Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Best Interests of the Child - Part 2

I introduced "The Best Interests of the Child" in a previous post here. in this post, I continue my discussion of this manual of child placement with the preface and first introduction. But first a little more on a couple of the authors.

Anna Freud, a posthumous author, was Sigmund Freud's youngest daughter. She was apparently his favorite and sought to follow at least partially in his footsteps but focusing on the psychoanalysis of children. Wikipedia provides an outline of her life and notes that she "did not have a very close bond with her mother and had difficulties getting along with her siblings". She suffered from depression and eating disorders. She was extensively psychoanalysed by her father and her dreams were featured in his book "Interpretation of Dreams". She was not exactly what we'd call a "normal" child.

She established and worked at the Hampstead Child Therapy clinic which is now named for her. She learned much of the impact of the deprivation of parental care on children from young war victims and particularly concentration camp survivors. I will return to this as, while it was undoubtedly important work, the children concerned are clearly a far cry from those refugees of the modern divorce industry and to implicitly treat them as equivalent would be an egregious error.

As for the other authors, so far I have found only an obitiary for the second, Albert J. Solnit, who was a professor of child development, psychoanalysis and mental health at the Yale University Child Study Center. There's plenty of praise for his long walk through the hallowed halls of the psychiatry of troubled and disadvantaged children but not much to say about the man himself.

I'll keep looking...

The Preface

This is written by one Barbara F. Nordhaus. Google shows up no hits at all, which makes her pretty impressively obscure. But still, she's the one who thinks "it would be difficult to imagine an expert working in the field of child custody or family law in the United States - or in Canada, England, or many other nations - who has not been influenced by [this book]". Her obscurity notwithstanding, this opinion seems to be supported by the inclusion of the book on various family law reading lists.

She also says "This book will reduce the temptation to convert guidelines into an instruction manual" a couple of paragraphs after "Readers will benefit from the new format, which no longer requires them to consult separate volumes in putting together the relationship of invocation, adjudication, and disposition in the decision-making process". From this I take the implication that one need not consult any other books when coming to a decision and it escapes me (much does)how this might be different from an instruction manual, especially given the tone, layout and goals of the book.

Introduction to the paperback edition

Despite my issues with their conclusions, there are, of course, many wise words in this book. The authors have been around and seen a lot, and this is what makes their mistakes, sorry, conclusions potentially all the more dangerous even while their accumulated wisdom makes the basis for much that is positive:

...there is little consensus, in law or in science, about what "best interests" means. In the absence of a clarifying definition, personal preferences of lawyers, judges, and social workers may govern decision-making. And when two adults compete for a child's custody, "best interests of the child" can easily be subverted by being equated with "the best interests of the more 'deserving' adult".

There are doubtless many among us who are well familiar with this effect. Other potential (and real) failures of the system are introduced:

Failure to recognize and respect cultural differences in the way parents interact with their children may result in removal of children from their parents based on a state agency's culture-bound perception of abuse.

Indeed. But I would take it further. The state agencies have their own culture which is quite different from day-to-day life as any tax payer knows. How real is the life reflected by the tax form manual? Do we really expect the courts to be any different, rule bound and prejudiced? I mean "prejudiced" in the sense of pre-judgement in the expectation that everyone who walks in the door must fit some pre-defined mould just as every dollar that passes through your hands has to have its place in a tax form.

This introduction concludes with 6 points of advocacy:

1. The interests of the child are to be considered separate and apart from the interests of her family as a unit only if and when the family fails to provide [care] according to minimum cultural standards. Until then, the state must leave parents to minister to the child's needs as they see fit...

I have put "her" in bold face because this is the first instance in the book where the authors refer to a generic child. As far as I can tell, they continue to use only the female gender for this purpose throughout the book. There are no boys other than in specific cases. This practise, as far as I can see, is never explained and it stands out like a sore thumb.

I could doubtlessly be criticized for latching onto this on the basis that the predominant use of male pronouns in English literature in general means that an example of the use of female pronouns is not mere political correctness but a small attempt to redress an imbalance. However, I maintain that when it comes to discussions of human nature, it is highly inappropriate, whether the choice be male or female pronouns. It is one of the unreasonable excesses of radical feminism to claim that men and women, boys and girls are the same and should be treated the same. Simple common sense, never mind vast arrays of scientific results show that this is not true.

By sticking to "she" and "her" throughout their book, the authors set a tone which does injustice to fully half of their intended wards. Each time it appears, we imagine a little girl in her summer dress waiting to learn her fate, but not a handsome young boy with scuffed knees similarly bereft.

What are we to conclude? Are the authors pandering to a prejudiced audience? Are they just being trendy? Is there a difference? Are all of the three books written like this? Why could they not have used "his or her" and "she or he"?

2. Once the family ceases to function adequately for a child - if the child is abused or abandoned or when separating parents cannot agree on custody - the state should intervene.

This is interesting - parents arguing over custody are, in this sense, automatically considered together with neglectful and abusive parents. Is that appropriate? Parents are quite capable of fighting over custody while not neglecting nor abusing the children. Oh, I know what they mean, but precision of language is important here and this already exposes an assumption that goes unquestioned. Is this the first point of entry for the wedge? Is it possible to set up laws which require intervention only if there is neglect or abuse? What if there was a default of joint and equal custody and access and to interfere with that or to fail to step up to one's responsibilities to be considered as abuse or neglect? Hmmm. Something to think about...

3. Once the state intervenes it must put the child's interests first, over and above that of even the most "deserving" of adults. Placement of a child must never be used to compensate an adult who has suffered misfortune or injury or injustice at the hands of another adult or the sate; otherwise respect for the blood tie can only too easily be turned against the child's interests.

When this book was written, the term "parental alienation syndrome" did not exist. The authors seem appropriately concerned that child placement should not be used as reward or (but they don't say) punishment for a parent. OK, I can cope with that, but I have something of a problem with the didactic tone. "Must never"? Why not "should not" or "it is an inappropriate basis for child placement..."? This is a book of guidelines after all, and not an instruction manual.

I'll skip ahead to the sixth and last item which says "The placement should be unconditional", and they really mean it. Later on in the book, they argue that the courts should not even assign visitation to a non-custodial parent. Their position is that unless neglect or abuse can be shown, all decisions regarding the disposition of the child should be left entirely up to the custodial parent, apparently for fear of undermining that parent's authority in the eyes of the child. It seems that the custodial parent's attitudes, motivations and actions are to be considered above reproach. I have yet to find any suggestion that obstructing the child's relationship with the non-custodial parent or undermining his or her parental authority is to be considered abuse or neglect.

Remember, it is "difficult to imagine an expert working in the field of child custody or family law ... who has not been influenced by [this book]".

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1 comment:

Mister-M said...

They also didn't have the disgraceful, overinflated "child support guidelines" in place when the book was published... nor automatic wage garnishments... nor license revocation, jail time, and other punitive sanctions for not paying money to the spouse who holds the child.

It's all about the money nowadays, JADF... and always will be until we as a nation step up and find a way to stop this fucking madness.

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