Who Owns a Child?

What is the boundary between parental rights and state responsibility?  Even avowed libertarians will agree that at some point the state has an obligation to insure a child’s well-being. Difficulty arises in defining how closely the state can monitor that well-being and how the well-being is defined.  These definitions are not fixed.  Ideas about the rights of parents and children evolve.  Often, when the state steps in it does so in the name of the child, or at least that is the rationale given.  When the state fails to step in, it often takes this course out of respect for parental rights.  Unfortunately, both involvement and non-involvement can result in harm to the child.

Even if the discussion about parental rights were confined to the United States, it would quickly become apparent that there’s no universal agreement about where the state’s right to interfere in the home begins and ends.   While federal regulations exist that guide state child protection laws, interpretation of those laws varies from locality to locality.  For  example, the District of Columbia has several criteria for determining appropriate parenting.  One very specific regulation addresses the speed with which a newborn is collected from a hospital. If the child is left for “at least 10 calendar days” despite being medically fit for discharge, then the court might determine parental rights should be terminated.

The State of Georgia explicitly asserts that the preferred placement for a child is in the home:”…each child coming within the jurisdiction of the court shall receive, preferably in his or her own home, the care, guidance, and control that will be conducive to the child’s welfare and the best interests of the State…”

One parental prerogative on which every US state agrees is the right to inflict corporal punishment on children.  This right is exclusively reserved for parents in some states, while others allow corporal punishment to be inflicted by schools also.

Child welfare is something most people think they agree on.  However, ideas about child welfare vary from family to family, community to community.  At some point government steps in and decides when a child’s welfare has been endangered.  Communities decide on the boundary between government responsibility and parental rights.  Once the boundary is determined, a wide range of liberties may be affected.  It is hard to imagine every area where the boundaries might blur.  Certainly government is likely to assert an interest in custodial supervision, medical care and education. How that interest is expressed depends on where a family resides.  A guide to different rules in different states may be found in the publication: Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Many people don’t spend much time thinking about the ways government might intrude into family life. However, conflicts between government policy and family belief is not uncommon. This conflict may arise in families that decide to home school.  It may arise in families that decide not to vaccinate their children, or to forgo medical treatment.

Who owns a child?  All states to one degree or another are committed to protecting the welfare of children. It behooves a parent to understand the laws of the state in which the child resides, because ultimately, government is the final arbiter of where the boundary between parental right and government responsibility falls.

corporal punishment map
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