IN virtually all societies, parents bear responsibility for their children. They are expected to feed and nurture them, provide them with home and shelter and educational opportunities, and generally guide their offspring toward productive adult life. Government, or the public sector, also bears some of this responsibility - to give assistance, for example, to minors who are abused, neglected, or abandoned.
The law, however, must be extremely careful not to preempt the prerogative of the family. A heavy burden is placed on the state to prove that parents are incompetent to care for their children before seeking to remove them from their natural homes.
Of late, a growing number of children have been taken from their families and placed in public custody as a result of allegations of child abuse or neglect. Where this has been a clear protection to the well-being of a youngster, state action may be warranted.
There have been a number of unfortunate instances, however, where the state has acted prematurely or without substantial evidence. In what is now a celebrated case from Minnesota, for instance, innocent parents were prejudged molesters, and youngsters were spirited off to public custody and interrogation by an overzealous district attorney. All charges were finally dropped, but the stigma of the awful accusations still lingers with the families.
In Tennessee a few years ago, the school-age daughter of religious fundamentalists was taken into custody by the state and forced to undergo extensive and arduous medical treatment for a disease diagnosed to be malignant. The youngster and her parents had relied on prayer for healing and sincerely believed that progress was being made. And they continued to depend on spiritual means during her medical treatment. The child eventually died under medical care.
There are several other cases in progress now where the state has prosecuted parents who lost their children after they relied on prayer for healing. In each of these instances, laws specifically protect the right to exercise religion and accommodate families who seek spiritual means as an alternative to medical treatment. Nonetheless, the parents are being charged with criminal liability.
In the criminal-justice area, a whole new spate of cases has arisen in connection with parental responsibility and possible liability. Among the issues raised:
If a pregnant woman abuses drugs or takes an excessive amount of alcohol, should she be held criminally responsible for the death or deformity of her baby?
Should the parents of a teen-ager who bears a child out of wedlock and cannot support the baby be held fiscally responsible for the upkeep of their grandchild?
And if a youth under 18 commits a crime, or engages in criminal activity, may the state hold a parent or guardian responsible?
In different situations, states and courts respond differently. In Illinois, for instance, a mother whose infant daughter died after being born with cocaine in her system has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and delivery of a controlled substance to a minor.
Wisconsin passed a grandparents liability law four years ago but has used it sparingly and with mixed success.
A Massachusetts statute allows businesses to hold parents of teen-age shoplifters liable for what their children steal.
And the mother of a California gang member has been arrested and charged with ``failing to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control'' of a son who is accused of participating in a gang rape.
The concept of parental responsibility under the law has ancient roots. It goes back to biblical times. Britain and most recently the Soviet Union have embodied it in their criminal codes.
Parents must guide and protect children - and hopefully set good examples.
The state's role, however, is to encourage family influence in a positive manner - through education and financial aid, if needed.
Punishment of parents for the alleged sins of their offspring has little corrective effect and is inconsistent with the tenets of a good society.