March 24, 1999

Statist Intervention in Child-Rearing Is a Dangerous Trend

By Robert Holland

In a post-industrial society tending more to collectivism than individualism, parents are no longer honored figures. Presuming all parents potential abusers, the nanny-state now sends out swarms of "experts" to monitor the rearing of America's children.

The ultimate social intervention -- just one short step from state licensing of parents -- entails nabbing first-time parents when their newborns are still in the hospital nursery. The idea is that agents of social uplift will go into private homes to "train" these parents for up to 50 visits annually per family. Expectant parents are enlisted by being asked to sign permission forms at the hospital, where amid all the excitement of a first birth they may not be aware of the implications for their privacy and parental rights.

Information that the agents collect from families will be put into a nationwide computerized system called the Program Information Management System (PIMS), which will contain medical and psychological entries and observations on family relationships. PIMS' tracking of a newborn's development could easily be linked with other preschool and public-school databanks currently being expanded. Eventually the information in a comprehensive, permanent record could be shared with employers when an individual applies for a job.

Presented as a way to prevent child abuse, this movement has far broader implications. As Congressman Henry Hyde observes, "This is Big Brother intervention as we have never seen it before. It is a case of the 'village' mentality run wild. American have never experienced such intrusion in their family lives."

The lead organization is the Chicago-based National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA). In a statement on their website (, NCPCA leaders declare that "parenting is too often a responsibility that cannot be performed alone. It is imperative for communities to support overburdened families with resources so that parents can provide their children with a safe and supportive environment."

That echoes an assertion by First lady Hillary Clinton at a White House child-care conference that parents may mean well but do not necessarily know what's best for their children. On October 1, 1997, The Washington Post quoted her as saying the following in support of public child care: "A lot of times they (the parents) don;t know what is quality. If somebody's nice to them, it doesn't matter that they don't know the difference between caring for a one-year-old or a four-year-old."

Mrs. Clinton and her Children's Defense Fund allies have expropriated the African proverb, "It takes a village to rear a child," in an attempt to justify sweeping intervention in family life.

The key program is the NCPCA's Healthy Families America (HFA). It was launched in 1992 in partnership with the Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Freddie Mac Corporation, but as of Congress' 1997 reauthorization of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the program has picked up major federal funding to go with backing from several left-wing foundations (such as Annie E. Casey, Rand, and Carnegie).

The federal act expanded Family Preservation and Support Services with $275 million for Fiscal 1999, $295 million for FY 2000, and $305 million for FY 2001.

"Unfortunately," Congressman Hyde notes, "most members of Congress were not aware of the inherent dangers in this program. Preventing child abuse is admirable and removing children from homes where abuse is indicated is necessary. However, using Family Preservation and Support Services to investigate every first-time parent in America in an effort to identify the troubled ones exceeds any authority previously given to any government agency."

HFA is rendered more difficult to follow by being given different names in virtually all the 40 states in which it operates to date. For instance, in Georgia, it's called "First Steps"; in California it's "Welcome Home Baby" or "Safe and Healthy Families"; and in Hawaii it's "Healthy Start." In Virginia, the program is embodied in the "Healthy Families Initiative," which has operated mostly in the Fairfax and Hampton Roads areas, with General Assembly support of more than $1 million.

As with the related federal Goals 2000, HFA often carries the label "voluntary" -- yet the NCPCA describes its goal as providing "universal home visitation for all new parents and intensive services for families most in need." It calls for coordinating the work of paraprofessionals and volunteer home-visitors with professionals such as social workers, public-health nurses, and guidance counselors. Critics charge that parents who decide they want out of the visitations could be reported to Child Protective Services and possibly even lose their child to state custody.

While "high-risk" families are to receive more intensive and longer-term scrutiny under HFA than other parents, definitions of "high-risk" are elastic. Almost any family could be deemed high-risk, with risk factors like the following: "inadequate" income; inability of parent to cope with inappropriate child behavior (in the parent-trainer's opinion); overindulgence or "spoiling" by a parent; low functioning of parent due to various conditions, including being "too heavy"; and negative reactions, such as "getting angry" about a child's actions. Of course, social-service agents have an incentive to identify as many "at-risk" parents as they can, because that increases their budgets.

What's going on in the guide of preventing child abuse dovetails with massive new tracking ventures by the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the year 2000, for example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study will begin following thousands of newborns through their sixth birthdays. Federal investigators will use birth certificates to collect the names of newborns, and when the infants are 9 months old federal "assessors" will visit their homes (according to the December 16 issue of Education Week) -- there to "interview their parents, observe parents and children at play, and evaluate the infants' growth and development."

Soon there may be a governmental presence in every home. All this will undermine the American family, not strengthen it.

Robert Holland is a columnist and op-ed editor with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him via email at

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