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In an effort to protect children from abuse and neglect, the child welfare system focuses on parents, both as potential wrongdoers and as the locus for rehabilitation. This attention informs the discourse surrounding state intervention: parents' rights are balanced against children's rights, and family autonomy is understood as an overriding value. But the child welfare system centers parents in the wrong way, leading to academic debates that miss the mark and methods of intervention that are often counterproductive.

An effective child welfare system would be built upon the understanding that, in general, the state can best support children by supporting their parents. Currently, the state largely ignores parents until a crisis occurs in a family and then overrides parents afterwards. As a result of missing parents in this way, the system is also missing the well-being of children. The present orientation fails to recognize that, in many cases, there is an alignment of interests between parents, children, and the state.

To be sure, the current system ostensibly helps parents. The state is supposed to preserve families when possible and reunite children with parents if it is safe to do so. But the state support provided to these ends falls far short of the mark. The state does far too little to prevent child abuse and neglect, and when it does occur, the state provides little meaningful help for parents to address the issues underlying the abuse and neglect. Moreover, in both efforts, the state rarely engages with parents as partners.

In this essay, I set forth a vision for a different child welfare system that would both prevent child abuse and neglect as much as possible and, for cases that do occur, attempt to solve the underlying problems. In this re-imagined child welfare system, parents are necessary partners with the state. If the state truly seeks to prevent child abuse and neglect, it must engage with parents. And if the state truly seeks to solve the problems facing families in the child welfare system, it also must engage with parents. In this essay, I describe this parent-centered vision, drawing on earlier arguments I have made for improving the child welfare system.' In this re-imagined system, parents, missing no longer, are key to the safety and well-being of children.


Family Law | Law


©2008 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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