Bad parents need help, not punishment


If we truly care about those two little girls in the so-called "Home Alone 3" case out of suburban Chicago, we probably would return them to their natural parents as quickly as possible.

True, the little girls' natural parents appear to have been unbelievably negligent. But too often the welfare of the child gets swept aside in our barbarous lust to punish negligent, or TC even abusive parents. And in our zeal, we end up substituting the abuse and neglect of the mother and father for the abuse and neglect of the system.

This appears to be a difficult concept for many people to grasp: that the two little girls -- or any child -- might prefer that we helped their parents learn to care for them properly even if it means those parents are not punished to the public's satisfaction.

But anger and outrage and an unhealthy hunger to see all offenders chastised seems to be our national pastime. And I doubt if any child neglect case has stirred the national passions in quite the way as Home Alone 3.

Police allege that on Dec. 20, David and Sharon Schoo left their two daughters, ages 9 and 4, at home alone to fend for themselves while the couple flew to Acapulco for a nine-day vacation. The couple reportedly left the children with a supply of TV dinners and a strict note warning them not to eat more than twice a day and to go to bed on time. The girls apparently were given no instructions on how to contact their parents in an emergency.

Police first learned of the little girls' plight when the children called 911 for help after an overflowing bathtub caused an electrical malfunction and set off a smoke detector.

The Schoos were arrested at the airport when they returned from sunny Acapulco on Dec. 29, jeered at by an angry mob on hand for the occasion, and tossed into jail for two days. They face two counts each of felony child abandonment, felony cruelty to children, and misdemeanor child endangerment. They are free on bail but they have been ordered not to see their children until the charges are adjudicated.

Meanwhile, their daughters reportedly have told investigators that they have been left home alone several times before. The girls also say they were spanked with a special beaded belt and restricted to their rooms when they misbehaved. Last week, investigators armed with a search and seizure warrant, combed the Schoo home in search of the belt and "other signs of cruelty," according to court documents.

What the Schoos are alleged to have done is almost unthinkable -- not only because 9- and 4-year-olds obviously are too young to care for themselves, but also because children their age are going to feel very, very lonely and afraid when they are cut off and left by themselves. It is hard to imagine any caring parent doing what the Schoos are alleged to have done. We are right to be outraged.

But what next? Will we jail them or train them? Their daughters already have been in two homes since the Schoos' arrest. How many more movements are in store? Given a choice, don't you think the girls would like to see their parents, even if for just a little while?

Keep in mind, I am in no way condoning or excusing or in any way forgiving the way the Schoos allegedly treated their children.

But I am blowing the whistle on the hypocrisy behind our righteous anger in this and many other cases like it.

Child welfare advocates have long complained that our society puts too much of its resources into penal measures and not enough into prevention and rehabilitation. There is a shortage of appropriate foster care facilities, they say; a shortage of family therapists, day care, substance abuse counseling, financial management assistance, adult and child mental health providers -- in short, a shortage of all of the types of programs and assistance troubled families need in these troubled times. Too often, advocates say, we tear families apart without providing adequate resources to those persons charged with picking up the pieces.

If we truly cared about children, I believe, we'd pay more attention to the child welfare advocates. If we truly cared, our actions would be motivated more often by love, instead of anger.

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