Author: Karen Czapanskiy

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Stanley v. Illinois: Terminating A Rapist’s Paternal “Rights” in Maryland

In my first two posts on the mixed legacy of Stanley v. Illinois, I discussed my preferred relationship approach, some background about the family, why I think some justices may have seen the case as involving racial as well as gender equality, and how I think that could have made a difference.  In this last post, I address one aspect of the negative legacy of Stanley:  the continuing vitality in state legislatures of the idea that paternal rights should be recognized in every man, including a man whose rape of the mother resulted in the child’s conception.

Let me give you a modern example to chew on.  This year, the Maryland legislature considered and refused to pass for the ninth time a bill to remove paternal rights of men when the child’s conception occurred as the result of a rape. Remember that this is 2017, and Stanley was decided 45 years ago.  During much of the intervening 45 years, usually as the result of legislation enacted by state legislatures after Stanley, marital and non-marital fathers have had the same rights as marital and non-marital mothers to the custody and guardianship of their children and to decide about a child’s adoption, regardless of whether the parent exhibited any commitment to care.  A number of states have limited those rights where the conception occurred as the result of a rape, but not all.  Even where the rights have been limited, however, the negative legacy of Stanley lingers.  I’ll demonstrate that point by a close examination of Maryland’s most recent failed attempt.

Maryland’s legislation would have created a process to address the paternal rights of a man to a child whose conception was the result of the man’s rape of the mother.  Under the proposed legislation, the paternal rights of some of these men could be terminated.  If the rights were terminated, the man would be denied the opportunity to make claims of custody and guardianship of or access to his biological child.

Bill with the same goal have been introduced and failed in each of the prior eight sessions of the legislature.  The bill failed this time after a conference committee did not resolve the differences between the bill passed by the Senate with the bill passed by the House.  The House bill went further in terms of allowing the termination of paternal rights.  It is the better example for my analysis since, in my view, even the House bill protects paternal rights in ways that disempower women without enhancing the care and well-being of children.  I think the bill may protect only a small number of mothers who want to protect themselves and their children from an ongoing relationship with the rapist.

Under the House bill, a man’s paternal rights to a child conceived without the consent of the mother can be terminated if he is convicted of nonconsensual sexual conduct, which includes sexual assault on the mother in the first or second degree and incestuous intercourse with the mother.  In the absence of a conviction, the man’s paternal rights can be terminated if the woman proves by clear and convincing evidence that nonconsensual sexual occurred.  Even though Maryland has no marital rape exemption, the House bill also provides that a husband’s paternal rights can be terminated only if he has been convicted of nonconsensual sexual conduct.

In addition to proof of nonconsensual sexual conduct, termination of paternal rights requires a finding, based on clear and convincing evidence, that termination is in the best interest of the child.

A finding of termination eliminates the man’s right to custody, guardianship, access to and visitation with the child.  It also terminates the man’s child support obligation.  If the man is indigent, he is entitled to have counsel provided for him.

In terms of Stanley, many things are interesting about the proposed bill in addition to the fact that it followed eight previous failed attempts.

First, the bill assumes that all biological fathers are the same, just as the Stanley court assumed, and that all of them have the same rights as mothers to be recognized as parents.  In fact, after Stanley, the Court came to a more nuanced place about the rights of biological fathers to be recognized as legal fathers.  Biology, according to the Court in Lehr v. Robertson , offers a man an opportunity to develop a relationship with a child that is shared by no other man, but biology is not enough.  If a man does not seize the opportunity, the Constitution does not require a state to recognize the man’s claim to legal fatherhood.  A rapist who had no further contact with mother and child (or failed to file postcard with a state registry, as provided by New York law at the time of Lehr), therefore, could be constitutionally denied all rights to parenthood.

Second, the bill prohibits termination unless the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the best interest of the child.  If the bill also denied paternal rights to men who fail the Lehr test, this provision would apply only to men who had some relationship with the child or who, at the very least, had admitted paternity prior to an action for termination.  But the bill doesn’t do that.  Instead, it follows the Stanley path and treats all men alike.  As a result, the bill allows for a scenario where a man who has never seen or done anything for the child may get to keep his paternal rights because the mother does not have the resources to mount a convincing case against him about the child’s best interest.

But it gets worse.  Because the bill follows Stanley’s lead of treating all men alike, regardless of prior involvement with the child, it puts impoverished women in a particularly bad position.  Take, for example, the case of a mother who needs public benefits such as cash assistance or Medicaid in order to support her child.  Recipients of these and some other public benefits are required to assign their rights to child support to the state and to cooperate in the establishment of paternity and the order of support.  If the mother persuades the state that the child is the result of a rape, she may get a waiver, but waivers are hard to come by.

Once the paternity and child support suit is brought by the state under the assignment, the father can counterclaim for custody and visitation.  No lawyer represents the mother in such a case; the lawyer who brings the original suit represents the state under the assignment, not the mother.  If the mother tries to defend against the custody and visitation claim on the basis that the child is the result of a rape, the father, if indigent, would be entitled to a lawyer paid for by the state under the House bill.  No lawyer would be provided for the mother.

Third, the bill relieves the man whose rights are terminated of the duty to pay child support.  The bill says, in effect, that child support is a quid pro quo for rights with respect to the child.  That is contrary to the usual understanding that child support is an obligation owed by people who participate in the creation of a child.  In theory, at least, child support is about the child’s well-being, not the father’s sense of entitlement or grievance.

Stanley provides something of an explanation for the anomaly.  Remember that the Stanley court requires the state to respect paternal rights to the same extent that it respects maternal rights.  In the 1970s, when feminist claims were only beginning to be heard, maternal roles and paternal roles were openly recognized as distinct.  Fathers were responsible for financial support of their children, and mothers were responsible for physical and emotional support.  Many states, including Maryland, did not place an equivalent duty of child support on mothers and fathers until five years after Stanley in a decision based in the state’s equal rights amendment.

Fathers “earned” their right to a place in a family by satisfying the financial duty.  If a father satisfied his duty, he “should” be empowered to do what fathers do in families.  The tradition makes sense of a decision to relieve a man who is deprived of the usual power to make decisions about his child from the usual duty of the father to provide financial support.  It makes no sense, however, once one rejects the traditional approach of differentiated male and female family roles or if one puts the needs of the child over a parent’s sense of entitlement.  Including this provision today, 45 years after Stanley and long after gendered roles in the provision of financial support have been rejected as a form of sex discrimination, is indefensible.

The House bill differs from Stanley in one key respect.  It provides greater protection for the married father to keep his paternal rights than it provides for the unmarried father.  The married father’s rights can be terminated only if he is convicted of nonconsensual sexual conduct; the unmarried father’s rights can be terminated upon conviction or upon clear and convincing evidence that he committed nonconsensual sexual conduct.  Of course, if Peter Stanley had been married to Joan Stanley, the state could have terminated his parental rights only upon a showing of neglect or abuse, so the case would never have gone to the Supreme Court.  The Court’s decision placed the unmarried father, Peter Stanley, in the same position he would have enjoyed had he been married to Joan Stanley.

Why is marriage a privileged status in the House bill, even though Stanley points to the opposite path?  Perhaps the answer is that the legislators want to encourage marriage.  If that’s the case, the consequence is likely to be to also privilege European-American fathers, because marriage rates, while lower now than in the 1970s, still tend to be higher among European-Americans than among African-Americans.  An equally likely motivation is a lingering allegiance among legislators to the traditional claim that a husband can’t rape his wife, no matter what the criminal law now says.

The bill is, at best, a crabbed approach to the interests of a woman who was raped, gave birth to the child and wants to raise the child.  Nonetheless, many of the bill’s features are predictable, given what the Court did in Stanley 45 years ago.  If all men and women are the same, regardless of their engagement in caring for a child, then a child should rarely be deprived of an opportunity to have a “father,” even if the “father” raped the child’s mother.  And if mothers need to be under the control of a man, a rapist might be as good as any other man.

What would a better bill look like?  A better bill would respect and valorize all parents who commit to caring for a child and avoid empowering people who assert rights without entering into relationships.  A better bill would focus on and seek better outcomes for parents who lack privilege.  A better bill would not tread on the autonomy of a committed parent because the parent is female.

I think a better bill would differ from the failed House bill in at least six ways.  Here’s my list:

  1. Paternal rights are recognized only where the biological, adoptive or marital father demonstrates a history of care for and connection with the child or otherwise satisfies the Lehr Mere biological or marital connection is not enough.  Therefore, no termination is required where the man who committed the nonconsensual sexual conduct has not satisfied Lehr, because no paternal relationship is recognized in the first place.
  2. Where a man demonstrates his entitlement to recognition as a father because he has satisfied Lehr, termination is allowed where the mother demonstrates that the child is the result of nonconsensual sexual conduct, either through evidence of the man’s conviction or through clear and convincing evidence of the conduct. No discretion is allowed for a court to deny termination, because the mother should not be forced to have a continuing relationship with a man who committed a violent act against her as extreme as first or second degree rape or incest.  If the mother decides to allow the man to have a relationship with the child, the mother’s decision provides no basis for a court to order the mother to continue the relationship.
  3. The termination proceeding follows the same procedures as are used in other termination of parental rights cases.
  4. The termination of parental rights which is ordered because of rape does not relieve the biological father of the duty to provide child support.
  5. Married and non-married fathers are accorded the same protections from termination.
  6. The duty to assign child support and to cooperate in the establishment of paternity and support is eliminated from public benefits law unless the state proves in a judicial proceeding that a mother’s claim of rape is not sustainable. The mother is entitled to have counsel provided in such a proceeding.

A bill that incorporates at least these six features, it seems to me, starts to address the negative legacy of Stanley.  Such a bill would provide sufficient procedural protections to men who are wrongfully accused of nonconsensual sexual conduct so long as they have also demonstrated a commitment to caring for a child.  At the same time, if conception occurred without the mother’s consent, the man’s claim of parenthood could be challenged with a greater likelihood of success, particularly if he has never made a commitment to the child’s care.  The mother’s opportunity to care for the child is better protected against unwarranted attacks by a man using judicial proceedings without good cause.  Most importantly, a woman who has made the commitment to care and raise a child regardless of the pain she suffered from the assault will have greater autonomy.  The law will not indulge in an assumption that a man with a biological or a marital tie to a child is entitled to the same or even greater authority than the mother has in terms of deciding what is best for the child.  Further, the mother will not have to make a choice between her parental autonomy and financial security for the child, if that security depends in any way on support from the biological father or from the state.

I’m hoping that year ten will prove to be the magic year for Maryland to come to terms with Stanley’s negative legacy and to treat rapists as they deserve when it comes to fatherhood.  I look forward to hearing from readers of Concurring Opinions about my views.

 

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Stanley v. Illinois, Race and Gender

In yesterday’s post, I introduced the 45 year old case of Stanley v. Illinois, described what we know about the Stanley family, and introduced the idea that legal parenthood should be recognized only in parents who demonstrate a commitment of care for the child. Today, I turn to what why I think members of the Court may have believed the Stanley family was African-American and what that may have meant for the decision.

If I am right that the Court could have seen the Stanley case as involving both gender equality and racial equality, there needs to be some reason to believe that at least some members of the Court would have viewed the Stanley family as African-American. I think that reason exists.

When race is not mentioned in a society where European-Americans dominate the conversation, the observer usually assumes the parties to be white. That may or may not have been true when the justices looked at Peter Stanley, however.

Think about the confounding parts of the story. For one thing, the Stanleys had children together but they weren’t married. The Stanley children were born in the 1950s and the 1960s when non-marital childbearing was much more common among African-American families than among white families. For another thing, Joan Stanley was probably employed for wages outside the home for enough time to qualify her children for survivor benefits. At the time, relatively few white women worked outside the home, but many African American women did.

As it turns out, Peter and Joan Stanley were both European-American, a fact revealed by the 1940 Census and probably confirmed by Joan’s burial being handled by a white-owned funeral home. The Court had access to neither source of information. I think it justifiable to assume, therefore, that justices could have read the record to demonstrate that Joan Stanley is an African-American woman and Peter Stanley is an African-American man.

How could the conclusion that the Stanleys are African-American influence justices to view the case differently from a case about European-American families? I think there are at least two ways the justices might have framed the case differently. Each framing has positive and negative aspects when it comes to deciding whether to recognize legal parenthood in a parent like Peter Stanley.

First is the importance of the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution. Professor Peggy Cooper Davis has examined how the Court could have seen the Stanley case in the context of centuries-old struggles of African-Americans for legal recognition of their family ties.  Professor Davis traces Stanley back to the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution which were motivated, in part, by the arguments of slaves and of abolitionists about family ties. They argued that one of the worst abuses of slavery was the denial by slave-owners and the law to recognize the rights of slaves to marry and to have the legal rights of parenthood with respect to their children.

Claims about family ties were amplified during the Civil War, when innumerable slaves freed themselves. Many self-emancipated people took refuge in Federal military encampments, where they confronted camp commanders with demands for marriage ceremonies and other indicia of legal and inviolable rights to parenthood of their children. They believed that legal recognition of marriage and parenthood was one of the best ways to defeat the law and practice of slave states to empower masters to separate partners from one another and to sell children away from their parents.

That’s the positive side of the story. There’s also a negative side. Some of the camp commanders looked at the thousands of self-emancipated people in the camps and wondered how to keep them under control. Some concluded that the best way was to require cohabiting people to get married regardless of whether they wanted to. Commanders appear to have been acting out of the view, largely uncontested in the middle of the nineteenth century, that the family was a place of mini-government. That mini-government was not led by an equally-empowered pair of adults. Instead, it was led by the male head of household, the husband and father. Once a woman was married, she would be subject to the authority of her husband, and the camp commander would have fewer people to worry about.

You can see Stanley as reflecting both the positive and the negative sides of the story. Stanley gets recognition as a legal father and protection from unwarranted interference in that relationship, something that slaves never had. At the same time, men in Stanley’s position also get to exercise authority over those possibly-unruly women who bear their children, even in situations where only the mother is taking responsibility for caring for the children.

The second clue to framing possibilities is the Moynihan Report, which was published only a few years before the Stanley decision.  The positive side of the Moynihan Report is that President Lyndon Johnson commissioned it because he wanted to know how to improve the lives of African-Americans. When it was published, however, it shook many people with its claim that the prevalence of female-headed households in the African-American community precluded much of the progress toward civil rights that the Johnson administration wanted to see. The “matriarchy” of the black family was described as pathological. Many people seem to have interpreted the Moynihan report as advocating policies capable of enlarging the power of men in African-American families.

Given the apparent blessing of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a highly visible and respected public intellectual, it’s plausible that justices who wanted to advance racial equality could have thought it wise to expand the authority of fathers with respect to their children, especially when the father is African-American. At the same time, if the court understood the decision as reducing the independence of mothers with respect to their children, that result could be justified as an appropriate way to restrict some of the power of the black matriarchy. Remember that, prior to Stanley, an unmarried woman who gave birth to a child could place the child for adoption without consulting the child’s biological father. She was also the sole legal guardian of the child. In many states, a paternity finding could result in an order for child support without empowering the unmarried father to seek custody or visitation.  After Stanley, the single father could not be deprived of the rights previously exercised solely by single mothers.

If the Court had understood the Stanleys to be European-American, I wonder if it would have heard the case. After all, if Stanley were a lower-class white man, a ruling in his favor would not be viewed as advancing a racial justice agenda. Enhancing his authority as a father relative to the power of mothers has no obvious advantage in a group where marriage before childbearing is the dominant practice, because the married father already had at least equal power with the married mother in the law. All that ruling for Stanley would do, therefore, would be to enhance legal rights affecting non-marital childbearing in a group that generally avoided the practice at the time.

Any assumptions that justices may have made about seeing the Stanleys as an African-Americans were not revealed in the decision. If some justices believed, however, that a decision in favor of Stanley advanced both racial equality and gender equality, a little more explicit attention to intersecting issues would have been a good idea, particularly when it comes to issues of power. Instead, the Court ends up, I think, embedding into the law of parenthood claims about African-American families and the need for men to control the mothers of their children.

Stanley’s legacy has been that non-marital fathers have gained power and some of that gain has come at the expense of non-marital mothers. The change is positive in the many cases where both parents are actively-engaged and committed to their children. It is also positive when the father, like Stanley, demonstrates his commitment to care for the child and the mother is unavailable or uncommitted. But where the mother is committed and the father is not, the outcome gives him a chance for control over her for the sake of a child who gains no benefit.

The negative legacy of Stanley continues to support legal claims of uninvolved fathers because the Court elevated the individual rights of Peter Stanley over considerations of the relationship that Stanley had with the children. The Court might have had reason to do so if it could not otherwise advance an agenda of racial justice, but it’s hard to make that case without buying into Moynihan’s claims that black mothers are in need of male supervision. What the Court could have done instead was to explicitly recognize the intersection of race and gender and try to deal with both in fair ways. In my view, a relationship-based approach does that by respecting and valorizing the roles that men and women play in the lives of children when they commit to caring for those children.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the negative legacy of Stanley in the context of this year’s failed attempt in Maryland to restrict the paternal rights of men when the child is born as the result of the man raping the mother.

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Stanley v. Illinois and Rapist-“Fathers”

I am delighted to return to Concurring Opinions as a guest contributor.  Many thanks to Solangel for her kind invitation.

My posts this week are about the continuing influence of Stanley v. Illinois, 45 years after it was decided.  Stanley’s legacy is positive in terms of encouraging legal recognition of men as fathers to children for whom they provide care and commitment.  The legacy also includes, however, legal recognition of men as fathers in the absence of any involvement, much less care and commitment.  This part of the legacy contributes to the empowerment of men as parents at the expense, in some cases, of the empowerment of women as parents, an ironic result given the gender equality rhetoric of the decision.

One example of the negative legacy is the ongoing controversy about whether a man should enjoy legal fatherhood when his rape of the mother resulted in her pregnancy.  Later, I’ll address that controversy in the context of the recent failure of corrective legislation in Maryland.

In my view, the negative legacy of Stanley reflects unexamined and intersecting stereotypes not only about gender but also about race.  I argue that the Justices may have assumed, without evidence and without express acknowledgement, that the Stanley family was African-American.  If that speculation is correct, the court may have been pursuing what some justices saw as a racial justice agenda along with gender equality claims.  I will address in my next post where the agenda may have led the court.

First, some background.  In 1972, the Supreme Court decided that Illinois was required to recognize Peter Stanley as a parent, even though he was not married to the mother of his children when she died.  Because Stanley, as an unmarried father, was the surviving parent, the state declared the younger Stanley children parent-less and wanted to take them into care.  According to the Court, the failure of the parents to marry was not equivalent to the evidence of neglect or abuse that would be required if the state wanted to take into care the children of a mother or a married father.  The Court concluded that unmarried fathers were entitled to recognition as parents and the same level of process accorded to all mothers and to married fathers before the state could take their children.

In a concurring opinion that I wrote for Feminist Judgments a few years ago, I agree that Peter Stanley was entitled to parental recognition.  I argued that recognition should not arise solely from Stanley’s biological connection to the children, however.  Instead, Stanley’s entitlement should be based in the level of care and commitment he had demonstrated for his children.

My concurrence reflects two strands of feminist thought.  First, many feminists emphasize that caring relationships should count for more in the law.  Second, many feminists agree that law needs to take stories into account to provide context and support reality-based law-making.  In particular, courts do a better job deciding cases when they see people’s relationships to one another as meaningful, particularly relationships of support and care.  Understanding law in the context of people’s lives, their “stories,” is equally essential.  The Stanley Court did little of either.  Instead, the Court came to a broad, abstract conclusion that all people who claim parenthood through a blood relationship, marriage or adoption are the same, regardless of what any of those people have demonstrated in terms of connection with the child.

I am not arguing that a feminist Justice would have dissented; I agree with the outcome of the case.  The record, as I will discuss, demonstrates that Peter Stanley was involved with his children, shared a household with them, and was concerned for their future.  His marital status should not be cause for depriving him of parental status; only a finding of unfitness should justify that deprivation.

Where the Court and I part company is on the question of why.  The Court justifies its rule on the basis that the father has a right to be treated the same as a mother.  In my view, the parental rights of any person, whether father or mother, should turn on whether the person has a relationship with the child that demonstrates a level of commitment to the child’s care.  Where a person with a formal claim to parenthood, whether through birth, marriage or adoption, has never exercised any commitment to the child’s care, the state should be allowed to disregard that person’s claim to parenthood.

The Court’s focus on equality strikes me as not coincidental, but I’m not sure it was solely gender equality that the justices were thinking about.  In my view, at least some of the justices saw Stanley as part of the Court’s racial justice jurisprudence.  In light of this possibility, it also seems important that members of the Court probably thought Peter Stanley and his family were African-American, as I’ll discuss later.

The case is a good example of how claims about racial justice and claims about gender justice may lead to confounding results if not understood and examined contextually.  Empowering Peter Stanley to resist state intervention into his family because of his biological attachment to the children has been interpreted over the years since as empowering all unmarried fathers to be recognized as parents.  Once recognized as a parent, these men have the opportunity to restrict the autonomy of the mothers of their children in parenting decisions such as adoption and custody.  That outcome is inconsistent with preferring involved, committed and caring parents, whether male or female, over others whose connection to a child is solely formal or biological. Ironically, that outcome is hostile, in many cases, to respecting women’s equality.  The risks may be greatest for women of color.

My conclusion is that a relationship-based approach to Stanley’s claims would not have led to a different result for Peter Stanley.  Because a relationship-based approach adds context to the question of who should be recognized as a parent, further, it would help to counter the empowerment of the uninvolved parent that has been the negative legacy of Stanley.

To understand Stanley, it helps to know something about the story of the Stanley family.  The record, however, is scanty.  Here’s what we know from the record and additional research.  Peter and Joan had a long-term relationship and may have believed they were married, although no documentation was ever uncovered.  All accounts show them living together during the last few years before Joan’s death.  For the 17 or so years before that, they lived together continuously or intermittently, depending on whose account is accepted.  Their oldest child was found to be neglected at some point before her mother died.  The two younger children were born in the last few years before Joan’s death, and they were living with Joan and Peter when she died.  We also know that Social Security survivor benefits were paid for the three children, which seems to mean that Joan Stanley earned a salary for some period of time.  Money was tight, at least after Joan’s death.

Here’s some of what the Court’s record does not reveal:  whether Joan or Peter would identify themselves as African-American or European-American, what they did for a living, whether both provided economically to the family, what led to Joan’s early demise, whether Peter cared for her during her illness, and what the oldest child experienced before or after her mother’s death.

In my next post, I’ll discuss why I think members of the Court may have regarded the Stanleys as African-American and what that may have meant to them.

 

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Empowering Law Students in a Time of Trouble

The presidential election of 2016 ended with a stunning upset. The result left many people concerned about the future. As a law professor, I think I have a special responsibility to think about those concerns, because my students are becoming lawyers at a time when our nation may need lawyers more than ever.

This fall, I’ve taught a small group of first-year students. We’ve worked on much more than civil procedure doctrine; we’ve worked on lawyering.   Students have to attempt uncomfortable arguments, analyze in unaccustomed ways, write “like lawyers,” and attend to details of facts and procedure.

Before the election, I’m not sure I’d explained why lawyering matters. As John Adams said in 1780, this is “a government of laws and not of men,” that is, a government of laws and not of individuals. If, as many fear, President-Elect Donald Trump acts as though he does not understand what a government of laws means, we can despair, or we can do what lawyers do: use our power to keep government within the law and not use government power in pursuit of individual gain or to injure some groups while helping others.

Law students sometimes lack an appreciation for the primacy of law. When we examine the Constitution, some are surprised that Article I is about the Congress, the body charged with enacting laws. Article II concerns the executive branch, which is charged with carrying out the laws. While students (and many lawyers) think the courts are more important, we only hear about them in Article III.   The creation of law comes first; execution, interpretation and enforcement come later.

The idea that federal government officials use their power solely as authorized by the Constitution and by laws enacted by Congress is plainly an aspiration and not always the reality. The smaller the gap, the more confident people feel that we are protected from government going awry.

Students in civil procedure read many cases in which government goes awry, starting with Pennoyer v. Neff. The Supreme Court said no when a court allowed a plaintiff to use government power to limit a defendant’s rights in his property without giving the defendant notice in advance. Even a court is not permitted to use power except consistently with the law. No government official or government institution is permitted to act illegally – not the president, not the Congress, not a judge, and not a police officer.

Over the course of my career, my colleagues and I have frequently had to insist that government officials act legally. Some of these officials have been Democrats and some have been Republicans, but all are subject to the law. We’ve argued and won child custody and family violence cases by demanding that the judge decide the case based on the law and not out of gender bias. We’ve persuaded courts not to convict a defendant unless the state has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a crime. We’ve forced state government agencies not to deprive poor people of Medicaid when federal law says that Medicaid is due.

Because we are a government of laws and not of individuals, people can be asked to believe that government officials try to act within legal boundaries. When government fails, people have the right to demand an end to illegality.

What do law students need to know about lawyers, law and power? My students learned from Buffalo Creek that residents of a flooded valley believed they would never be compensated for their devastating losses. They were convinced that the coal company which caused the flood possessed all the power and that they would be denied justice.

Some residents asked a lawyer to help. Why a lawyer and not a minister or a legislator? Because the lawyer’s job is to make the system work for all, to insist that we have a government of laws, not of individuals. That kind of government is fair and unbiased. Under that kind of government, a coal company cannot make courts to do whatever is good for the company, regardless of law and facts. With the help of a lawyer and his firm, the residents won, and the coal company lost.

Imagine that you are an African-American who has concluded from this presidential campaign that nobody is standing up for you. When you say that racism is behind police killings in your community and that your right to vote is attacked because of racism, you are told that only racists accuse people of racism. Imagine that you are an immigrant or a refugee. You are told you don’t belong here, and you are told that you will be thrown out. Imagine that you are a woman who objects to being groped and demeaned. You are told you are overly sensitive and that nobody does those things; they just talk about them. Imagine that you are Jewish or Moslem. You are told that you cause more trouble than you are worth to this society. Imagine that you are disabled. You are told that you are a freak who can be mocked with impunity.

I am not imagining these threats. What prevents people from concluding that our next group of government officials will not be scrupulous about fighting the threats and complying with the law? What hope do people under attack have in the aspiration that this is a government of laws and not individuals?

As lawyers-to-be, my students need to understand that they will have power to share. As lawyers, we are entrusted with knowing the law. We see when government officials are overstepping their boundaries. We can help educate the public, we can offer help, and we can put our knowledge and skills to work. I hope my students have learned some lawyering this semester. Even more important, I hope they appreciate the power of lawyers to enhance the lives of others who need our nation to have a government of laws and not a government of individuals.

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Special Education v. Democracy

Last week, I promised to say a little more about why it is controversial to suggest that school systems make public and commit to educational plans for groups of students with special needs. For those of you who have taken administrative law and who don’t spend time in the special education system, it must seem heretical to suggest that public agencies like school systems might not have a duty to reveal policies that affect a member of the public and to commit to following the same policies when similar cases arise. Indeed, both of those principles are enshrined in, respectively, the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act at the federal level and in similar statutes in most states. The principles make great sense in terms of democratic ideals which demand that unelected administrators must be accountable and that accountability requires both transparency and a commitment to equal treatment.

In the arena of special education, however, there are a couple of countervailing principles. The first is the idea that every child is different from every other child. So every child in need of special education should have a unique plan developed specifically for that child. The second is privacy. Since the need for special education can be stigmatizing, each child’s plan should be developed in a way that does not expose the child and the child’s condition to public view.

Preferring privacy and individualized treatment to the exclusion of certain democratic values may have made more sense when special education was first being addressed in federal law in the 1970s. Today, however, I think it’s time to try to balance the priorities differently. Schools have learned a lot about special education, and most no longer formulate a unique plan for each student. Pretty much every 12-year-old with ADHD will be offered the same services as every other 12-year-old with ADHD, as I learned when my son had problems in middle school.

As it turned out, the school system’s usual plan probably would have worked well enough for him, and probably would have worked for most kids in a similar situation. But I had no way of knowing what the usual plan was, so I had no way to evaluate it. Neither did any other parent, expert or others interested in education.  Further, the school system didn’t have to commit to treating my son the same as other similar kids. As a result, schools systems can — and do — adjust their usual plans for reasons that have nothing to do with the child. For example, if I had threatened to litigate, studies demonstrate, my son probably would have been offered more services. If the school system didn’t see me as a litigation threat, he may have gotten fewer.

My proposal is that school systems identify publicly whatever special education plans they think are appropriate for the kinds of situations that arise most of the time, just as they do when they address aspects of the general education curriculum. For example, when middle-school students with ADHD experience problems doing their homework, the plan will include a method for giving parents information about homework assignments other than looking at the child’s own notes. When a 4-year-old on the autism spectrum has communication problems, the plan will include 20 hours a week of ABA therapy. Once the plans have been identified and the public has had a chance to persuade the school system to do things differently, the school system would be required to provide the approved plan to every child that fits the description – no more and no less.

My proposal supports maintaining important privacy values of the special education system in the sense that no individual child’s situation is revealed in the process that I’ve proposed. Further, the values of individualization are preserved in the sense that a child who does not meet the description should not be served by a plan designed for children with other problems. At the same time, my proposal also advances democratic values that are disserved in the current system, including, most importantly, transparency and equal treatment.

1

Special Kids, Special Parents, Special Education

My article Special Kids, Special Parents, Special Education will appear in the Michigan Journal of Law Reform early next year.  Here’s the abstract.  Next week, I’ll blog about why my proposal requiring schools (ie, a bureaucratic organization) to announce and commit to rules about matters that affect members of the public is such a controversial idea.

Many parents are raising children whose mental, physical, cognitive, emotional, or developmental issues diminish their capacity to be educated in the same ways as other children. Over six million of these children receive special education services under mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, called the IDEA. Once largely excluded from public education, these children are now entitled to a “free appropriate public education” or FAPE. In this article, I argue that the promise of the IDEA cannot be realized unless more attention is paid to the child’s parents. Under the IDEA, as in life, the intermediary between the child and the educational system is the child’s parent. The law appears to empower parents to participate in the planning, execution and revision of the child’s individual educational plan. The experience of parents, however, is not often empowering, to the detriment of both child and parent. Instead, many parents confront school systems that do not support their competence or conserve their resources.

I propose three significant reforms to the special education system that, I argue, better serve the needs of parents while improving the chances that children in need of special education will receive it. The three reforms are: 1) requiring schools to help parents be in touch with each other, 2) requiring school systems to commit to common special educational plans through a public process, and 3) adopting universal design pedagogies in general education when practicable. While the most expensive of the three proposals is the preference universal design pedagogies, the most controversial is requiring school systems to commit to common special educational plans for similarly-situated children. If the proposal were adopted, every child with the same problem would be provided with the same educational plan. The individualized plan now mandated would be provided only where a child’s situation is an uncommon one.

None of the proposed reforms is cost-free. I conclude by demonstrating that the costs of parent-oriented reforms are justified for reasons of pragmatism, to comply with congressional expectations, and to achieve social justice for parents with special needs children as compared with other parents and with each other.

5

Diabetic Kids, All Kids, and School Nurses

Much to the relief of many parents whose children have diabetes, the California Supreme Court ruled recently in American Nurses Ass’n v. Torlakson that insulin shots can be administered by school personnel who volunteer and get trained for the job. School nurses, the court ruled, are not required under state law. That’s a good thing for the kids who attend the 95% of California public schools that have no fulltime school nurse. It’s good for their parents as well, since some schools were telling parents to come to school to give their kids their shots, something most employed parents had difficulty doing without upsetting their employers.

But to say, as the American Diabetes Association does, that the decision should make parents of diabetic kids feel confident that their child is in good hands at school is a bit of an overstatement. Whether they can get a routine shot of insulin isn’t the only health issue that kids with diabetes face during the school day. Some will face emergency health issues specific to diabetes, including hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Sometimes, it may take someone with medical training to know whether a shot should be administered at all or if it’s time to do something else, such as calling the ambulance. Diabetic kids also face health issues that other kids face. Like other kids, they fall off of climbing equipment and run into each other, and they may need to be assessed for concussions. Like other kids, they may get too hot when their team is practicing in hot weather, and someone with training will know best whether to get emergency medical care.  Like other kids, they may get sick at school and need to be assessed for whether they need an hour on a couch or a call to a parent. Just as important, someone needs to figure out if it’s time to sound the alert about a communicable disease at the school.

The California legislature apparently decided that school nurses aren’t necessary because of the expense. And indeed it may be difficult to justify spending money on nurses when paying for teachers sometimes seems like a luxury. But what the parents of those California kids with diabetes know, as does the American Diabetes Association, is that a nurse is a better and safer alternative for the kids than a volunteer staff member, even one who is trained. Looking carefully at the diabetic kids, further, helps us understand that school nurses are a very good idea for all of the kids, not just those with chronic conditions. This happens a lot when a person has a disability – solving that person’s problem can improve the lives of others. (Think about curb cuts for wheelchairs the next time you’re pushing a stroller or pulling a piece of luggage on wheels.) All parents, not only those with diabetic kids, need to have confidence that someone at the child’s school is capable of paying attention to serious medical issues. It’s a good issue for parents to join together to solve.

 

3

Opt-Out Moms and Special Needs Kids

A recent New York Times Magazine story addressed what had happened to “opt-out moms,” the women who, a decade or so ago, left high-paying jobs to stay home with their kids.  As author Judith Warner relates, many have gone back into the workforce, most in lower-paying jobs in less high-powered fields than the ones they left. Many of their marriages have changed as well — some have divorced while others have changed from more or less egalitarian partnerships to more traditional arrangements, with moms more responsible for the hearth and dads more responsible for the bank account.

Understanding the stories of highly privileged moms is important because their stories are sometimes thought to express the cultural norms of what parenthood should be about. Warner is careful to warn her readers away from that path by demonstrating how unusual these moms are. First, they occupy a small niche in American society – the upper middle class of highly educated and well-connected women whose equally high-powered husbands were earning enough to maintain their upper middle class lifestyle without the wife’s earnings. Women earning less money and women raising children alone rarely have the option to stop trying to make a living, even if they can’t always do it. Warner makes a second important distinction. These women dove into daily parenthood in with an intensity reflective of a norm that many professionals and ordinary Americans now think is a bit over the top. And third, many of these women enjoy such high social and professional status that, when they decided to return to paid work, their path was smooth.

But there is a fourth distinction that Warner missed, which is about the children. Children differ from one another in how much caregiving they need every day. I’m not talking about whether a child benefits from intensive parenting. I’m talking about children whose health and safety, access to education and medical care, and even capacity to speak and move depends on some adult or adults being there for him or her.

Opt-out moms and many moms with special needs children are both alike and different. They may share a commitment to intensive parenting, for example. Both may have experienced a full or partial unplanned exit from paid labor. Their marriages may exhibit a more traditionally gendered dynamic than other marriages.

Differences are just as striking. Unlike the opt-out moms, many mothers of children with special health care needs do not use the word “choice” to describe the changes in their caregiving responsibilities and employment. They describe themselves as having to do what the child needs.  Their financial losses can be extreme but law and social practices provide few remedies. The fragility of their marriages and other family social relationships can be unusually great. And their opportunities to return to work similar to what they left are highly constrained by the ongoing care needs of their children, not to mention discrimination against parents with unusual cargiving responsibilities.

Take, for example, the case of Keith, who contracted polio when he receiving the vaccine as a toddler. His pediatrician advised his parents that “constant home physical therapy” was needed, so Keith’s mother left her job as a tax attorney to care for him. She lost $173,000 in earnings over the next few years, a loss that is not recoverable under the Vaccine Act. [Riley v. Secretary of Dept. of Health and Human Services, Not Reported in Cl.Ct., 1991 WL 123583 (Cl.Ct.)]. Or consider Justin, whose schooling was interrupted repeatedly by behavior problems connected with his attention deficit disorder. His mother left her job, a management position then paying $50,000 a year, so that she could spend more time working with the school to manage his problems and, when that failed, schooling him at home. Keith’s father successfully moved to attribute income to Keith’s mother in their litigation over child support, which meant she had to go back to work to make up the child support gap, or try to raise Keith in a home with far fewer dollars. [Dunlap v. Fiorenza, 738 A.2d 312 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1999).]

It is vitally important to be aware of differences among parents, just as we see Judith Warner arguing in her article. It seems to me also vitally important to take into account differences among kids. Just like moms and dads, they are not all the same. When their differences make a difference to their folks, their moms and dads might want us to take note.

6

Injured Kids, Injured Parents and Tort Law

When a child suffers a long-term or permanent disability because of someone’s negligent or even intentional act, the child is not the only one whose life changes. The child’s special health care needs become part of the daily caregiving routines of the parents. Those needs might include, for example, taking the child to medical appointments, interacting with health care providers, delivering medical and other therapies, working with a school to develop an educational plan, advocating with social service agencies, etc. On average, a family caregiver for a special needs child spends nearly 30 hours a week caring for the child in ways that other parents don’t confront. Most of the caregiving parents are mothers, and most of them either leave work altogether or reduce their hours of work significantly. Other consequences that caregiving parents face include mental and physical health problems, social isolation, and the deterioration of family relationships.

Let’s say the child’s injuries result from a car accident or from medical malpractice. Does the law require the driver or the doctor to pay damages to the parents for the changes in their lives? Damages for direct costs, such as medical bills, are always allowed. When caregiving reduces the parent’s earning capacity, some states recognize claims for the parent’s lost wages. In others states, responsibility is limited to the cost of employing an unskilled medical aide. In the last group, the tortfeasor owes nothing to the parents.

I call the three approaches “20/20,” astigmatism, and blindness. “20/20” applies to situations where the child is viewed realistically, that is, as a person who, by reason of age and experience, is dependent on parents for direct care and for interacting with the outside world. Law and policy suffer from astigmatism when the child’s connection and dependency are acknowledged, but the consequences that parents face are blurred. (I’ve got astigmatism and can testify to the blurriness!) Blindness is what happens when, as one court argues, parents are responsible for their kids, no matter what – no sharing of costs is appropriate, regardless of the fact that the child would not need unusual caregiving but for the tortious injury.

In my current work, I’m trying to explain why many courts suffer from blindness or astigmatism. One reason is gender. Caregiving is considered women’s work, and women should do it with happiness and generosity, so their losses should not be monetized. If any loss is acknowledged, it should only be those losses that a man might also experience, that is, paying someone else to do the caregiving. Since, for reasons of both gender and race, we pay very little for caregiving jobs, it makes sense to compensate the caregiving parent (i.e., the mother) at the same small rate. Another reason is a lack of foreseeability – perhaps tortfeasors shouldn’t be expected to anticipate that injuring a child would affect a parent’s life, so it isn’t fair to make them pay damages for that harm. This perspective is consistent with a general lack of awareness about the lives of people with disabilities and the lives of their families. That degree of ignorance may have grown over the last half century in light of radical changes in social, legal, and cultural practices around health care generally and disabled kids in particular. Family caregivers now deliver much more medical care at home, for example, and the medical regimes of their special needs children are often more complex. Also, happily, more disabled children are living at home rather than in institutions, and many more are surviving into adulthood and beyond. At the same time, more mothers are now working outside the home. Many parents raising special needs children are doing it alone, so, if a mother has to meet the unusual demands of caring for a child with special needs, her chances of losing her job and falling into poverty increase. A third reason may be horizontal equity. The unusual caregiving demands of special needs children depend on the child’s characteristics, not on whether the source of the child’s special needs is a tort. Covering the lost wages of parents of tortiously-injured children puts those families at an economic advantage compared to families of other special needs children.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on which of the three rules seems to make the most sense, and why.

 

0

Special Kids, Special Parents

First, many thanks to my exceptional and delightful colleague, Danny Citron, for inviting me to blog on Concurring Opinions. My blogging goal is to get you to focus on how law and policy could attend to the needs of family caregivers of special needs children. “Four in ten adults in the U.S. are caring for an adult or child with significant health issues,” according to a new Pew Research Center study. One would think that this large and growing population of family caregivers would command some attention. If they refused to do the job, after all, millions of frail elderly people, permanently-disabled veterans, and chronically-ill and disabled children could be left with nobody to meet their physical, emotional or medical needs. Social welfare organizations and institutions would be overrun, and social provision expenditures would skyrocket.

Refusing to do the job is not an option for many family caregivers, of course, for thousands of reasons, including love, duty and generosity of spirit. But many pay a price in terms of physical health, social isolation, and economic security. In my work about families raising children with special needs, I argue that we need to find ways to spread the costs so that they do not continue to fall almost exclusively on family members who step up.

Here are three examples of law and policy being blind (or at least astigmatic) to the impact of care-giving on these parents. First, when a child’s parents divorce or separate, family law entitles the parent who lives with the child to child support and, in some unusual situations, alimony. Child support is calculated on the basis of the child’s needs, and alimony is determined based on what the payee needs. Both assume that, ordinarily, both of the child’s parents will be economically productive. Where the parent’s special care-giving responsibilities interfere with that parent earning a living, however, child support and alimony are not usually adjusted–there’s no “chalimony.” Second, the public benefits system picks up very little of slack for parents when special care-giving responsibilities interfere with the parent’s earning capacity. Worse yet, since the mid-1990s, states became subject to increasingly stringent requirements in federal law about tying public benefits to the efforts of recipients to get and hold employment. A different route is not unimaginable: in 2009, a stipend was enacted for family caregivers of veterans left permanently disabled during their service in recent wars. Nothing similar, however, exists for parents. Third, if a child’s special needs affect his or her ability to benefit from school, federal law has guaranteed since the mid-1970s that the child will nonetheless be provided with a “free and appropriate public education.” The statute is not blind to the child’s caregivers; in fact, it gives parents specific rights in terms of participating in planning the child’s educational program. What it does not do, however, is make sure that parents can exercise their rights in ways that make sense if their lives are over-stressed because they are caring for special needs children.

As my work continues, I’m looking for additional examples of law and policy that attend to the needs of family caregivers for special needs children, and to those that don’t. If you can suggest a new avenue of research, please let me know.