The relationship between parental rights and children’s rights is a fundamentally important issue to the field of child welfare.
Parental rights are quite broad. Our society has clearly determined that, in the vast majority of circumstances, parents should have the authority and responsibility to make decisions in their child’s best interests. However, parental rights are contingent upon a set of conditions that include providing their children minimum levels of care and nurture and an environment free from harm or abuse. In short, parental rights are contingent on parents adequately meeting their responsibilities to their children.
Children’s rights, however, are absolute. This means that a child’s right to freedom from harm or abuse and to minimum levels of care and nurture is immutable.
The legal rights of children have often been described as negative rights; that is, the right not to be harmed, not to be abused, neglected or exploited. Child welfare values have implied certain rights of children within the standards that guide the profession which include:
The right to grow up in an environment which maintains minimum standards of health and decency; the right to permanence; to grow up in a permanent family that will provide nurture, proper care, love and a sense of identity and belonging for life; to grow up in one’s own family, if at all possible; the right to legal representation in all court activities to assure that the child’s best interests are maintained.
“In contemporary American law, the relationship between parents and children is best described by the term presumptive parental rights,” explains Kent Borchard, attorney for the Rio Blanco County Department of Social Services. “We presume that parents want to, and do, act in their children’s best interests. “If there is any doubt, the doubt is resolved in favor of the parent. However, in situations where there is clear evidence that parents do not act in their children’s best interests, the state, under the doctrine of Parens Patrie, can intervene to protect the child’s rights. To do this, the state must be able to demonstrate an immediate and pressing danger to the child.”
“Family-centered child welfare supports the family as the preferred environment for meeting the needs and best interests of the child,” says Bonnie Ruckman, director of the Rio Blanco County Department of Social Services. “However, our responsibility to protect children demands that the child’s rights for safety take precedence over the family’s rights.”
The expectation is that out-of-home placement is a temporary situation and continuing services can ultimately reunify the family and restore the parents’ rights of custody and responsibility. “Even when a child must be placed in substitute care,” explains Ruckman, “our agency continues to view the entire family as the primary recipient of services. Families are engaged to work jointly and responsibly with the agency to find solutions to the problems that led to maltreatment, and to develop and implement a plan for reunification.”
If you have questions or concerns about suspected child abuse and/or neglect, please contact the Rio Blanco County Department of Social Services, (970)878-9640 in Meeker or (970)878-9645 in Rangely.
By Shannon Sheridan, RBC-DSS