Tagged: children

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.

 

11

Diversity Day!

“Mom,” said my fourteen-year-old daughter. “What can I be for Diversity Day without being racist?”

As a good, progressive private school, my daughter’s school prides itself on its commitment to “diversity.” And like schools everywhere, it has a Spirit Week during which students and staff are instructed to do wacky things together in the service of building school spirit. Pajama Day! Crazy Hair Day! Superhero Day! This year, for some reason, the two mandates collided. Thus we got Diversity Day.

Someone, fortunately, had made a stab at thinking things through. We parents got an email from a school administrator warning us, “This is NOT a day to try to be someone else.” At least no one is going to show up in blackface, I thought with relief.

But what is Diversity Day supposed to be about? According to the email, “It is a day to celebrate a core aspect of the School’s mission by giving students the opportunity to celebrate their own cultural and/or family traditions. . . a day to express a certain amount of pride and respect for their families and backgrounds.”

Great, but there is complexity on top of complexity here. Begin with the fact that among the children of the Northern California professional-managerial class, there are hardly any who would claim a single “cultural and/or family tradition” for “their own.” These are kids with hyphenated last names and hyphenated backgrounds. The email to parents says, “They need to express themselves in a way that would make their grandparents proud of who they are.” Yes, but which grandparents? And who “are” these kids? Do they – or we – yet know? Yes, they have studied slavery and the Holocaust at school. My daughter and I have had lively discussions about President Andrew Jackson and his role in the Trail of Tears. But these children are fourteen and privileged and they live in the Bay Area; they are only now beginning to come into personal contact with the sharp edges of racism. I’m sure the parents of the eighth-grade black boys have already had several painful talks about being deferential and making no sudden movements when around strange white people or police officers. But I’m lucky; as mother of a girl, I only (!) have to worry about sex.

As in: “None of my friends think Asian boys are hot,” says my daughter. Some boy in her class has declared, “Black girls aren’t hot unless they look white.” To which my (black, curvy) daughter said sorrowfully, “I would have thought black girls would be attractive because they’re curvy.” We talk about the politics of personal ads; it seems grown-ups are also not quite post-racial in this area. And we try to unpack what “hotness” is supposed to mean, anyway.

Yet even these hard conversations are only tiny forays into the maelstrom of identity. High school and college, these days, are where the racial decisions really begin to bite for privileged kids. That accords, anyway, with the accounts of my “of color” students in their Critical Race Theory journals, who report being shocked when college classmates suddenly insisted on knowing “What are you?” or “Where are you from? No, really?” College is when those with complex identities and backgrounds are pressured by others to choose, to align, to make a stand.

Add to this confusion our national culture’s own vexed commitment to “diversity,” that peppy, All-American solution to the tragedy of racial subordination. Diversity is great because everyone has it already! Also, it’s good for everybody, since the corporate world, the military, and advertising can’t be wrong! But as Sheila Foster pointed out long ago, the downside of diversity is its emptiness; it can mean all things to all people and therefore nothing at all. And since everybody is different from everybody else, diversity is kinda automatic, no? “Should I just go as myself?” wonders my daughter. I respond, “If it’s their mission, then why isn’t every day Diversity Day?”

The truth, of course, is that race is the elephant in the diversity room. What we really care about when we talk about “diversity” is race and ethnicity, with perhaps a nod to gender, sexuality, and disability. But within the diversity framework, this commitment becomes fraught. When corrective justice was the paradigm, it made sense to put race and ethnicity at the center; flute players and yoga practitioners have not been targets for society-wide discrimination. If diversity for its own sake is the new goal, however, what do race and ethnicity become but skin color, eye shape, and quaint native costumes? Thus does Diversity Day pull us, ironically, toward the post-racial fantasy in which Martin Luther King, Jr. Day really is no different from St. Patrick’s Day in the United States: just another chance to be sold fun foods and drinks, and to feel good about how we are all the same beneath our superficial differences.

And I would be fine with that, were my daughter actually growing up in a world where no one would make her hotness depend on how “white” she looks.

Well, by the time she’s ready to go to college, of course, no doubt the Supreme Court will have ruled that diversity is not a compelling state interest after all and that higher education admissions in public schools must be race-blind. The question will be what these well-meaning private schools should do with their Diversity Days. New awkward rituals await, I’m sure.

But perhaps an awkward commitment to justice is better than no commitment at all.

P.S. I know: All these race problems are supposed to disappear in twenty-five years or less. Our innocent, colorblind children are going to lead us into the promised land. OK, I’ll wait.

P.P.S. Oh, and for those who want to know — She’s going to wear a pink triangle.

5

Intensive Parenting Enforced: Parents Criminal Liability for Children Skipping School

I have written here about the trend of intensive parenting. Parents today are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before, constantly cultivating and monitoring their children’s progress. In our article, Over-Parenting, Zvi Triger and I caution against legal enforcement of intensive parenting norms. One area in which states have been most active recently in enforcing intensive parenting norms is parental involvement in schools.

Earlier this month California’s Senate adopted a bill that authorizes prosecutors to charge a parent with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine, if her child skips school on a regular basis. This law enforces intensive parenting. Parents engaging in intensive parenting are extremely involved in their children’s school activities. Volunteering in school activities, whether as a class trip chaperon or in school events has become the norm among both working and non-working parents.  Schools provide parents with access to the school website to monitor children’s grades, class attendance and even lunch menus. Parents regularly attend family mornings at their children’s schools and are required to participate in children’s homework preparation through questions targeted specifically at them. Given this background, the California Bill, as extreme as it may sound to some, is not surprising. This Bill merely seeks to enforce what has already become a dominant social norm of intensive parental involvement in children’s school lives.

Some may think that the California Bill is not such a bad idea.  After all don’t we want to ensure that children attend school regularly and eventually graduate from high-school. However, what may be a desirable social norm is not necessarily a good legal standard. A stay-at-home mom dealing with a difficult teenager and successfully assuring that her daughter attends school on a regular basis is no doubt helping her daughter. But do we want to hold the mother who fails to do so criminally liable?  Parents are differently situated in their ability to control their children. Intensive parenting is a middle class parenting norm. Lower income class parents juggling several jobs may not have the flexibility to personally supervise  their children to ensure they don’t skip school. In addition, this Bill, like intensive parenting norms, is in practice, gender biased. Intensive parenting heavily burdens mothers.  Should states adopt and enforce laws holding parents criminally liable for their children’s school attendance, it will most likely be the mother, who is usually seen responsible for children’s daily activities, who will end up being held criminally liable.

7

Over-Parenting

Benches in playground are deserted these days. Instead, parents are swinging their children while chanting the ABC. Raising my small children, I have observed that parenting has changed dramatically since I was a child – today’s parents are much more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.  In our paper titled: “Over-Parenting,” my co-author Zvi Triger and I describe this new trend of parenting, which we call “Intensive Parenting.” We show that the law already enforces Intensive Praneting and argue that despite  the advantages of Intensive Parenting, its norms should not be hastily incorporated into the law.

The intensive parent is on a constant quest to obtain updated knowledge of best child rearing practices and use this information actively to cultivate her child and monitor all aspects of the child’s life.  Intensive parenting begins as the pregnant mother accesses an ever increasing amount of information instructing her on how to achieve an optimal pregnancy and does not end when the child enters college. Colleges and more recently even law schools have adjusted to accommodate a new generation of parents who insist on being in direct contact with administrators and professors in order to continue to monitor their children’s life.

But, Intensive Parenting is not just about social norms. We show that it is actually a socio-technological trend. Parents use new information technologies to enhance their ability to monitor and be informed. For example, parents use the cellular phone to stay in constant touch with their children. Commentators observing Intensive parents using the cell phone to communicate with college aged children about the smallest anecdotes of life, have called it “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”

And what does the law have to do with it? We find that the law is already enforcing Intensive Parenting norms, and is particularly powerful in molding parental rearing norms during custody disputes. For example, courts determining custody allocations consider as a factor the parents’ pre-divorce care taking roles and division of labor. The parent who was more involved in the child’s life before divorce has an advantage in custody resolutions. In practice, attorneys are advising their clients on the eve of divorce to engage in Intensive Parenting. The time period before custody determinations becomes a race for involvement, particularly for the parent who was not originally the primary caretaker. Unfortunately, parents eager to gain custody and operating in a world governed by Intensive Parenting norms often become overly dominating in their interaction with children. For instance, by taking over sport practices leaving their child with no independent outlet or by overwhelming their child with constant messages and phone calls.

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