Since 1983, the month of April has been designated Child Abuse Prevention month in the US. Although there is certainly more awareness about child abuse today – 35 years later – the number of cases of abuse and neglect continues to rise. Fair Start Movement is taking steps to protect children by urging judges to prevent convicted child abuse from having additional children. Even this very clearly defined and limited step is surprisingly controversial, as society currently privileges parents’ “right” to reproduce above what should be every child’s right to be born into even a minimum level of well-being.
Recently, Fair Start Movement targeted parents in a particularly egregious child abuse case in Tennessee for Fair Start orders. Fair Start Movement selected Tennessee because their legislature is considering legislation HB 2520/SB2133, which would limit state courts’ authority from using coercive family planning as part of sentencing. The legislation is a direct response to one judge’s recent and controversial offers of reduced sentencing conditioned on sterilization. This legislation sets one end of the spectrum of state intervention in family planning – what is not permissible – and that is laudable. Permissible and necessary family planning must also be discussed, however. After all, the state has no greater interest than the well-being of its citizens, including its future citizens.
Fair Start Movement asked Tennessee Governor Haslam to consider working with the legislature to protect future children from abuse, using its existing and constitutionally approved probationary authority. Sharon Helene Robinson and Bradley Dwight Hill stand accused of criminal child neglect after their severely autistic child was found naked, and covered in both human and dog feces, which he was eating. The police reported: “Ms. Robinson stated that she is a meth user and this also contributed to her not caring for her autistic son.”
Fair Start Movement petitioned state authorities to seek a Fair Start court order, in the event the couple is convicted, temporarily prohibiting them from having additional children during the pendency of any probation, in order to facilitate the couple’s rehabilitation and recovery, and, more importantly, to prevent the neglect of any future children.
Fair Start Movement is targeting Tennessee because of what HB 2520/SB2133 expressly says regarding coercive family planning and sentencing, and the broader and problematic message it sends regarding family planning, in general. The model Fair Start order is non-coercive and seeks to strike a balance between the rights of parents and the needs of future children and the community. The charges against Robinson and Hill show a clear need for that balance, and Fair Start orders make clear the state’s compelling interest in the welfare of future children. We must not allow child abusers to create more of their own victims; Fair Start orders represent a clear and constitutionally appropriate step forward.
Ultimately, a better future for all means reforming family planning to focus on the child, first and foremost, to give every child a fair start in life. Please join us in this work for a better future for all.