Parents' rights? That depends

By , Lillian S. Fisher, a juvenile court judge in Arizona, sees the law from both sides of the bench as the mother of two daughters who are attorneys.

The courts and family advocates repeatedly refer to the constitutional rights of parents to their children. This is often done with little emphasis on the parental obligations to the children. The definitions of these parental rights are as varied as the opinions and articles.

However, if children are to grow into healthy and productive adults, if children are to reach their full potential, their parents must accept the responsibility for appropriate provisions of the children's needs. If parents abandon these responsibilities, then the rights of these parents should be abrogated.

Children have basic physical requirements. They need shelter. It need not be a house in suburbia; it should not be a rat- or insect-infested shack. Children need food. It need not be steak; it should not be a constant diet of soft drinks and junk food. Children need clothing. It need not be designer jeans. It should protect them from the weather and it should be appropriate and adequate for school play.

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Children need freedom from physical abuse. Brutally maltreated youngsters have difficulties in relating to and trusting people. Each will continue to do so unless some provision is made for the child's physical safety so that the child may develop with a sense of security rather than fear.

Children need help when they exhibit bizarre behavior at an early age.The eight-year-old boy who sets fire to the mattress, the nine-year-old who tortures cats, the 11-year-old who acts out sexually in a movie theater lobby are all telling us they need special care and attention. If the parents do not seek and obtain help for the child, have the parents fulfilled their obligations?

To ignore or pretend no problem exists is almost a guarantee that the child will be fed into hospital, welfare, or criminal justice systems before that child reaches his or her majority, and may remain in the system long after.

Children's needs extend beyond food, shelter, and clothing. Children also need education and training. A child should be prepared to be economically self-sufficient by the age of emancipation (18 in most communities). Our educational system presently gives 12 years of academic training.Not all children require 12 years of academia. However, motivation for education and training is initiated in the home. Children should be encouraged to read, write , and do simple arithmetic. Many jobs today require these abilities to work a cash register, figure sales tax, and complete application forms.

By the time a child has completed the 12-year academia, he or she should have a trade or vocation. If the motivation to reach these goals was not forthcoming from the parents, they shunned some of their responsibilities to their children. Today children reach their 18th birthday without having been trained to be economically self-sufficient, to cope with problems of raising families, to deal with neighbors, and to provide stability for their own children.

All children have the right to nurturing and to love. Parents who physically abuse one another in the presence of the child, parents who are drug or alcohol abusers are frequently unable to provide love and nurturing for their children. In earlier years, extended families provided these needs when the parents could not. In today's mobile society, many children are deprived of this privilege. Not only are there no caring relatives close by, but frequently the family has few or no friends.

The court today and the legislators today are hesitant to do anything to hasten severance or limitation of parental rights to the child. There is concern that it would lead to the breakdown of the "family." These families, though, have failed to provide for the children's needs. The "families" broke down long before the courts or government in any way entered or intervened in the "family" life. The families broke down because of the parents' persistent refusal to acept responsibility for providing for their children. They broke down because the parents have thrust on society the responsibility of providing for their children's needs.

During this process, the children are confused. They are uncared for. They are neglected. Agencies intervene. Courts intervene. The needs of the children and the rights of the children to have their needs met are unfulfilled, while courts and legislators ponder parental rights.

Let us consider the children's needs and requirements when determining what the parents' rights are.

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