Despite the manifest failures of paternalistic government as seen around the world, the United States has in its own ways sought to adopt a paternalistic approach when it comes to dealing with abusive and neglectful parents. It is perhaps ironic that parents as parents are among the populations who have faced the most serious paternalistic approaches of government, but life is full of ironies that are to be appreciated. It seems likely that the role of government as the educator of (usually) first recourse has strongly influenced the ability of government to behave in a paternal fashion towards children, as it is schoolteachers whose recognition of truancy and abuse and neglect that make them suitable informants for various state bureaucracies whose mandate it is to protect vulnerable children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. This is a matter I have considerable personal interest in, it should be noted , but in my examination of state departments of child protection I have noticed that there are considerable patterns of failure in the system across the country that are worthy of reflection. First, let us note some of the patterns of failure that we see around the United States and then let us briefly discuss what these patterns indicate for the lack of fitness of government to serve as the parent of last resort for vulnerable children.
Let us begin in the state where I live, Oregon. The state recently conducted a year-long audit of the state’s efforts at protecting children and according to a newspaper article “The year-long audit by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office into Oregon’s Child Welfare system provided painful documentation of how the department is failing many of the state’s most vulnerable children. The report, released in late January, found a lack of centralized reporting for child abuse, a severe shortage of foster parents, bad morale and terrible turnover rates among caseworkers.” Here we see some of the obvious failings of a paternalistic state, in that it depends on people being willing and able to serve as foster parents when birth parents have fallen short, often spectacularly short of what is an acceptable standard, and it depends on keeping morale up for those who man the front lines of the government’s efforts at being a good fallback parent for those parents who fall short themselves. If a job must be done, and it is not being done by those who should by nature be doing it, then there must be someone willing and able to step into the gap or the job will remain undone.
While it may be satisfying for some people to laugh at Oregon. This is not a problem faced by that state alone. According to another article, “the head of Montana’s Division of Child and Family Services has resigned after 16 months on the job as the state has a record number of kids in foster care and the agency is dealing with internal budget cuts and a loss of funding for outside groups that offer support services.” Here again we see a story of a failed paternalistic state: lots of children in the foster care system means that lots of money is needed to take care of these children both by the state itself and by other institutions that help support the efforts of the state. While it is easy to mandate that government fix the problems of society, it must be admitted that governments do not have miraculous powers to do anything, and that they require on there being people willing and able to accomplish the tasks that are mandated. Clearly Montana, like other states, has found it easier to make promises than it is to fulfill them, which is something that happens quite often in the world of paternalistic government.
Nor is the news good when it comes to Mississippi’s foster care system, as yet another article states. “The state’s Department of Child Protection Services has once again violated a court order in the long-running Olivia Y settlement, the lawsuit responsible for dismantling and then rebuilding the state’s foster care system, according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. Last week, Marcia Lowry of the New York-based firm A Better Childhood sent a letter of non-compliance to Child Protection Services. According to the letter, the agency has been in contempt of court since Dec. 31 for not employing enough caseworkers to properly monitor children in the system, a major violation of a settlement agreement signed just 15 months ago.” What happened here? The state’s inability to monitor children in the foster care system led to a long-running and likely expensive lawsuit where the state promised to undertake various reforms but found itself unable to do so, probably because of resource limitations as well as the limits on people who want to become and remain caseworkers for the state’s foster care system. Such problems could easily be multiplied, as Mississippi is not the only state facing such problems.
The patterns we have looked at are demonstrative of a larger pattern. It is perhaps ironic that the state most resembles those parents who struggle to perform to an acceptable standard that serve as feeders for the foster care system of the states within our nation in general. Parents struggle to find the resources to take care of their children and may often lack the supports that allow them to overcome difficulties and struggles and may often suffer from poor morale and think that everyone is against them. State bureaucracies, perhaps unsurprisingly, face the same problem, as the same sympathy that vulnerable children draw in abusive families is manifest when those vulnerable children are part of a neglectful or abusive state bureaucracy that is designed to serve in loco parentis. If the resources currently available are insufficient in many cases to support the efforts of states to serve in the place of parents who have failed to provide a minimum acceptable standard of care, how are we to help parents do a better job so that we reduce the burden that is placed on a paternalistic state that cannot do any better than the deadbeat parents it is supposed to monitor and work with?
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