Friday, April 3, 2009

Erin's Law would hurt families

From the 06 April 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Fear is one of the government’s greatest weapons. Those in power use it to manipulate the masses, scaring them into finding value in the unjust expansion of government’s powers. Look at the moxie with which this tool has been used in just the past seven years alone. Using the fear of terrorism to its advantage, the Bush Administration easily persuaded Congress to pass legislation like the Patriot Act, stripping us of our rights to privacy and due process of law. Their successors in the Obama Administration have used our fear of depression to sully the wonders of capitalism and institute the greatest federal controls ever exerted on the free market.

Similarly, it’s fear that drives many pieces of odious legislation at the state level. One such bill is currently a topic of discussion in the Assembly, feeding on concerns for children’s safety. Erin’s Law was introduced by Assemblywoman Joan Christensen and has over three dozen cosponsors and multi-sponsors (among them Niagara Falls’ Francine DelMonte). It is in memory of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell who was found dead in her Oswego County home last August, the victim of sexual assault and strangulation, her stepbrother the suspect. The law was proposed in hopes of guaranteeing that the needless death of a child would never occur again. It would make up for supposed inefficiencies in child protection that appeared during the investigation of Erin’s death. Social Services visited the home a few times in the years prior to her murder and never found just cause to remove her from the home.

To the naïve, there’s nothing wrong with this bill. In their mind, who wouldn’t want to protect our children and ensure that they live in a healthy home? But, like most fear-mongering bills, the end result of what the legislation will impose far outweighs what is the actual risk of recurrence under current practices. In reality, Erin’s Law will probably do nothing to prevent the abuse or murder of a child and will do plenty to tear apart some pretty good families.

It all comes down to interpretation.

The bill sponsors want to change the definition of what constitutes a “neglected child” under the Family Court Act. Currently, neglect occurs when a child’s physical, mental or emotional condition is impaired or in danger of becoming so. That language is more than sufficient. But, even so, they would like to alter it to be more specific and, interestingly, more nebulous. Under guidelines proposed in Erin’s Law, a parent or guardian would be required to, among other things, provide the child with a warm living environment while ensuring that he is kept free of disease and given the psychological and psychiatric care he needs.

Let’s look at how the government could – and will - abuse that law.

First of all, what are the parameters for a warm environment? Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are unemployed right now and those of us who still have a job are saddled with high taxes and worry for the economy. In such times, all of us are looking to save money any way we can. In most homes, that means turning down the thermostat to 65 degrees or below. Does that mean that any parent who does this in order to put food on the table is guilty of neglect for failure to keep a child warm?

Secondly, what is disease-free living? Many parents, through no fault of their own, have raised kids who were chronically sick in their younger years. They may have been battling asthma and allergies or were susceptible to the cornucopia of disease present in elementary schools. At what time does their regular absence from school - or struggle with ailments – signal neglect? Is it really the parents’ fault?

The last point (psychiatrics) is just as tricky, if not more so. We have heard countless reports of how school administrators and teachers have over-stepped their bounds and, despite not being doctors, have demanded that a parent medicate her child for hyperactivity or lack of attentiveness. In most cases this is unwarranted - for it’s kids being kids - and, in all cases, it is completely wrong for schools to force the parent’s hand in this matter. Were Erin’s Law to pass, a school could turn-in unwilling parents to Social Services who would then be required – by law – to exert medicinal mind control on their children. Failure to do so would be classified as neglect.

Flaws like these are often overlooked by those intent on passing laws of fear. In many cases, though, they are known to exist, but the government sees them as being fit, a means to an end. In the case of Erin’s Law, it might mean an end to a good family.

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