Legally Kidnapped

Shattering Your Child Welfare Delusions Since 2007

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Parenting Under Scrutiny

I do not usually post entire articles here unless I get them from an article directory, which happens on occasion. However, this particular article is perhaps one of the best I've ever read since I started Legally Kidnapped. I'm not sure that this one will or not, but often times, articles disappear from the original server, couldn't chance it.

This author is dead on right.

Parenting Under Scrutiny

Chris Gottlieb defends parents for a living. She is with the Family Defense Clinic at New York University School of Law, which represents parents accused of child abuse and neglect and tries to keep families together. With that daily backdrop, she read our discussion here a few weeks ago — the one about parents judging other parents harshly — through a somewhat different lens.

She had recently published an article in the University of Baltimore Law Review about “how the tendency to judge mothering harshly plays out for the poor and minority women who come under the scrutiny of the child welfare system.” She has adapted that article as a guest blog today — describing how her own experiences as a mother (her children are four and one) help her understand how it feels to be judged, and give her some insight into the feelings of her accused clients.

Many of you will disagree with her conclusions. But you will agree that her vantage point is one that most of us don’t usually have.

By Chris Gottlieb

A woman approached on the subway to tell me that looking at newsprint up close could cause eyestrain. I quickly learned she was not worried about me; she was concerned about my baby’s eyes because I was carrying him face out, where he was about six inches from the newspaper I was reading. An elderly man chastised me because my baby’s legs were not covered. A saleswoman was more worried about his arms, but didn’t stop at commenting — she reached out to pull down his sleeves. Several strangers “tsked tsked” me when they learned I had my baby out of the house before he was six weeks old. I have been criticized for failing to have mittens on him, keeping him up too late and for drinking hot coffee while holding the little guy.

Maybe this onslaught should make me wonder about my mothering skills, but instead I marvel at how comfortable people feel telling complete strangers about their purported parenting flaws. I am certain that over the years, fellow subway riders have judged my fashion choices and found them wanting, or disapproved of what I was eating (or that I was eating on the train). Yet no one has ever voiced such opinions to me. But the discretion of strangers disappears as soon as you have a child, in fact, as soon as you are visibly pregnant. Heaven help you if you have a beer in public while expecting.

No infraction is too small or too strange to elicit comment. (The newspaper was too close to the baby’s eyes?) All my parent friends have experienced this no-win culture of judging parenting. Depending on their personalities, they have cowered, gotten angry or been demoralized by it. Yet as stinging as the comments and glares can be, for most of us they are limited to park benches and supermarket lines or, if we’re unlucky, to visits with the in-laws. Our culture of judging parenting by impossible standards hits some much harder.

Only after I had children did I truly begin to understand what I thought I already understood after years of standing beside my clients in family court: parenting is something we are inclined to judge harshly at the same time that it is impossible to do in anything but an extremely flawed way. You can’t get it right. We all know this. We all strive for greater excellence than we have hope of achieving. Yet we couple this knowledge with extreme intolerance for the shortcomings of other parents.

I represent parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children — few are more deeply despised in our society. If you know these parents through media coverage, you likely think we must do more to protect their children. The thing is, in the vast majority of cases, the ones these children most need to be protected from is not their parents. It is us. For we have empowered the government to judge parents and when the parenting is found wanting, to take children.

Certainly some children need to be separated from their parents and put in foster care. But only in rare situations is such a traumatic step justified. Yet over and over, I have seen caseworkers who investigate parents and judges who oversee intervention in family life hold parenting up for assessment and inevitably find that the parents fall short. Why? Because the standards imposed are as idiosyncratic and impossibly high as the standards of the people I hear from on the subway. The caseworkers and the judges, however, have the guns to back up their glares.

Contrary to the media images of severely abused children who have suffered and died at the hands of abusive parents, the vast majority of cases that clog the foster care system involve allegations of neglect, not abuse. And neglect is broadly construed. Parents are charged for refusing to give their children psychotropic medications, for using corporal punishment, for having a dirty home, for smoking marijuana. In other words, neglect includes many things that reasonable people have very different ideas about. Indeed, it includes many behaviors that my yuppie friends and I engage in without threat of government intervention.

Yet we allow, indeed encourage, government officials to be judgmental of the poor and minority parents who interact with the child welfare system. Despite clear constitutional law protecting the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit, one need only walk into family court to see this law routinely breached.

We have not sufficiently connected the phenomenon we observe in our own lives — of widespread willingness to impose perfectionist standards on parenting — with the explosion of inflammatory media coverage of child abuse and hyper-aggressive child protection policies. Legitimate efforts to protect children from serious abuse have morphed into second guessing decisions well within parental prerogative. Worse still, once government intervention in family life is authorized, the legal standard often becomes “best interests of the child.” How do courts and caseworkers determine what is in a child’s best interests? The same way the rest of us do: subjectively, inconsistently, and often erroneously. One judge wants more discipline; another wants less. I have heard caseworkers criticize mothers for everything from giving their children Chinese takeout food or Kool-Aid (the mother told me orange juice was too expensive for her) to having beer in the house to letting a child get wet under a sprinkler. A judge ordered one of my clients to take her child to the park every day. Every day! How can that level of micromanagement of parenting by the government make sense?

It is time to reevaluate our inclination to approach parenting with such unforgiving eyes — in our own lives and in our public policies. We would serve children far better if we viewed parenting by strangers as we view the parenting of our partners and friends when we are at our best: generously, with commiseration rather than a measuring stick. If we are going to interject, we might even consider offering support rather than judgment.


  1. Anonymous8:45 PM

    The things I have read in case law and from handling cases;

    The parent is guilty of neglect because she took a shower while the infant napped in the crib.

    The parent is guilty of neglect because the house is cluttered with too many books.

    The parent is guilty of neglect because the family cat sleeps at the foot of the child's bed.

    The parent is guilty of abuse because said parent insists that the teenage child clean her room.

    The parent is guilty of neglect and abuse because said parent washes child, and changes child's pajamas and sheets after child wets bed.

    The parent is too strict in that said parent insists that the children complete their homework before watching television or playing computer games.

    Three days of dishes were left unwashed in the sink. Actually, it was THREE dishes. The social worker, being single, admitted that she used one dish a day. So to her, three dishes equated to three days worth of unwashed dishes.

    And the list goes on and on and on.

    Kudos to this attorney for standing up for what is right.

  2. And to think, in each of these mentioned cases, your taxpayer dollars paid for the foster care placement and termination of parental rights.


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