to their parent or parents to be revictimized.
Bartholet recommends that severely victimized children be moved into the best available homes, not after spending several years receiving additional harm in miserable environments.
Present policies have bizarre attributes. We spend the most money on families beyond repair—on rehab, foster care, and family preservation. We do little to help fixable families near the borderline.
Bartholet proposes intensive, universal, mandatory home visitation for young children. Visitation provides a surveillance effect. It monitors children and provides preventative incentives. Bartholet argues that these programs would be cost effective in the long run. Bartholet suggests eliminating family preservation programs and enacting stronger criminal sanctions. Prosecution, Bartholet suggests, will at least deter those who commit crimes because they think they can get away with it.
Bartholet acknowledges studies that suggest many children exposed to harmful drugs while they were fetuses recover fairly well, but fetal exposure is only the beginning. Being reared by a drug addict is often a worse fate.
Most addicts will not sign up for treatment and most of those who do drop out. Meanwhile, childhood is spent with an abuser or in a foster home waiting for the return of the abuser. Research by the Rand Corporation suggests 87 percent of cocaine users in treatment heavily relapse. The opportunity losses for abused children are severe violations of their rights.
Foster care is an extremely expensive, bad solution. Children do less well in foster care than in adoptive homes. Too many foster parents are ambivalent and inadequate parents, especially those pressed into foster service. In fact, children in adoptive homes do better than the general population of children, an astounding result considering the genetic and environmental baggage adopted children bring with them. The earlier children are adopted, the better; yet a mere ten percent of children taken by the state end up adopted.
This work is best at arguing for protecting abused children and reforming adoption policies, weakest when it ventures into nurture assumption and secure attachment territory. Bartholet does not emphasize that the success of adoptive homes results, in part, because adoptive parents put children in better overall environments, not merely better home environments. The general population of adoptive parents is in better moral and economic shape than the general population of biological parents. Sometimes Nobody’s Children refers to studies and sometimes correlations. More important, this work should have more specific recommendations, but the flaws are minor compared to its superb strengths. Highly recommended.
Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.