Wednesday, August 25, 2010

For The Wisdom of Solomon

I read an interesting opinion piece in our provincial newspaper a couple of weeks ago. 

Entitled "Racist Parents, innocent children: What to do?", it referenced a Court of Appeal decision in New Jersey where three young siblings, with given names of Adolph Hitler, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honsztynn Hinler Jeannie (apparently "Honszlynn Hitler" is meant to honour Heinrich Himmler, the Recihsfuhrer of the SS) were removed from their parents, with custody being transferred to the state. 

Is anyone out there actually wondering what got Children's Aid involved in the first place?

Although a family court had previously found insufficient evidence that the parents had abused or neglected their children, the three appeal court judges ruled that the parents had “recklessly created a risk of serious injury to their children by failing to protect the children from harm and failing to acknowledge and treat their disabilities". 

The children's names were not mentioned in the appeal decision and the court relied on other grounds to find the children were in need of protection (the ones noted in the news accounts being that both parents were unemployed and suffered from unspecified physical and psychological disabilities).

And I must say that although we don't have much detail as to the extent of the parents' "disabilities", it does seem rather strange that the state would be granted permanent guardianship solely on those enumerated grounds.  Or, at least not until after extensive services had been put in place in an effort to help the parents remedy their deficits.

The  New Jersey case mirrors a Canadian one where a young child in Manitoba went to school with a massive swastika on her arm and other slogans on her legs, including references to Adolf Hitler and the slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Photos of the markings were shown in court.

“The meaning of that is that black people don’t belong,” the girl later explained to the social worker.

The woman told court Monday she was stunned by what transpired during an hour-long interview with the girl, who frequently used the N-word to describe blacks and said she believes strongly in what her parents taught her.
The girl also gave a graphic description of how to kill a black person, telling the social worker about using a spiked ball attached to a chain and then “whipping them until they die.”

The worker asked the girl if those ideas “scared her.”

“No, black people just need to die. That’s not scary. This is a white man’s world,” she replied.
Although the case was argued as having "nothing to do with infringing on free speech or expression" but rather “longstanding family dysfunction” (including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, neglect, and criminal activity and associations), some, at least, have read the court's finding that the child and her younger brother were at risk of harm from their Nazi-sympathizing parents as proposing that the risk that the child would acquire racist attitudes was also grounds for removing them from their parents.

And the point has been rightfully made that these children were not originally removed from the home the reasons enumerated above; in fact, they were removed from their parents long before these details came out.  No, there's really no other way to spin it other than that they were taken because the children's aid workers didn't appreciate the racist beliefs of the parents.

The case has definitely raised a few legal eyebrows. 

And left at least some of them wondering the universe is, indeed, unfolding as it should:
The case has sparked questions about whether the state has the right to protect children from their parents' beliefs.

University of Winnipeg professor Helmut-Harry Loewen, an expert on hate groups, said while he disagrees with the ideology, he fears taking custody based on beliefs is draconian.

"If children are apprehended based on parents' political or religious beliefs, then one is opening a kind of slippery slope," he said.

But University of Manitoba professor Harvy Frankel, dean of the faculty of social work, said officials did the right thing.

"We should be reassured that this is child welfare practice as it should be."
Which leaves us where exactly?

What is society's obligation in cases such as this - to "protect" the children from their parents' racist and sickening beliefs by taking them out of the home or to, essentially, mind it's own business and let the parents' exercise their freedom of expression and raise their children as they see fit?

And although Mr. Mercer proposes an interesting solution posed by the dilemma of racist parents, I'm not so sure it's the best complete answer.
We certainly can learn from the New Jersey and Manitoba cases what not to do. The New Jersey parents seem to have come to the attention of authorities only after a ShopRite store refused to put Adolf’s name on his birthday cake. In Manitoba, a teacher tried to wash the ink from the girl’s arm.

Both the pastry chef and the teacher let their outrage blind them to what was in the child’s best interests. They might even have been proud of their actions, thinking they took a stand against racism and for what is right. But surely if any child needs acceptance and just an ordinary life, it’s the child of Nazi sympathizers.

“Hello, Adolf! How’s it going? Aryan Nation! Always good to see you!” The best thing to do when in the company of children of racists is to ignore their names and the swastikas on their hands, and to help them to celebrate their birthdays, to welcome them into the game, and to be kind and gentle and affectionate.

Our commitment is to keeping families together, so long as children are not at risk of serious injury, for we respect both the aspirations of parents and the needs of children. But we also have a commitment to each child to regard her as an individual, and a social commitment to equality for all people.

Should it happen, then that we interact with the child of a racist, we have the responsibility to treat that child well while unselfconsciously modelling our own egalitarian and non-racist attitudes.  We shouldn't make a show of our enlightened attitudes at the cost of belittling  or excluding the child.  Easy and gratifying though it might be to express our feelings of horror and offence, our responsibility to the child comes first.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am in complete agreement with Mr. Mercer as to how we should treat the children involved.  Although, I might add, just for the record, that I'm not so sure that there was any evidence of any teachers, store personnel or anyone else belittling or excluding the children in the above families.

But there can be no doubt that our responsibility to these children is to, as he put it, "help them to celebrate their birthdays, to welcome them into the game, and to be kind and gentle and affectionate"; that we must treat them well while modelling appropriate, non-racist attitudes ourselves. Never, ever should we be belittling or excluding such children. They truly are the innocent victims in these messes and how else will we teach them the error of their parents' thinking and behaviour without modeling such appropriate behaviour ourselves?

And yet the much more compelling questions are how do we treat the parents involved?  And how do we treat the families involved?

Nova Scotia's child protection legislation provides for state intervention if a child has experienced or is there is a substantial risk they will experience physical harm, sexual abuse or emotional harm, along with a few more situations which aren't  relevant to this discussion.

Although the above cases are unsettling on so many levels, I think, perhaps, the best we can do in such situations is to ensure that those statutory definitions of when a child is in need of protection are strictly applied, not just when deciding whether it's safe to return a child to their home but also before a child is ever taken into care. 

And although I don't necessarily agree with this constitutional law professor when she speaks of only removing a child if there is physical violence or alcohol abuse, I do think she may have struck that elusive balance in her last paragraph.

A Canadian legal expert said this is the first time in years she’s heard of children being taken from their home because of their parents’ beliefs.
“Not all children raised by neo-Nazis are going to be seized,” said Karen Busby, a constitutional law professor at the University of Manitoba.

“There must be something more extreme. A presence of physical violence, perhaps the presence of abuse of the mother or drug or alcohol abuse.

“Parents do have the basic right to raise their children as they see fit. They have free expression rights, liberty rights and religious rights. When do these views cross the line into harm, causing emotional harm to the children is really up to a child psychologist to decide.”
Like so many things in life, it is a balancing act.

Unfortunately, it's a balancing act where one wrong step in either direction could result in severe emotional harm to a child.  We can't afford to get it wrong.

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