Let’s say you were just at a restaurant and a little kid ran away from her parent and into the kitchen — an environment with flames, hot grease, knives, slippery floors, and all manner of other dangers. And the parent did nothing to stop it, thinking it was a cute game of hide-and-seek. Or let’s say you witnessed someone with a kid in their car make a sudden and unsafe maneuver. Or let’s say you were at a store and saw a child climbing the shelves, handling knives or other dangerous implements, and the parent did nothing. Or any sort of scenario you might imagine in which a parent of a small child appeared to do something dumb, either overtly or by omission.
You’d have a little part of you that thought “some people are too stupid to have kids,” wouldn’t you? You’d be thinking, “it’s always the really dumb people who breed too much.” You’d fear that society was devolving to Idiocracy. And a little tiny part of you would be glad that there are governmental agencies that will take children away from unfit parents. At least, I suspect you would, because in those situations, I sure would think those things.
The duration of time between your most recent unpleasant interaction with a parent who struck you as unintelligent (and the undoubtedly annoying behavior of the child that resulted from it), and the time you read these remarks, will undoubtedly influence the strength and eagerness of your response to these thoughts. If you’re like me, and you already have a low tolerance for unpleasant child behavior and a hair-trigger impulse to blame neglectful parents for it, then that will also be a factor.
But actually making and implementing policy based on such hair-trigger responses is not always a good idea.
Now, read this story from the UK. There, a woman is having her three-year-old daughter taken from her. The girl has some tough medical challenges, and the mother was tested as having an IQ of 71. To help put this in context, I’ve found an IQ bell curve and posted it to the left — every fifteen points of IQ represents about a one-sixth deviation from the “average” score of 100, such that a little bit more than two-thirds of the population falls in between 85 and 115. A score of 71 is very close to two full standard deviations from average; put another way, approximately 95% of adults in the UK score higher than her.
Some people believe in IQ tests as a true measure of intelligence; I am skeptical, but I do think the test measures something related to intellectual ability. So at least according to the test, this is not a particularly clever lady.
But even if true, is that really a good reason to take her kid away from her? Let’s just assume for a moment that she is indeed that dim. (Her court-appointed attorney protests that she tests at 86, or at the low end of the first standard deviation, for a variety of measurements of mental facility.) She has had her custodial rights restricted already, but now the court overseeing the case has ordered that the kid be put up for adoption, taking the kid away from the mother permanently, with only very brief visitation rights.
Indeed, the court in the UK ruled that this woman is not intelligent enough to competently give direction and assistance to her own lawyer, and empowered the lawyer to act unilaterally on her behalf — which consisted of rolling over and agreeing to the government’s decision to put the kid up for adoption. The Times article makes it seem like once the kid is put in a foster family, the natural mother is, for all practical purposes, never getting her back.
There is no suggestion that the mother irresponsibly neglected any of the daughter’s medical or other needs. She may have found keeping up with the schedule of getting the kid to a variety of doctors and specialists challenging — anyone would, given a busy enough schedule, but let’s assume that this is indeed mentally taxing for her, and not just frustrating as it would be for someone in that middle two-thirds of the IQ bell curve.
Would you want to live in a society where the government really does things like break up families because the parents are literally too dumb to raise kids? My presumption is no, dumb people have rights too. But the answer is not nearly so obvious, on either side of the fence, as it might seem at first blush. The libertarian position, that the government has no business doing this, is the one I favor on balance.
But, a parent who truly lacks the intellectual ability to raise a child can easily put the child in danger through neglect, and never realize it — maybe never even have the ability to realize what’s going on. The need to protect children, who lack the experience and mental ability to look out for themselves, is not trivial. This is why there are laws against sexual relations with minors — they lack the experience and mental ability to have that kind of relationship; this is why there are laws against letting kids drive, because they lack the experience and mental ability to do so without endangering themselves and others; this is why there are laws against child labor because kids lack the experience and mental ability to protect themselves from being exploited (hell, adults do not do such a good job of protecting themselves from harm while doing those things).
So I guess where I come down is I need to see a really compelling case that a child is endangered before I’d side with the interventionists. What disturbs me about this case is that I cannot glean from the Times article what facts are there that make this a really compelling case. Indeed, if the mom here was able to get the kid to see her doctors, as the article indicates she was, then I think that argues in favor of letting her keep her parental rights. Just because she may not be the sharpest tool in the shed does not, by itself, seem to be a good reason to take her daughter away from her.