Laws are provided to protect those most in need. The powerful can take care of themselves. Civil rights legislation offers a voice to women, ethnic minorities, persons of a different gender persuasion, those who are injured, and even to so-called illegal immigrants. An immature child with an unsafe or no home clearly heads this list. As our potentially most vulnerable citizen, the child whose basic need for safe and sane surroundings is seriously in jeopardy has an overriding right to our protection. The child’s rights become primary.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA, 1997) made a basic change in the law. Reversing previous assumptions, ASFA put the rights of the child before those of the birth parents and other adults. As Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee said at the time: “We will not continue the current system of always putting the needs and rights of the biological parents first. It's time we recognize that some families simply cannot and should not be kept together.”
ASFA clearly indicates that the child’s basic needs for “health and safety” supersede the less basic needs of the parent to raise a child. What does “health and safety” truly mean? Two clues are provided. First, the law focuses on those elementary needs without which a child cannot grow up sane and whole. Second, and more convincing are the specific mandated details: the deadlines, the urgency of timely permanency plans (reunification and adoption), and the monetary incentives for adoption.
Following ASFA, the underlying concept of basic needs can be summarized in practical terms. These basic needs endow the child with three primary rights.
- The right to safe surroundings. ASFA declares that the health and safety of the child are paramount, and that this consideration must dominate all others. All children have the right to be free of abuse and neglect. Neglect may well be the more devastating and is too often ignored because it often goes unreported and is harder to substantiate. More specifically, children have a right to be fed, clothed, sheltered, supervised, and protected.
- The right to maintain significant relationships. Certain people are the medium through which our needs are met. These people are not interchangeable. When a child has come to depend on a specific person to meet basic needs, that person and the needs become identical in the child’s mind. To take away the person is to take away the secure feeling that basic needs will be met.
- The right to a permanent home. Children need stability and permanence. A child cannot grow and develop without a firm and unchanging base. Even a less-than-best home is preferable to being shuffled around, never knowing where one belongs. Children can adjust to most situations. They cannot adjust to the moving base of a temporary home, not knowing what happens next, not knowing where they will be tomorrow. Directions to a destination are useless if one does not have a starting point.