LP03: Shell Takes on DHS

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LP03: Shell Takes on DHS

by Ari Armstrong, May 7, 2003

"A 2-year-old Pueblo boy who was returned to his mother by county social services after a child-abuse incident last year died Saturday of a massive brain hemorrhage, authorities said," reports the Rocky Mountain News April 22. The mother's boyfriend was allegedly involved in the injury.

Libertarians believe people do not gain their full rights until they reach maturity. However, young children certainly have rights, and they may be defended even against abusive parents. The problem is, how do we ensure the rights of children and at the same time protect the rights of parents?

Ideally, children would always be removed from physically abusive situations, but never from reasonably safe homes. But it isn't God's job to sort out the cases, it is the job of bureaucrats, and bureaucrats don't always have the knowledge or incentives to do the right thing.

According to Suzanne Shell, who addressed the Libertarian Convention April 6, the Department of Human Services regularly preys on disadvantaged families for financial gain and imposes great harm on the children involved.

Often in the state system, "the mere allegation of wrong-doing is treated as proof of guilt," Shell said. One institutional problem is that parents are deprived the due-process rights afforded to others. Another problem is that federal grant money is tied to the number of children taken from their families. "The incentive is to remove the child from their home to get the money... Our children are commodities to the U.S. government and the state government," Shell said.

Shell said children have been removed on such pretexts as parents having insufficient food in the refrigerator or having a dirty carpet. Unfortunately, she added, less-educated parents often give in to DHS demands, even though if they pushed the matter juries are generally sympathetic. Shell, as founder of the American Family Advocacy Center, educates parents who are at risk of having their children taken.

Shell said DHS often allows hearsay evidence and even pushes children to admit abuse that never took place. Interviews are not always conducted in psychologically legitimate ways, she added, and some case workers are unqualified for the work they do.

Once children are removed from their families, they sometimes get abused in foster care. Foster care providers are also paid by the state, so the incentive is not always to do the best thing for the child.

Shell stirred up quite a controversy a couple years ago when she went to the state capitol to support a reform law. She said she had been videotaping the session for some time, but then she was arbitrarily asked to move to the back of the room. She refused, and the bill's sponsor pulled it from consideration. Shell said she has learned parents have to stand up to the powers that be.

Shell is discouraged by the lack of progress both in the courts and the legislature, though she takes comfort in the jury system. "We are reaching the point where civil disobedience is necessary," she said.

Libertarians can theorize how the rights of children would be protected in a fully free society. Today, though, libertarians should push for legislative reforms that make state-sponsored abuse less likely. Shell only talks about the horror stories on one side of the issue, and surely it's prudent to acknowledge the horror stories on the other side. At the same time, it's hard to think of something more repugnant than a bureaucrat who abuses children in the name of helping them.

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