by Rajan Bal
It is conceptually uncontroversial that the government has an interest in protecting children from harm. Children as a demographic are more vulnerable than adults considering how many of their choices are not their own decision (such as where they live and who they live with), and as a result the government maintains a special responsibility towards ensuring their protection. The doctrine of parens patriae, “parent of the country,” allows the government to embrace this responsibility by intervening in the family unit to protect children whose welfare may be at risk. Under the guise of exercising this responsibility, the government often takes overly invasive action by forcibly removing children from their homes and placing the children under the care of the state. While the government should take children out of abusive households, it often confuses abusive households with poor ones. As a result, poor families, often on welfare or headed by a single parent, are subject to higher rates of having their family disrupted often just because they are poor.
The government must reconcile its special responsibility to protect children with parents’ unique interest in raising their children. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court held that parents’ right to raise their own children is a fundamental right. If the government aims to interfere with the family unit to protect the welfare of the children, it must narrowly tailor its intervention to accomplish that objective. If it does not, the government runs the risk of evaluating its need to intervene based on standards of care for middle-class White families, which could impose untenable standards to functioning and healthy families of different backgrounds that result in damaging outcomes.