Family rights: keeping the arm of the law from becoming a meddler

The proliferation of reports of child abuse, including sexual assaults on infants, has ironically resulted in another type of abuse: increased United States government intervention into family life, sometimes wholly unwarranted and smacking of big brotherism.

In the name of concern for children, law officers, social welfare agencies, and the courts are sometimes taking youngsters into custody with scanty evidence of mistreatment - removing some from their parents and placing them in foster care. Meanwhile, there seems to be a significant increase in prosecutions of parents who, based on religious or other convictions, have refused medical treatment for their offspring.

Some of this concern can be attributed to the well-meaning but ill-advised actions of individuals and agencies that have become overzealous and overreaching. But there is also a philosophical undercurrent - sometimes growing from bureaucratic self-importance but also occasionally from deep-seated prejudices and resentment - that the state is better equipped than parents to serve the best interests of a child.

The last is simply not true. And it is foreign to a system which ostensibly cherishes family values, extols parental responsibility, and promotes the primacy of individual rights over state guardianship.

Not without significance is the fact that the concerns about government intrusion now are being raised not only by the hard-liners who would defend parental rights under any circumstances but by clergy, public officials, scholars, civil libertarians, the media, and those who deal professionally with mistreated children.

All voice a common caveat, however. While abuse of children is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated in a civilized society, government agencies too often remove children from their families too quickly or without adequate cause. In addition, parents are sometimes prosecuted when there is little or no evidence of neglect or willful abuse against them.

Marcia Lowry, who heads a children's rights project for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), deals mainly with children in foster care. ''The state too often goes in with a cannon,'' she says. ''It overacts. (Its) only response is to remove children (in cases where abuse is suspected) from their homes and put them in foster care. More effort should be made before giving up on families.''

Miss Lowry explains that the ACLU would like to see the state adopt a policy that mandates ''the most limited intervention possible under the circumstances with the aim of restoring the family.''

Douglas J. Besharov, former director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, recently reported that 45 states now have laws which require citizens to report to public agencies any suspected physical or sexual abuse, neglect or maltreatment of children. But he also emphasizes that in about half of the 400,000 families kept under supervision by child protection agencies and compelled to accept treatment, the parents had never actually abused or neglected their children.

Stan J. Katz, a psychologist who conducts evaluations in child abuse cases for Los Angeles' Superior Court, flatly states in a syndicated column that ''the extraordinary attention paid by the media to sexual abuse is breeding a hysteria in which adults who show physical affection for children are suspected of being molesters.''

Gail Anderson, mayor of Jordan, Minn., just outside Minneapolis, told this reporter of an ''unusual'' number of arrests made in her city recently in connection with suspected child abuse and neglect. ''Many children,'' she says, ''whom we are supposed to be 'protecting,' are subjected to the trauma of being seized from their homes, completely isolated from friends, families, (and) legal and religious representatives, kept in foster homes, and held completely under the control of county authorities for many months.''

Mrs. Anderson points out that Minnesota law - similar to that in most other states - requires that every effort be made to preserve the family unit. But she alleges that people known to be good parents with no previous record of child abuse or neglect now are being separated from their children on unsubstantiated reports of wrong-doing.

Improper law enforcement procedures have not been proved in Jordan. But they appear to be a problem elsewhere. For instance, a judge in Vermont recently released over 100 children from custody who were taken from their families in a police sweep of homes of a secretive religious sect. Authorities had numerous reports of suspected physical abuse and had been unsuccessful in gaining access to the community where the children lived. But District Judge Frank Mahady sharply criticized the action of state troopers and social workers as ''a grossly unlawful scheme.''

''In effect, each of the children was viewed as a piece of potential evidence ,'' Judge Mahady elaborated. ''They were also held hostage to the ransom demand of information from the parents.''

What does this all add up to? A national conspiracy to wrest children from their homes and parents and put them under public control? A thrust by government to undermine religious practices and family ideals?

No, this type of suspicion is unfounded. The very fact that public and private voices are openly calling for restraint, reason, and balanced judgment is a healthy sign.

Verne Voss, Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Jordan, has a proper - and regenerating - prospective. The Rev. Voss says he has seen some of his parishioners go to jail on suspected child-abuse charges. And he is isn't ready to prejudge guilt or innocence. He'll leave that to the courts.

''But if indeed we have this situation, it may be due in part to a permissive society,'' he adds. He calls for a turning away from glamorized sex and self-gratification. Further, he counsels his flock: Don't listen to rumors; don't spread rumors; and assume innocence until guilt is proven.

Good advice for all of us!

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