Parens Patriae: Can the State be a Better Parent?





The concept of parens patriae, or the State as Parent dates to 1899, when the first juvenile justice court was established in Chicago, Illinois. This assumes that the state is a better parent than natural parents. Yet in recent years, Child Protective Services in state after state have come under fire for failing to be good parents, often worse in fact than the natural parents from whom the children were taken.

The idea of parens patriae centers on the problems faced by young people when their birth parents fail to restrain them from engaging in illegal or harmful behavior. When initially developed, there were numerous groups seeking to help juveniles avoid a future of criminal activity. This was to be accomplished through careful State intervention–the system was structured to help, rather than punish wayward youth.

Length of stay in U.S. foster care
Length of stay in U.S. foster care (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When considering Criminal Justice Law, the issue of juvenile justice and the fair and appropriate care of juveniles is tricky.

The U.S. House of Representatives  Ways & Means Subcommittee on Human Resources met on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 with several witnesses to discuss Sex Trafficking and Foster Care Kids. This has become a serious issue because of a transformation which has occurred in the juvenile justice system over the course of the last 30 years.

As more juveniles are treated as adults, the justice system has become more punitive. As a result, many juveniles are transformed into hardened criminals while others are simply tossed aside by the bureaucracies developed to help. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than through the exploitation of those whom the State has entrusted to act as parent–foster parents.

Can the State be a Better Parent? Can Parens Patriae Work?

Opening the Sex Trafficking and Foster Care Kids discussion was a young woman named Wilhemina “T” Ortize Walker Pettigrew.

Articulate and well-spoken, “T” as she wished to be referred, grew up partially on the streets and partially under the parentage of the State via foster care. She is now attending University and working in Washington, DC with the Human Rights Project for Girls where she sits as a Board Member.

“T” told her compelling story and the issue was made clear from the start: The State had clearly failed to ensure that she, like many in foster care, was protected from sexual predators.




Ms T Pettigrew, like many in foster care, was forced into a life of prostitution both by those entrusted to care for her and by circumstances–She ran away from foster care only to find that life on the streets for a juvenile meant making decisions she otherwise would not have made. Today, she works tirelessly to help those in a similar situation escape as did she.

Her story is unfortunately not the exception, but rather the rule.

The situation has become such that once kids are sent into foster homes, the likelihood of ending up a victim of sexual exploitation is approximately 67% according to John Ryan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Ryan, who testified after Ms T Pettigrew presented evidence that the states are failing as parent. Parens Patriae, after 114 years of implementation is failing. But can the situation be reversed or are such at-risk youth doomed to go from bad home situations to worse, state-sanctioned situations?

Suggestions for the State as Parent

Next on the panel was the Honorable Bobbe Bridge, a former Washington State Supreme Court Justice who now works at the Center for Children & Youth Justice as both President and CEO.

English: Orange Grove House. "Where Child...
English: Orange Grove House. “Where Children Grow and Blossom”. A Foster care agency headquarters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judge Bridge testified that the courts, lawmakers, and social services need to conduct further, more extensive studies into the situation. In her years on the bench, she witnessed terrible atrocities committed against such juveniles and in her current work has come to understand that the situation is one which is within the means of society to rectify.  What is needed, in her opinion, is for the Federal Government to encourage studies along with providing leadership among the several States. She noted in particular a lack of leadership in altering policies which currently ensure that such youth are not treated with fairness and justice.

Executive Director of YouthCare Seattle, Dr. Melinda Giovengo

She gave an impassioned plea to Congress to make much needed changes to the structure of the system. In her testimony, Dr. Giovengo pointed out how exploited juveniles are punished by the system for the systems failures:

“To illustrate, consider the situation of a young woman removed from her parents home because of abuse. She is then placed into foster care where she is further abused. She flees and is then “found” by a pimp who forces or coerces her into a life of prostitution, often via the use of drugs and/or threats of violence. She is subsequently arrested.

“Typically, such juveniles only manage to escape their ordeal after reaching maturity. However, she is now an adult with a criminal record. Therefore, those who attempt to help her find that their hands are tied–she cannot receive HUD housing and many other assistance she otherwise would had the State not failed her in the first place.”

When asked by Congress what could be done to help, Dr. Giovengo pointed out that simple changes in the law would make it possible to help such young adults who manage to survive and escape these situations.

Judge Bridge suggested studies into the patterns seen by social workers among foster homes.

Ashley Harris, of Texans Care for Children further recommended improved training for social workers so as to recognize patterns of abuse in these situations as well as a reduction in case loads.

Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) Art.
Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) Art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Images like this were partly responsible for the public interest which led to parens patriae and the development of the Juvenile Justice System in America.

Of course, reducing case loads is no simple matter for this would require the addition of more such workers at a time when budgets of most States are stretched entirely too thin.

But it is ironic that social workers are trained to spot abuse in a childs original home, but not in the case of foster homes.  Correcting this matter seems a simple no-brainer, but the reality is that in most states, those who take charge of children in the model of Parens Patriae are very hesitant to reveal abuses. Thus, many juveniles only go from bad to worse.

The Future of Parens Patriae?

Whether or not Congress will act in a positive manner to correct the situation or not remains to be seen. However, society and social justice workers can do much.

Ms T Pettigrew testified that one of the things which must stop is referring to such teens as “juvenile prostitutes.” She stated emphatically that they are NOT prostitutes because prostitution occurs between consenting persons. Such teens cannot legally decide to have sex with anyone else, thus the consent portion of the term “prostitution” does not apply. Indeed.

Pettigrew believes that a large part of the problem lies with the stigma of referring to such juveniles as prostitutes, thus criminals–in so doing, the system views them not as victims, but as perpetrators of crime.

For the last 30 years, the nation has increasingly promoted the notion that juveniles should be treated as adults, punished as adults, and incarcerated as adults. This even applies when they are victims.  No wonder the State is failing as parent. Until the State recognizes that Kids are Kids, not adults, Parens Patriae is doomed to failure.

You May Also Like to Read…

Criminal Justice Trends: Juveniles in Jail

Is it Possible to Prevent Juvenile Delinquency?

Juvenile Justice System Case Study: A Needs-Based Recommendation

Recommendations for Improvements to the Juvenile Justice System

Understanding Juvenile Arrest Trends in 2008




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