TIME magazine's recent sojourn in Baltimore's juvenile courts ("Corridors of Agony," by Michael Riley, Jan. 27) came and went without drawing too much local attention. For one thing, it was bad news about our town, reported in a national forum. For another, the spectacle of children trudging through the courts fills us with pain, then anger, then apathy, as we discover that we can only add the problem to the list of Things We Can Do Nothing About.
Few phenomena are so likely to shake our trust in a benevolent universe than the innocent suffering of a child -- especially one who by choosing the wrong parents undergoes neglect, abuse, even death. We like to believe that adults generally earn their own misfortunes, through bad judgment or bad character. But what does a 2-year-old do to deserve anal penetration at the hands of his mother's boyfriend?
It is notoriously difficult to protect children from their own neglectful or abusing parents. We are overly solicitous of the parents' rights. But more important, we have no one to take care of the child.
Here is a typical scenario: Girl goes to school hungry, or dirty, or bruised (mix and match). Teacher notices, school nurse is anxious, girl is sent to hospital, which blows the whistle on the abuse. Social worker takes Mommy to court. Mommy rents a lawyer, or borrows one at public expense. In court, social worker hems and haws, well aware that no one wants the child but the abusing parent. Judge allows girl to return home. And the cycle begins again.
To be sure, it gives us a queasy feeling to contemplate removing children from their own parents. Every good parent keenly feels her own shortcomings; it shouldn't be easy to prove a parent unfit. But actually a pattern of abuse or neglect is not uncommonly established. Real injuries or malnutrition, filthy homes and parents in a drug nod are pretty obvious.
The boulder in the path of protection is, what are you going to do with the child? Once the parents' incompetence is established, the best among the limited choices is to place the child with members of the extended family, who may well be part of the family pathology, may be ill or may be resentful of the responsibility newly foisted upon them.
Social workers burn out, as the monumental work they do to document a case of abuse or neglect well enough to satisfy a court results in a bad placement for the child.
We need to be very clear about two things. We have a positive duty to remove a child from an incompetent parent. And we must have good places where children can go. It's the virtual absence of the latter that makes the former so difficult.
The problem can only get worse. Listen to William A. Galston of the University of Maryland, writing in the New Republic of last Dec. 2: "Of white children born in the early 1950s, 81 percent lived continuously until the age of 17 with their two biological parents; the projected rate for children born in the early 1980s is 30 percent. The corresponding rate for black children has fallen from 52 percent in the 1950s to only 6 percent today."
Courts are likely to be far less delicate about the rights of incompetent parents when there are good placement alternatives for the child. Social workers, now demoralized when the courts return neglected children to the cradle of their sorrows, will rediscover their morale as good placements emerge.
Fine, but where are they?
Publicly funded foster care falls far short of the need -- and Governor Schaefer's new budget proposes even less money for it. Our fine moral indignation hits a brick wall of frustration.
People in Catholic religious life have found great joy and great success in caring for crack babies. Group homes aren't necessarily bad; since the heyday of the orphanage we have learned a great deal about the emotional nurture of children. Evangelical Christians constantly harping on the decline of the family might find in raising the unwanted children of incompetent parents an outlet for their enthusiasm. Dare we suggest that the care of unwanted children is something the Children's Defense Fund, the NAACP and the Urban League could actually do, as distinguished from their usual agenda of high-minded talk?
There are millions of Americans who have nothing better to do with our free time than watch television. Do we really prefer watching the report of the horrors after the fact?
Hal Riedl is a Baltimore lawyer.