All too often we will see in the news – or even in our own lives – a situation which results in the death or serious harm to a child at the hands of his or her parents. Often we wonder, “Why did the state allow this child to be with this parent?”
That question is a complicated one to answer, and often can’t be answered without specific knowledge of the facts of a particular case. Often it is a matter of proof, a matter of choosing between the lesser of several evils, or a matter of faulty prediction of the future. Where is the line between a “not ideal” parent and a harmful parent? And who gets to decide where that line is and when? A juvenile court judge has a very difficult task – she has to weigh the rights of the child and the duty of the State to protect that child with the fundamental rights of the parent, and many times there are no easy answers.
The law itself has a very strong bent towards keeping families together, even under trying circumstances. The Georgia Supreme Court, back in 1976, in Nix v. Department of Human Resources said, “[t]here can scarcely be imagined a more fundamental and fiercely guarded right than the right of a natural parent to [his] offspring.” This right is not one created by the State of Georgia or by the legislature – it is constitutional. “The Constitution secures the fundamental ‘right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children,’ Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), and it ‘protects a private realm of family life which the state cannot enter without compelling justification.’ Arnold v Bd. Of Ed. Of Escambia County, 880F2d 305 (11th Cir. 1989) (citations omitted.)” In Re M.F (Ga. 2015).
In more plain language, the Courts have determined that parents have a right to make decisions about their children so fundamental that it is found in the Constitution. Therefore, you can’t interfere with that relationship without a really, really good reason. A speculative reason is never a really, really good reason.
Even when a Court has already determined that the parent/child relationship has to be interfered with, the parents still maintain a great deal of rights in that relationship. According to the United States Supreme Court, “The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. Even when blood relationships are strained, parents retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of their family life. . . .When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures.” Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982).
Early on in the formation of our nation and our legal system, we decided that the rights of the accused – whether that be someone accused of a crime, or someone accused of improper parenting of a child – needed to be fiercely guarded, lest innocent people get swept up with the guilty. This lofty ideal lets a number of guilty (and/or dangerous) people go free. The flip side is that it also ensures that the State interferes with the lives of the fewest number of innocent and relatively harmless people.
It’s a weighty topic, one worthy of hours of philosophical discussion about the relative worth of all sides. In the meantime, I hope this at least gives food for thought about why these things happen.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.