CHICAGO, IL – As adults we all have a responsibility to the future of our nation. The old saying “our children are our future” provides each of us with an opportunity to both serve our nation and to serve the well-being of our nation’s children. Ensuring their healthy development is something that should be the norm, not the exception.
The recent story about two Maryland children who were walking home, unsupervised has created a firestorm of controversy and opinion. The incident pits the roles, responsibilities and decisions of parents against those of the agencies that, by law, are required to investigate even the suspicion of child maltreatment. To us, what this story shows is that striking the balance between those two things can be difficult, but that ultimately the responsibility must rest somewhere. And we believe that it rests with each of us.
There is no question that parents ultimately have responsibility over the safety and well-being of their child. Engaged parents know their child best; they take the time to understand their child’s emotional, mental, physical and developmental maturity and they are their child’s first and most important teacher. At the same time, we must recognize that not all circumstances, parents, and situations are perfect or even equal.
There’s also no question that government has a vested interest in the health and well-being of children as well. Child welfare organizations must follow the law of their states as it relates to child abuse and neglect, and these laws typically reflect community standards overall. We are grateful that such dedicated workers like child protective service workers and police officers have committed their lives to the well-being of children and families in general. But families and government are not the only ones responsible for the wellbeing of children.
And this is where the “each of us” part comes in. This incident should be seen as an opportunity to have both parents and government contribute to a shared vision; a vision for the healthy development of all children, regardless of where they live, who they are, or from what cultural-socio-economic group they are a member. Organizations like the Child Welfare League of America are advancing this shared vision through The National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare. The rest of us can help to normalize that.
Those who cite statistics indicating that the rates of children being abducted by strangers are low are correct – about 3% of all abductions, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – just as those who say a child has a greater chance of injury from a trip in the car than a trip to the park are correct. Indeed, we would argue that it should be normal for children to be able to walk home from the park without incident, but it should be just as normal for adults along the way to look out for those children. But both points, while true, miss the larger issue: our collective responsibility to children.
So instead of arguing which law or whose rights take precedent, we should agree that the ultimate goal is to create great childhoods and safe stable environments for all children. We must have an open and honest conversation as to how best we can together share this responsibility to make our communities places where children and families are supported and normalize the idea that we all play a role in the lives of children. From urban planners who work to put parks within neighborhoods, to home visitors from services like Healthy Families America to public policymakers, corporate business people and religious leaders, we all have a role to play. If we want to strike the best balance between parental parenting and government involvement, then we need to truly balance it: a two legged stool will fall, but three will stand strong. Communities must be that third leg.