America’s Failing Child-Protection System

“In her recent Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver describes the situation of a young boy whose father dies before he is born. His mother struggles with addiction, but Demon manages to get by somehow—mostly with the help of his next-door neighbors. His situation goes south quickly, though, around the age of 10, when his mother invites her new boyfriend, Stoner, to live with them. He beats Demon, locks him in his room for days at a time, and makes him scrub the floors with bleach until he practically passes out from the fumes. And Stoner prevents Demon from having any contact with the caring neighbors. It is Stoner’s presence in the home that arguably leads to Demon’s entry into the foster care system. She watches idly, frightened to lose this man, as her child is subject to the worst kinds of maltreatment.

Though we don’t like to think about it much, one of the primary functions of parents is protecting kids from other adults who would do them harm. In the popular imagination, this takes the form of keeping strangers from pulling children into an unmarked white van. But in reality, this means ensuring that they are left with a babysitter whom we have vetted, or that they are enrolled in a school whose staff we trust. This especially means keeping dangerous adults out of our homes. Children, like Demon, who are living with a nonrelative male are 10 times as likely to be abused as those who are living with two married parents.”


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