Dear Mom and Dad: Thank you for not killing me

Dear Mom and Dad,

(Mostly Mom)

You’re both gone now, but if you were still here I would thank you for not killing me. Thank you for letting me survive my infancy and childhood so I could grow up to become a healthy adult.

Thank you for not losing your temper with me when I pooped my pants or wet my bed, as all small children do. Thank you for not beating me to death when I cried all night long, as babies do, or misbehaved and acted up like all little kids do. Even though you may have shouted at me and spanked me, and I may have hated you for it at the time, you were only human and trying your best under very trying circumstances to be a parent, like most parents are.

Even though this all happened in the 1970s, I don’t believe the legal system would have protected me any less then than it protects children now, over 40 years later. Which is to say, hardly at all.

With at least two preventable child murders dominating the news in as many months, there has been much rage directed at the state DCFS for failing children, probably rightfully so. But make no mistake, this is far from just an Illinois issue. This happens just about everywhere. There have been notorious cases in New York and California. The state systems that are supposed to protect children are clearly broken.

From where I sit, the problem runs much deeper and wider than mere incompetence of any state agency. It’s too easy to direct all the blame at them. DCFS employees have to work within certain legal parameters. The real problem as I see it is this country’s entire legal philosophy about the rights of parents.

There needs to be a sea change in the way the law approaches the rights and interests of parents and children. From my own observations over many years and study of family law, courts appear to bend over backwards to protect the rights of biological parents, to the extreme detriment of children.

Illinois law, like that of most states, (ostensibly) employs a “best interests of the child” standard when it comes to family court. But that’s only in theory. In reality and practicality, Illinois—like most states—really puts the rights of parents first. Time and again, irresponsible and abusive parents are given second, third, and more chances to clean up their act.

The chief problem is in the very way the law defines “best interests of the child.” Most states take the approach that it is in the best interest of children, to the extent possible, to be raised by their biological parents and to have a relationship with both biological parents. No matter how much of a train wreck one or both of those parents might be. Unless a parent is ruled “unfit,” and the law sets a pretty high bar for being judged unfit.

It’s time to start giving the benefit of the doubt to innocent and defenseless children and not biological parents. As we’ve seen, some children are clearly not better off living with their natural parents. The law needs to start erring on the side of protecting the safety of children. Until it begins doing that, I’m afraid we will just keep seeing these same tragic headlines as in some kind of recurring nightmare.

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