Children Belong To Parents, Not Government

Government intervention is worse even than abusive parents.

In "Dutch delay 13-year-old sailor's worldwide trip," the Associated Press reports that Dutch courts have ruled that 13 year old Laura Dekker must be evaluated by a child psychologist before she can be permitted to try to sail around the world by herself.  The ruling came one day after a 17-year-old Briton set a new record as the youngest person to sail solo around the world.

"This case is about whether the government ... can restrict the broad freedom parents have in bringing up and caring for their children," said presiding judge M. Oostendorp.

"The court does not believe (Laura's father) can be ... accused of serious neglect," she added.

But Prof. Micha de Winter, a child psychologist at Utrecht University, warned that Laura's parents are underestimating the impact of two years alone at sea on a 13-year-old girl as she matures physically and emotionally.

Laura spent the first four years of her life sailing around the world with her parents.  She's an extremely skilled solo sailor, but British authorities detained her when she sailed alone to Britain.  They asked her father to fly over to get her and released her to him.

The only way to get her boat back was to sail it, of course, so she sailed home alone as she had planned to do all along.  So much for child protection!

Profound Liberty Issues

The Dutch judge stated the issue well when she said, "This case is about whether the government ... can restrict the broad freedom parents have in bringing up and caring for their children."

It used to be clear that American parents were the ultimate authority in their children's lives.

The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations. [emphasis added]

- Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. (1925)

There is a "private realm of family life which the state cannot enter."

- Prince vs. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944)

It's significant that the 1944 court recognized that parents had both the responsibility and the authority to prepare their children to take on the duties of adult life.  European courts, however, ruled in 1937 that their governments had a far stronger role in bringing up children than the American government claimed at that time:

Nazis take parents away from children

Nov. 29, 1937 - In Waldenberg, Germany, a court has taken parents away from their children because they refused to teach them Nazi ideology.  The parents are pacifists, members of a Christian sect called International Bible Researchers.  The court accused them of creating an environment where the children would grow up "enemies of the state."  The children were delivered into the state's care.

The judge delivered a lengthy statement reading in part, "The law as a racial and national instrument entrusts German parents with the education of their children only under certain conditions, namely, that they educate them in the fashion that the nation and state expect." [emphasis added]

- Quoted from Chronicles of the 20th Century, 1987 edition, p 475 Chronicle Publications, Mt. Kisco, NY.

The European view seems to be that children can be removed from their parents when the parents don't bring them up with the same ideological perspectives that the government expects.  We see the same sort of arguments in America between parents who don't want their children exposed to ideologies which are beloved of the educational establishment and school boards who try to stop parents from insisting that their children shouldn't attend classes to which the parents object.

Unfortunately, American courts have been encroaching on parental authority over the years:

The constitutional right of parents to assume the primary role in decisions concerning the rearing of children was recognized because it reflects a "strong tradition" founded on the history and culture of Western civilization, and because the parental role is "now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition." [emphasis added]

- Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205. (1972)

In Yoder, the court ruled that parents merely had a "primary role" and that parental authority was merely a "strong tradition" as opposed to a fundamental right.

Freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

- Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632, 639-640 (1974).

The LaFleur decision shifted parental authority from a mere tradition to a fundamental liberty, but American governments have continued to involve themselves more and more in parental affairs.  For example, World Net Daily reports:

A 10-year-old homeschool girl described as "well liked, social and interactive with her peers, academically promising and intellectually at or superior to grade level" has been told by a New Hampshire court official to attend a government school because she was too "vigorous" in defense of her Christian faith.

The decision from Marital Master Michael Garner reasoned that the girl's "vigorous defense of her religious beliefs to [her] counselor suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view."

Even though the child's homeschooling program had placed her ahead of her grade level, the mother was being too vigorous in teaching her point of view to her child.  The girl was placed in a public school where she could be exposed to conflicting views "in the fashion that the nation and state expect" to quote the Waldenberg court.

Parental authority and family liberty have been under attack for years.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, gives children specific rights which have to be enforced by government intervention in family matters.  Among other provisions, the treaty forbids spanking.

The trend is pretty clear - parental authority is being eroded all over the Western world.

It's Not Just a Liberty Issue - Government Makes a Lousy Parent

Many of us at Scragged have a reflexively negative reaction to any increase in government authority.  We've seen so many examples of government abusing its authority to our hurt that we don't trust any government, anywhere, with any more authority than was laid out in the US Constitution, and sometimes we wonder whether even those few powers are really necessary.

In the specific case of child protection, moreover, it's been found that government makes a really lousy parent.

In a long-term study of child care outcomes, MIT researchers found that even when a child's biological family was in really bad shape, drug abuse, violence, whatever, removing the child to foster care just about always made the outcome worse.  The MIT News article "Kids gain more from family than foster care" which was published on July 3, 2007, says:

An MIT Sloan School of Management professor has for the first time used the analytic tools of applied economics to show that children faced with two options - being allowed to stay at home or being placed into foster care - have generally better life outcomes when they remain with their families.

"While much has been written about the trade-off between family preservation and child protection, little empirical work has been able to support a greater emphasis on either one," said Joseph Doyle Jr., assistant professor of applied economics at Sloan.  "My research suggests that children on the margin of foster care placement have better employment, delinquency, and teen motherhood outcomes when they remain at home."

Doyle, the Jon D. Gruber Career Development Assistant Professor of Applied Economics, said his study is the first to empirically demonstrate causal effects between placement decisions and long-term outcomes.

Thus we now know that when governments remove children from even pretty bad homes, the results are worse than leaving them alone.  It's been demonstrated over and over that government care is worse than bad parents.

Parents make mistakes, sure, but the record shows that on the whole, governments make a lot more mistakes when they try to assume parental roles.  The difficulty with giving government any power over children is that in true bureaucratic fashion, government will claim more and more power over time until there's none left for parents.

Thus, the presumption should be that parents know best.  How can a government child psychologist better decide whether this girl is a competent sailor than her parents, who've sailed with her for her entire life?

This is the sort of creeping bureaucratic power grab which we deplore.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
I have to disagree with this one.

There's no question that the government is a horrible parent, but stopping children from committing suicide isn't a parenting issue. If the police saw a small child standing on the edge of building, wanting to jump, but the parent said "Meh, I don't really care. Let the kid do what he wants" should the police not stop the child?

Still, great article. Makes you think.
September 21, 2009 9:20 AM
The state has no interest and should not interfere with child raising until children have sufficient income to pay taxes. Once they become tax payers, the State has a vested interest in maintaining the life of the child. (Sarcasm included)
September 21, 2009 12:26 PM
do we not use the phrase 'in loco parentis' when referencing the authority of the schools? are there not people out there with no business raising the kids they've got? they aren't cattle that 'belong' to anyone and they deserve protection from bad situations. i'm curious about the phrasing of the actual study. does it really say that foster care 'just about always makes the outcome worse'? or is this a parsing of what the study actually said?
September 22, 2009 1:24 AM
Yeah, there are horrible awful parents out there. The question is, do we have any reason to believe that, on average, the government can do a better job of raising kids than their own parents? Every scrap of evidence of history shouts NO.

If a parent commits an actual crime against a kid, well, then it should be prosecuted and punished as with any other crime, in a criminal court with the customary rules of evidence. That takes care of the really awful abuse cases. Aside from those, though, the failures of the parents are as nothing compared to the failure, incompetence, and horrific abuse that takes place in state homes and foster arrangements every day.

And to repeat the fundamental question: whose kids are they? Parents'? Or the state's?
September 22, 2009 9:07 AM

Nice article. Sometimes, defense of liberty means defending decisions we ourselves feel to be foolish or dangerous.

And yes, the state has no business raising our children. My state of Rhode Island has the WORST quality of care (as of a couple years ago) for children living in foster care, and it's generally accepted that children have a higher chance of suffering abuse in foster care than they do living in their parents' homes.

Studies show that an active and involved biological father does more than anything else as a factor of preventing child abuse. As a society we need to rethink some of our practices concerning divorce and custody in particular if we truly wish to prevent child abuse.
September 24, 2009 7:37 AM
Social workers don't seem to care about preventing child abuse, they seem to want biger budgets, more pay, and better pensions.
September 24, 2009 6:45 PM
It would very much please me to see Scragged write a bit more about this and other topics related to gender bias in the "family" courts.

- Ron ^*^
September 24, 2009 7:24 PM
Scragged is always pleased to consider potential article submissions to "editors" that are in keeping with the nature of the site. Perhaps you might consider writing one? It sounds like you have a good deal of knowledge in this area.
September 24, 2009 7:31 PM
I much appreciate the invitation.
September 24, 2009 7:50 PM
Wisconsin Couple Sentenced in Death of Their Sick Child

A Wisconsin couple were sentenced to jail time for
failing to seek medical attention for their ill daughter, renewing a debate over whether states should allow parents to practice spiritual treatments.
October 8, 2009 4:29 AM
Sam raises a great example for why I disagree with the article. As I stated above, while the government is unquestionably a bad parent, it should be acceptable for the government to step in where there is a high probability of death on the part of the child. In the Wisconsin case, if the child is about ready to die, the doctor should be able to notify a police officer who contacts a judge who grants an order to allow the treatment. While the government should NEVER be parenting children directly, it is silly to stand by and do nothing when there is a highly probably case of fatality. That serves no one. Nor does it encroach on parent's rights because no parent has the right to kill their child. Now stopping a child from killing themselves - because of the child's lack of understanding/experience/etc - is the same as killing them.
October 8, 2009 8:14 AM
The difficulty, ifon, is that there is no clear limit to governmetn interference in families. This is the camel's nose, the thin edge of the wedge. Bureaucrats' desire for power and budget known no end. If they can regulate anything at all, they want to change the rules so they regulate it more. The only solution is to keep them out of anyting important.

Yes, some kids die due to oddball paretns, but kis in governmetn care have a much higher probability of dying. When did any government idea work out as promised?
October 8, 2009 6:24 PM
@ sam

I disagree that allowing parents to let their children die - as in the Wisconsin case - isn't "anything important". Life is extremely important.

You'll have to more-clearly prove that second to last sentence. How do kids in government care have a much higher probability of dying? I don't follow.
October 8, 2009 9:45 PM
I'm in agreement with lfon when it comes to lifesaving medical procedures. My GF is a pediatric oncologist and has in fact had to go to the courts to get orders for lifesaving treatment of children whose parents refused on religious or other grounds. I realize this flies in the face of some of the beliefs here (including my own), but when it comes right down to it I'm willing to look the other way and let the government step into a family situation when it means the almost certain difference between life and death for a child.

Sam agrees that the potential death of children is "important" -- he's arguing that the government should be kept out of such important matters. In principal I agree with him. This is one of those areas where the government has a potential opportunity for expansion because even anti-government folks can feel tempted to look the other way if it means saving a kid's life.
October 8, 2009 9:59 PM
If there is truly a life-or-death issue, then certainly the government should be able to go to a judge and get a warrant to intervene, just like it would with any other crime. Or if there's an imminent danger, the police can do something just as they would with any other immediate deadly problem.

What I don't like is bureaucrats getting involved when there's no immediate issue. In the case sam mentioned, it would certainly be appropriate for a government official, with the authorization of a judge, to intervene.

But if the government can't take your home without proper procedures and judicial approval, I don't see why they can take your kids with fewer checks and balances.
October 9, 2009 7:54 AM
@ Patience

Totally agree. TAKING your children is an ENTIRELY different thing. There should be zero reason the government could ever do that. But I don't equate government taking/disciplining/raising your children with the government telling parents they can't let their kids die. I think a simple, clear line can be drawn where it's a matter of life or death. If the parents action or lack of action is directly leading to the death of the child, that's over the line.
October 9, 2009 8:12 AM
@ Patience: Agreed.

@ lfon: "I think a simple, clear line can be drawn where it's a matter of life or death." -- Or, of course, if it concerns "interstate commerce" in some way. :^)

- Ron ^*^
October 9, 2009 8:41 AM
I have to agree with this author, and MIT, the liberal establishment do-gooders, have absolutely NO business swooping in on families and further devastating children when they cannot be sure of a good outcome. I cite this example: In 1944, my father's family was living in abject poverty. His oldest sister, brother, himself, and three younger siblings (then 12, 11, 9, 3, 2 and 1, my father being 9 then) had been scraping for food as their alcoholic parents were always too drunk to provide. They lived in a two room cabin (in Washington state) in the woods, no running water, an outhouse, no electricity, and only income was spent by the parents on alcohol. The kids all spent their off time from school, scraping together any money for food, plus fishing and collecting of native food stuffs (berries, etc..). This does sound awful to most of us, but then social services swooped in and sent the oldest sister to the grandparents,the middle three left in an orphanage, the youngest two girls to foster care. Then close to a bit over two years later, the oldest brother was "too old" for the orphanage and was told to go, he was 14 ( and on the streets. Meanwhile, my father played protector to his only remaining sibling, his younger brother, who seemed to be the subject of constant beatings by the "staff" for every little indiscretion. Most times my father stood between the then 5 year old and a severe beating, sometimes taking it for him. Their lives were truly devastated by all of this. My uncle who had been put onto the streets as a 14 year old, although a stint in the Navy for a bit, he remained homeless throughout his adult life till his death in 1998. The eldest daughter, my aunt had relationship problems, till her alcohol related death in 1971. My father, the most successful, father of 6, and a professional baker, married for 48 years before his death in 2005. The younger brother, did well enough, but always came to my father for help (he had acted as his parent from his early childhood) and the youngest two girls fared better, having been too young to remember. The emotional scars they all carried were obvious, my fathers I knew the most about. He was adamant about privacy in our family, and fully against any physical punishment (having been subjected to institutionalized abuse)and had to always be on guard for his temper in protective situations, including issues with any authority. How would they have fared had they been left at home, and the family been dealt with while in tact? We will never know, and the hurt stunted their lives. I can say, NO government has ANY rights between me and my children, and we should do all we can as a society to help families while keeping them together. Even dysfunctional parents love their children, and the children love them back. The state can NEVER find a replacement for that love.
December 18, 2009 1:44 PM
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