Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Can "The Best Interest of the Child" Be a Bad Thing?

Can it ever be a bad thing for a court to give a child what it believes is in the best interest of that child? I think so. Consider the following real examples.

Two-year old Zak Hassey was removed from the family home because his mother refused to give him chocolate and cake. Zak is a finicky eater and wouldn't eat the food his mother was offering. The doctor told her she should feed him chocolate and cake to help him gain weight. When she decided that was not a good long-term solution, the hospital reported her to social services and Zak was removed for four months. After the court found that they were very good parents and returning the child, a spokesman for the hospital said, "While we understand Mr. and Mrs. Hessey's distress, Zak's welfare was paramount, and we believe we acted in [the child's] best interest."

In Germany, fathers are being sentenced to one-week in jail for refusing to send their children to school when explicit sex-education courses are being taught. Homeschooling is already illegal in Germany. Recently, after convicting parents of the criminal offense of trying to educate their kids at home, a judge stated, "We recognize in our German basic law about philosophical and religious conviction and that parents have rights, but the basic law also includes that it is the state's role to educate all children."

Finally, the British Parliament is considering a proposal that would require a criminal background check for parent's who want to homeschool their children. Parents would need special permission to be a parent during school hours.

The problem is not just that the government prefers state schools and a poor diet. It is the unwillingness to recognize any limits to its jurisdiction. Those who support this degree of government oversight would no doubt be well versed in the dangers of unchecked liberty. But as Thomas Jefferson said, "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences of too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it."

In the United States we have a "proof of harm" standard. This reduces our risk of the parental rights abuses that are occurring in Europe by requiring the government to prove that the parents are unfit before it gets to say what is in the best interest of a child. This standard recognizes that other people's opinions about how a child should be raised should matter only in rare cases. But some would like to change that.

A United Nation's proposed treaty called the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that "In all matters...the best interests of the child shall be a primary concern." If ratified, it would eliminate the deference currently given to fit parents.

Parentalrights.org is leading a campaign to amend the constitution and ensure we never do.

Of course we all want what is best for kids. But we should all be able to agree that the government is less interested and less capable of taking care of a child than his or her parents. However, unless we are vigilant to defend this right from the tyranny of good intentions, we may one day find that, as in other places, parents have been reduced to the role of guardian for the government's future tax base.

Joseph Backholm
Executive Director
Family Policy Institute of Washington

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