The Telegraph reports that the British government intends to take the baby away from a pregnant, single woman with a troubled past as soon as the child is born.
No doubt a newborn is better off growing up with a married couple than as the illegitimate child of a single mother on the mend, but the case is still troubling. Our modern system of taking kids away from parents is troubling, to be honest. Not wrong, not immoral, but troubling.
Its subject to abuse. I’m familiar with a couple of instances of the state overreaching, where a social worker just took a disliking to a parent or where there are legitimate differences over parenting style. But most of the abuses I’ve heard of involve private manipulation. I’ve heard of divorced parents manufacturing allegations of abuse and children threatening their parents with manufactured stories of abuse if the parents didn’t give in to the children’s wishes. I was there when a neighbor woman threatened to call child welfare on my parents because they were letting us play outside in a gullywasher.
It also seems necessary. I’ve heard or read about children beat to death or horribly tortured (in the usual case, by a single mom’s new boyfriend with no biological connection to her kids). And friends of ours are foster parents who work hard with their boys only to see them sent back to their druggy, convict relatives.
Studies show that children taken away from their parents do worse than if they stayed except in extreme circumstances, even if they go to good foster homes (probably for the same reason that divorced children usually do worse than if their parents stay together, even if their parents are model divorcees-the disruption itself is the problem). So to the extent that I have any convictions on the subject, its probably that children shouldn’t be taken away from their parents until the damage has already been done.
In an email conversation, reader Ray reminded me that maybe half-formed convictions based on a smattering of studies and anecdotal reading and gossip could profit from seeing what the gospel has to say on the subject.
The scriptures repeatedly command parents to teach their children the gospel. They also make parents responsible for feeding and clothing their children. Since example is a powerful teacher, the parental duty to teach children implies a standard of behavior. Likewise the parental duty to care for children’s physical well-being implies refraining from permanently deleterious abuse.
The Proclamation on the Family gives parents a broad responsibility:
Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Psalms 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wivesâ€”mothers and fathersâ€”will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.
And anyone who has attended Priesthood Session anytime in the last few years knows President Hinckley’s views on abuse, including the “emotional abuse” of children.
Still, while these scriptures lay out parental duties, none of them say what should be done when those duties are ignored.
The scriptures tell us that if we don’t magnify our stewardships, they will be taken away from us and given to others. I have applied this idea to children before. But as far as I can tell the scriptures don’t apply the idea to children, and, even if they did, they don’t tell us who is entitled to terminate someone’s stewardship nor by what standard they should judge.
The Doctrine and Covenants does suggest that priesthood authority can be self-terminating ( “amen to the authority of that man”) and what is true of priesthood authority may be true of stewardships generally, but in practice we don’t treat priesthood authority as self-terminating. We recognize the validity of priesthood ordinances performed by priesthood holders who were not really worthy at the time (see discussion here) and we think that it actually requires an act by the presiding authority to strip priesthood power. As far as I know, we don’t have any equivalent to the Catholic concept of automatic, self-executed excommunication.
How about Church practice? Joseph Smith adopted children, the Church encourages single mothers to put up their children for adoption, and the Indian Placement program worked somewhat like a private foster care program. Voluntary transfers of custody are clearly acceptable for the children’s benefit. None of these involved, or were supposed to involve, involuntary transfers however
We probably shouldn’t expect to find anything direct in scripture. As far as I can tell, taking children away from nasty parents is a modern development that postdates almost all of our canonized revelation. (I can think of a few contrary instances–the Ottomans partly justified taking Christian children to be Janissaries on the grounds that the children needed to be Muslims for the salvation of their souls, and I believe that Jewish children were occasionally taken away from their parents in pre-modern Europe for the same reason, though these weren’t revelatory periods).
I’ve shot my bolt, dear readers. Do any of you know of any scripture, sermon, teaching, sacred history, or practice that bears on the subject?