Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Whose Kids Are They Anyway?

The Parker Jensen case a couple of years back highlighted a glaring hole in Utah's child protection laws. For those who don't remember Utah prosecutions from a couple years ago, Parker Jensen was a 12-year-old boy with cancer. His parents wanted to get him holistic treatment instead of chemo, and the state decided that constituted child abuse because they felt it endangered Parker's life. The Jensens were charged with child abuse and kidnapping when they took their own child out of the hospital to keep him from being forcibly treated. There were other factors as well, that didn't make it into the news or the hype (I can't find it with my fever-fried brain right now, but I seem to remember that Parker's guardian ad litem said there were a few details that she wished she could tell the press). There have been other cases in Utah of parents exercising dubious judgment in matters of health, such as the poor malnourished one-year-old kid whose parents thought he was some sort of Messiah and fed him only nuts and fruits.

Regardless of the details of the Jensen case, the important question was raised: to whom does the authority to make medical choices for children ultimately belong? If that right inheres in the parents until they are proven to be abusive or neglectful, the state cannot justify taking children away from potentially dangerous situations before they become injurious or lethal. And if that right inheres in the government, then parental rights are a mere illusion. Moreover, if the state can declare parents to be abusive or neglectful by default if they do not choose a state-approved course of treatment, where does it end? What if parents choose a vegetarian diet and the official state nutritionist declares all children must eat meat to be healthy? After all, eating meat is the norm around here. Lest you think that slippery slope is a red herring, I would ask you to examine the power that DCFS has over parents and families once they get their hooks into them. There was one case in particular that I remember, out in the Uintah Basin, of a woman who took her kids to the government nutritionist because they weren't gaining weight and she wanted to know if she was feeding them correctly, and then her kids were taken away from her because the nutritionist found she was not.

Utah Senate Bill 83 has been proposed to clarify that point of law that Parker Jensen's case brought up. It creates a stronger standard for DCFS to take action against parents, particularly in cases involving medical treatments. Under SB 83, the state would have to come up with stronger evidence that a parent's choice is not just out of sync with the majority viewpoint, but so far out of the norm as to be abusive. I think this clarification is necessary to avoid going down the slippery slope of state-approved treatment of children.

Objectors to SB 83 rightly point out that it will hamper the ability of the state to protect children from abusive parents. And if it were the duty of the state to protect all children at all times at all costs, then SB 83 ought not pass. But while it is tragic that abuse can be permitted to happen to children, that is not the state's duty. The state's duty is to prosecute crimes and to prevent crimes from happening to the extent that it doesn't interfere with our sacred liberty. In America, that is and always has been the state's scope and function.

My personal feeling is that in a choice between protecting children and preserving liberty, I'm gonna have to side with liberty. As much as I love and care about children, freedom is more important. One man can die for his children, but hundreds of thousands of men have died for the liberty of all the children of men. It is the liberty that has been preserved in America that offers the best hope for our children, both the abused and the unabused.