Micro-Macro Connection

Family Privacy Versus Children’s Welfare

One such conflict involves the cultural value of family privacy. Contemporary U.S. life is built on the assumption that what a family does in the privacy of its home is, or at least should be, its own business. Family life, many people believe, is best left to family members, not to neighbors, the government, the courts, or other public agencies. Consequently, American families are endowed with significant autonomy—the right to make decisions about their future or about treatment of their members (see Chapter 7).

Privacy has not always characterized American families. Before the 19th century, people felt free to enter others’ homes and tell them what to wear and how to treat their children. The development of the value of family privacy and autonomy emerged with the separation of home and work and the growth of cities during the late 19th century (Parsons, 1971). Innovations in the amenities available within the home—indoor plumbing, refrigerators, telephones, radios, televisions, central air conditioning, and computers, for example—have all increased the privacy and isolation of American households. Our need to leave home for entertainment, goods, or services has been considerably reduced. Air conditioners, for instance, allow us to spend hot, stuffy summer evenings inside our own homes instead of on the front porch or at the local ice cream parlor. With the Internet, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and home shopping cable networks, family members can survive without ever leaving the privacy of their home. The institution of family has become increasingly self-contained and private.

But the ability to maintain family privacy has always varied along social class lines. In poor households, dwellings are smaller and more crowded than more affluent homes, making privacy more difficult to obtain. Thin walls separating cramped apartments hide few secrets. Mandatory inspections by welfare caseworkers and housing authorities further diminish privacy. And poor families must often use public facilities (health clinics, Laundromats, public transportation, etc.) to carry out day-to-day tasks that wealthier families can carry out privately.

Moreover, the value we place on the well-being of children can come into direct conflict at times with the value of family privacy. At what point should a state agency intervene and violate the privacy of the family to protect the welfare of a child? Does it better serve society’s interests to protect family privacy or to protect children from harm?

Parents have never had complete freedom to do as they wish with their children. We’re horrified at the thought of a parent beating his or her child to the point of injury or death. But we’re equally horrified, it seems, at the thought of the state intruding on parents’ right to raise their children as they see fit. In the United States, parents have the legal right to direct the upbringing of their children, to determine the care they receive, and to use physical means to control their children’s behavior. From a sociological perspective, injuring children can sometimes be the extreme outcome of the widely practiced and accepted belief that parents have the right to use physical punishment to discipline their own kids.

Concern with parents’ privacy rights is often framed as a freedom-of-religion issue. Forty-eight states allow parents to refuse certain medical procedures for their children on religious grounds, such as immunizations, screenings for lead poisoning, and physical examinations. Six states even have statutes that excuse students with religious objections from simply studying about diseases in school (CHILD, 2014).

But it’s unclear what ought to be done when parents’ religious beliefs result in the injury or death of a child. A Tennessee preacher/author named Michael Pearl made national headlines recently for his scriptural advocacy of parents beating their toddlers to get them to submit to authority. Mr. Pearl has sold 670,000 copies of his book, in which he encourages parents to raise their children with “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules” (quoted in Eckholm, 2011b, p. 1). To date, three children have died at the hands of parents who allegedly had this book in their homes. Over the past 3 decades, more than 300 children have died after their parents decided to withhold medical care because of their religious beliefs (cited in D. Johnson, 2009). Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow religion as a defense in cases of child abuse or neglect. Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio allow religious defenses for manslaughter charges and West Virginia and Arkansas permit religious defenses in cases of murder (CHILD, 2014).

Nevertheless, the government does sometimes violate the privacy of a family when that family’s religious or cultural beliefs lead to the death or injury of a member. For instance, in 2012, an Oregon couple pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, who had died from an infection associated with a burst appendix. Instead of seeking medical attention when he became feverish, the parents—members of a church that eschews medicine called the General Assembly and Church of the First Born—prayed for him. He died five days later. Earlier that year, an Oklahoma woman who belonged to the same church was sentenced to 2½ years in prison on a manslaughter charge after she chose to treat her 9-year-old son’s diabetes complications with prayer. He too died a few days later (Newcomb, 2012). In 2014, a Canadian couple was charged with criminal negligence after their 14-month old son died from a treatable infection. Prosecutors said that the child’s death was preventable and that has body had been severely weakened by the family’s strict, vegan diet. The couple shunned traditional medical interventions in favor of prayer (White, 2014).

Concern over increases in juvenile violence has led some cities and states to enact laws that punish parents for not properly supervising their children. Depending on the state, parental liability laws can hold parents responsible for their children’s vandalism, theft, truancy, curfew violations, or illegal downloads (Sen, 2007). In 2005, a jury in Ohio determined that the parents of a 17-year-old boy who assaulted a young girl didn’t do enough to stop him and were therefore responsible for paying the victim 70% of the damages she was awarded ($7 million; Coolidge, 2005). In 2007, a Virginia couple was sentenced to 27 months in jail for hosting an underage drinking party for their child, even though no one was hurt at the party and no one drove (Deane, 2007). Such cases illustrate the profound effects of cultural and political values on the everyday lives of individuals. Situations such as these pit the privacy and autonomy of families against society’s institutional responsibility to protect children and create new citizens.