November 2018

This month we examine an especially wrenching issue: When is it justified to remove a child from his or her home in the name of safety?

It should be obvious that this question invites two kinds of error: In one type of error, a child remains in a dangerous home, and harm occurs or continues. In the other type of error, a child is removed from a home when no danger exists, or when the danger is so small that it is outweighed by the harm of removal.

And such harm is not negligible: Our lead essayist, family attorney and author Diane Redleaf, describes one such case in her essay, and she offers data and supporting context to argue that in the United States, Child Protective Services can be far too quick to remove children even from untroubled homes.

Yet intervening in family life does seem obviously justified in other cases. Here to talk about the many ways in which the process can both harm and help are Professor James G. Dwyer of the William and Mary School of Law and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Walter Olson. Each will write an essay, and conversation will continue through the end of the month. Comments will be open for one month as well, and readers are invited to join the discussion.

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Lead Essay

  • Diane Redleaf describes how Child Protective Services operates, using one particularly troubling case as a focus. Yet millions of children are named as suspected victims of abuse every year, and many of these end up being removed from their families, whether temporarily or permanently. Redleaf describes how parents may be subject to strong tactics to secure removal—and how these tactics can easily affect the innocent.

Response Essays

  • James G. Dwyer says that Child Protective Services may already err in favor of the parents. Child separations are never an easy call, but the incentives at hand, Dwyer argues, are likely already arranged such that in general children are not removed from a home more often than they should be. Indeed it’s quite possible that the opposite is true, Dwyer says.

  • Walter Olson finds that the problems with Child Protective Services are of a kind with problems that affect many other agencies of government. He draws readers to consider these similarities and proposes several ideas that aim at reform. On many of his points, transparency and accountability emerge as key considerations. Bureaucrats seldom want these, but bureaucracy quickly grows abusive without them.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: Children’s Safety and Liberty,” February 2013

Cato Unbound: Families, Tribes, and the Indian Child Welfare Act,” August 2016