I am well aware that there is disagreement about what is meant by the “Benedict Option.” It at least seems to mean that serious Christians should, to at least some degree, separate themselves from the mainstream of today’s rankly secular culture, try to congregate as much as possible with like-minded people and build up their own subcultures of a sort, and live and raise their families as much as possible within them. This is seen as the best way to insure that Christianity can be kept strong for the next generations and maybe to insure that souls are saved. Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written approvingly of a version of the Benedict Option for Catholics: Some parishes with many Catholics inclined in this way and a supportive pastor could be places where true Catholic community could be built up, with a firm network of trust and people working together to provide true Catholic education and catechetics and forge a deep-seated commitment to orthodoxy and opposition to prevailing cultural trends. The issue that seems to present itself is how much the Benedict Option involves taking on the secular culture in the broader community—in politics, battles over public policy, the shaping of major institutions and other things that inevitably impinge on people and their families and can be retreated from only to a degree.
Since a major concern about advocates of the Benedict Option is protecting their families and forming strong “Christian soldiers” for the future, they—and all serious Christian parents—have to be attentive to attempts by the state to interfere in the family. Typically, people think that if they look to alternatives to the public and other secularized schools and are not involved in government social welfare programs and the like—where families face a certain amount of monitoring—they will be secure. It never ceases to amaze me how people continue to be impervious to the ongoing, systemic abuse of the so-called child protective system (CPS). I say “so-called” because any even brief examination of the CPS since its inception as a nation-wide institutional structure with the passage of the federal Mondale Act over forty years ago makes clear that it does much less child protecting than intruding into innocent families—often at the drop of a pin. Parents think that the CPS is not something they have to worry about, since they’re not child abusers or neglecters. After all, aren’t they the ones the CPS goes after?
This is the usual gross misconception, but one that the CPS relies on to sustain public support for the massive funds—from federal, state, and local tax dollars (it operates usually through county agencies under the direction of an overarching centralized agency in each state)—that go into it. I have written about the CPS for over thirty years. I used to say that about two-thirds of the reports of child maltreatment that were made to the CPS each year—often by anonymous callers, whose reliability is undetermined—were unfounded. In recent years, the number has been over 80 percent, involving over three million children (these are HHS statistics). In spite of the fact that the evidence shows that abuse and neglect have actually declined in the U.S., in the period since the enactment of the Mondale Act there has been an increase of over 2400 percent in reports. Even when a report of abuse or neglect is “substantiated,” it usually involves minor matters such as slapping a child or poor housekeeping (it has been said that most of the supposed neglect cases are really poverty cases).
One of the leading scholarly authorities on child maltreatment, Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland, has frequently written about the high level of unwarranted state intervention into the family by the CPS. Changes in federal law some years ago were supposed to make the CPS screen reports, so that questionable ones would be ignored, but many states have not implemented this and the federal government has done nothing to enforce it. Again, many reports that trigger CPS investigations of parents and intrusions into the family are anonymous and agencies require nothing like probable cause to start an investigation. Such investigations are often traumatic experiences for a family, with CPS operatives—sometimes backed up by police—getting themselves into people’s homes by threats or false pretenses (fortunately, case law precedents are building up that CPS operatives have no automatic right to enter a home), separating children from their parents and asking them probing questions, operatives looking through homes to see the least evidence of things being out of order (sometimes, literally, something like too much dust on the furniture qualifies), threats to remove children if parents won’t cooperate, and in some cases taking children away—this has sometimes been called a form of legalized kidnapping. As another scholarly authority, Professor Martin Guggenheim of NYU Law School, has said, children are separated from their parents “for petty reasons and for no reason all the time.”
There are three key reasons why the CPS can torment so many innocent parents and families like this: the child abuse/neglect laws are typically vague and overly broad, failing to provide even a basic definition of what the terms mean; the one-sided legal liability of the CPS and its operatives (they are immune from normal lawsuits for maltreating families but can face legal consequences for not acting if there actually is abuse or neglect, so they are motivated to “cover” themselves even when nothing is amiss); and the fact that, since usually the criminal justice system isn’t involved, parents have few rights when facing the CPS (those accused of serious crimes have rights but innocent parents don’t).
While this column cannot go into detail about the runaway CPS, it is worth mentioning some of the kinds of parental actions that frequently lead to CPS investigations. Spanking is a favorite target of the CPS, which can’t seem to distinguish a swat on the bottom from a brutal beating. Other even mild disciplinary measures, “educational neglect” for things like not meeting homeschooling notification requirements and sometimes still for homeschooling (especially when parents withdraw their children from public schools), arbitrary decisions by the CPS that children at a certain age—who it doesn’t even know—were too young to carry out certain responsibilities their parents give them, young children playing outside the house without a parent there, bungled medical diagnoses in which practitioners blindly believed a child’s health problem just had to be caused by abuse and parental disagreements with hospital treatment schemes, even cases where parents were judged too “rigid” because of their religious beliefs, are just some of the multitude of other things.
Most of these are not uncommon cases; they are part of the outrageous routine practices of the CPS—which, of course, explains the massive number of unfounded reports. The point is this: the CPS is really mostly in the business of monitoring parental childrearing practices—not truly stopping child abuse and neglect—and cracking down on those that it or “enlightened opinion” disapproves of. Incidentally, this is all in spite of the fact that many CPS operatives are not parents and disagree even among themselves about what is child abuse and neglect. Nevertheless, one of the attitudes that permeate the CPS is that all parents are potential abusers so it has an inflated sense about the importance of its role.
This takes us back to the Benedict Option. It is fine and commendable to turn one’s attention to building up subcultures that will provide the protection and support needed to rear one’s children in the manner Christian parents believe appropriate. It is necessary not to ignore how the institutions of the secular culture are capable of interfering with that, however, especially the one that always has families in its sights—it believes, in its convoluted way, for the sake of the public good. If those pursuing the Benedict Option do nothing more in the realm of public affairs and policy, they should work mightily for drastic change in the CPS and the arbitrary laws about child abuse/neglect. As Richard Wexler, a journalist and author who has long written about the abusive CPS and ran a national group seeking reform, wrote me, most knowledgeable people know what needs to be done in the area of child welfare but “decline to face up to it or to act on it.” Parents have the biggest stake in this, whether with a Benedict Option mindset or not, and they need to involve themselves and push hard to get the reluctant political “powers that be”—who usually run for cover in fear that if they seek reform they’ll be accused of “coddling child abusers”—to stop one of the gravest threats the American family is facing today.