Circuit Judge Alan Moats has asked West Virginia lawmakers to review the state’s definition of child abuse and neglect to include parents who keep their (otherwise healthy) children home from school on a regular basis.
Although Judge Moats does not think that children kept out of school are in physical danger, he believes that they are still harmed by the experience because their parents are denying them a constitutional right to an education. At present, West Virginia Code Chapter 49 states that abuse and neglect consist of harm, or threatened harm, to a child’s welfare or health. This is done by a physical, mental, or emotional injury, such as corporal punishment or sexual abuse. The Code does not permit any leeway that would let it apply to non-health-related crimes — any prosecutor bringing a case of child neglect must prove harm to the child’s health.
Yet Judge Moats believes that keeping a healthy child out of school has long-term costs: truancy can be passed down in families, from generation to generation. Many child truants end up dropping out of school altogether — 34,547 people over the past decade. While Judge Moats acknowledges that other problems such as depression, bullying, or drug abuse could be the reason, he also thinks that parental habits are a problem. Parents won’t or can’t take the children to school. Sometimes children have to be the “adults” of the household and take care of younger siblings while the parents are ill. Several parents have gone to great lengths to keep this arrangement in place, including finding doctors willing to sign a sick note for their children regardless of their health.
Children who frequently miss school are also more likely to get involved with illegal drug use and other crimes. Their teachers face the strain of having to teach class work all over again if the children ever do return to school. Judge Moats hopes that if educational neglect is added to the state Code, it will have a positive effect.
The child negligence here is very different from the kind we at the Wolfe Law Firm typically deal with. Child injury is usually physical, in the form of physical abuse or accidents caused by malfunctioning products or outside parties (such as car accidents). When one discovers that a child has been physically abused, it is possible to go out and hire a West Virginia child injury attorney to represent the child against the one responsible for the abuse. Similarly, when a child is injured as the result of an outsider’s negligence, an experienced attorney could represent the child against the one who caused the harm. However, Judge Moats brings up an interesting difficulty: what happens when the “neglectful” behavior is a cultural norm? Many probably think that a child staying home to care for the family, for instance, is perfectly acceptable and not abuse at all. Other times children might stay home to help parents with very arduous labor. It may be hard to convince some West Virginians that this norm may harm the child in the long run. Hopefully Judge Moats’s efforts will yield the right results.