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Fearing the Bogeyman

March 7, 2014 permalink

Scholar David Pimentel has produced a paper Fearing The Bogeyman: How The Legal System’s Overreaction to Perceived Danger Threatens Families and Children. It supports the view that the greatest danger to children is not stranger abduction or the hazards of children walking or playing alone but separation from their families in the cause of child protection.

Figures quoted in the paper show that the risk of child seizure by social services is a thousand times higher than by strangers. Irrational fears of stranger abduction (only a hundred cases annually in the US) prevent children from walking to school, traveling instead in the most dangerous place for children, inside a moving vehicle. Pimentel points out that risk can never be eliminated. All that can be done is trade one risk for another. Rational parents make tradeoffs giving an acceptably low risk. But as long as any risk, no matter how small, is justification for intervention, all children can be taken.

Pimentel's suggested improvement is that child protection agencies should cooperate with parents and offer support, instead of seizing children. With the current structures, cooperation will fail for the reason that sheep cannot cooperate with wolves. Correction requires getting children's services outside the aegis of legal immunities and appropriated funds. Social workers need to change from dominators to counselors, and the privileges and immunities now granted to social workers, judges and psychiatrists need to be vested instead with parents.

Expand for the abstract, the full paper is at Fearing the Bogeyman (pdf).




In the last generation, American parenting norms have shifted dramatically, reflecting a near obsession with child safety and especially the risk of stranger abduction. A growing body of literature shows, however, that the threats to children are more imagined than real, and that the effort to protect children from these “bogeymen” may be doing more harm than good. Advocates of “Free-Range” parenting argue that giving children a long leash can help them learn responsibility, explore the world outside, get physical exercise, and develop self-sufficiency. But the State, usually acting through Child Protective Services (CPS), is likely to second-guess parents’ judgments on such issues, and enforce the overprotective and arguably harmful norms. Researchers and policymakers agree that CPS intervenes in far too many cases, traumatizing families by “removing” children and being slow to reunite such families even after a removal is found to have been unwarranted. Indeed, a child who is not being maltreated at home is far more likely — by multiple orders of magnitude — to be seized by CPS than by a kidnapper. Thus CPS, in the name of child safety, becomes the bogeyman, the child-snatcher parents should fear.

The problems are traceable to the vague statutes — starting with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 — that fail to accommodate the risk-management decisions parents must routinely make or to respect parental discretion. In effect, these statutes give CPS broad power to intervene in families that eschew the overprotection craze, and deny Free Range parents the latitude to trust their own parenting instincts, or to defend their families from government intrusion. Moreover, CPS faces strong incentives to make removal and foster care a remedy of first resort even when it is unclear that a child is endangered at all.

The statutes should be redrafted in a way that (1) recognizes parenting as an exercise in risk management, using a “grossly disproportionate” standard for risk assessments, and (2) protects parents’ discretion in making those judgment calls by employing an “abuse of discretion” standard for interventions. At the same time CPS’s incentives should be restructured to discourage unwarranted interventions and to enable caseworkers to devote energies and resources to keeping children safe within their own families, rather than coercing conformity by threatening removal. Until such changes are made, Free Range parents, and all parents, will be intimidated into adhering to these stifling, overprotective norms, to the detriment of society, of families, and of the children themselves.

David Pimentel is Visiting Associate Professor of Law, Ohio Northern University.