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Nobody’s Children

by Elizabeth Bartholet


Elizabeth Bartholet points out the unwelcome truth that both liberals and conservatives argue for the rights of bad parents, ethnic groups, and local communities over the rights of severely abused children.


Bartholet contrasts the therapeutic approaches of the child welfare system with the approaches of womens' rights movements. Advocates fight for power, protection, prosecution, and punishment—shelters, stalking laws, and other protections. Violent relationships among adults are not sent to the 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, ranks among the top child killers.


Bartholet argues that parenting skills classes and similar remedies do little to help families with horrible flaws (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 was a cause of some of the worst families. (Funny how pro-drug arguments seldom mention children.)


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 pro-child sound bites in media, the current disaster arose within legal, social, and economic traditions that variously treat children as property or autonomous or nonexistent, depending on which adults benefit. For bad parenting, the philosophy behind these is 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 conservative and liberal cultural activists support family preservation programs. Parents behaving badly get what they want: little inference combined with much enabling behavior from the state. Others get what they want: lower cost children to cover the costs of their public and private retirements.


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 time 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.


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 substance abusing environments is often worse.


Most individuals with addictions will not sign up for treatment, and most of those who do drop out. Others relapse after completing treatments. Meanwhile, childhoods are spent with that individual or in a foster homes waiting for the return of that individual. Research by the Rand Corporation suggests 87 percent of those having a cocaine habit and 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. Bartholet claims children in adoptive homes do better than the general population of children, an astounding result considering the genetic and environmental baggage some adopted children bring with them. (Better results are likely due to selection effects. Children with better character traits are more likely to be adopted.) 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. More important, this work should have more specific recommendations, but the flaws are minor compared to its strengths. Highly recommended.


Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.


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