THE RECENT five-day standoff between authorities and six children in rural Idaho reminds us of the delicate and wrenching decisions that must be made when there is the suspicion of child neglect.
Although the facts are far from clear, in this instance there are allegations that the mother might have been suffering from mental illness and that the children were not being fed properly in poor physical health, inadequately supervised, and living in unsanitary conditions. ntly had access to guns and were prepared to use them.
We also have been told that this family had been happy and financially secure until their sawmill failed and the father subsequently contracted multiple sclerosis. He died shortly before the standoff.
Any case of alleged child neglect poses questions and challenges to society that should cause anguish and confusion. Our response makes a statement about what kind of society we are and seek to be. The protection of children has historically occurred between two social pillars: respecting the rights of parents to raise their children and the rights of children to adequate care and supervision and to not be abused by their caretakers. Often, there is a bridge between the pillars and child welfare workers can focus on strengthening the ability of parents to care for their children.
The difficult decisions come when the connection between the pillars is eroded and a choice must be made that privileges one over the other. Child welfare workers and courts across the nation regularly make agonizing decisions to leave children with parents whose care is barely above the threshold of neglect or to make the momentous choice to remove children despite the wishes of their parents (and often those of the children as well). Due to the tension between these pillars, any action or inaction by authorities is prone to criticism and second-guessing.
In the Idado standoff, there shouldn't be.
Parents have the right to privacy and our society respects their ability to raise children without state interference. But children have unique needs and are citizens with rights enshrined in our constitution, state and county statutes, as well as United Nations charters.
So how do authorities, as in Idaho, decide when to remove children? The usual standard is that there is demonstrable harm to the children, serious enough to warrant intervention, due to parental commission or omission. It also means that parents who are considered socially irresponsible (e.g. drug dealers, embezzlers, corrupt politicians) are not necessarily neglecting their children.
Even when neglect is confirmed, the first direction taken by child welfare workers is to explore whether they can protect children by providing supportive services without removing them from their parents. Most children have strong attachments to their parents, even neglectful parents, and removal is often traumatic, as it was in Idaho, even though this may better meet their needs.
More often than not, children from abusive or neglectful homes resist being removed by authorities; parents may be unfit in the eyes of society but they are usually the only parents the children know. However, they may eventually feel relieved to know that other adults are in charge and are taking responsibility to care for them.
Balancing everyone's rights requires trained professionals and a fair judicial system. As a society, we delegate making these complex and painful decisions and usually are unaware of the dramas occurring every day involving questions of child neglect.
The Idaho standoff is a helpful reminder of the pain, anguish, ambivalence and ambiguity that are embedded in every situation where the state feels compelled to intervene against the will of parents. In this instance, there are certainly allegations that, if true, meet the current standard of neglect and inadequate parental supervision. And most Americans would agree that children should not have access to guns that enable them to have a shoot-out with authorities, even if they are upset about being removed from their home.
What kind of message would this have given to these children and to other families, if the authorities had backed off because children had said "no" and were prepared to back this up with dogs and firepower? What would public reaction have been if this scenario had occurred in an inner city instead of a rural mountain state?
The safest course of action when there are serious allegations of neglect is to investigate them and, if necessary, to temporarily remove children to assess the situation. In Idaho, it appears the authorities did the right thing.
© Copyright 2001, Newsday Inc.
The author, Joshua Miller, is associate professor of social work at, Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where he chairs the Social Policy Sequence.