Judging Parents, Judging Place: Poverty, Rurality and Termination of Parental Rights

54 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2011 Last revised: 22 Feb 2012

See all articles by Lisa R. Pruitt

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Janet L. Wallace

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: April 14, 2011


Parents are judged constantly, by fellow parents and by wider society. But the consequences of judging parents may extend beyond community reputation and social status. One of the harshest potential consequences is the state’s termination of parental rights. In such legal contexts, the state assesses parents’ merits as parents in relation to a wide array of their characteristics, decisions and actions, including where the parents live.

Among those parents judged harshly in relation to geography are impoverished parents who live in rural places. We argue that such judgments are unjust because poor rural parents often do not have ready access to state support in the form of programs that would permit them to be better parents. That is, spatial obstacles may prevent these parents from meeting their children’s first order needs by gaining access to public benefits. Rural parents are often similarly without reasonable access to the types of services and programs that would enhance their parenting skills, either because such programs are not offered in rural places or because the transportation obstacles to reach the programs are too great. We thus highlight the state’s hypocrisy in judging rural parents, including these parents’ failure to avail themselves of public services, even as the state fails to make meaningfully available the very assistance and services that would enable them to be better parents.

In considering termination of parental rights in rural contexts, we survey cases that have used rural residence as a strike against a parent in termination proceedings. Our critiques based on these cases fall into three categories: First, while courts have stated that poverty is an impermissible basis for terminating parental rights, cases reveal that place may become a proxy for poverty and may be cited to justify removal of a child or termination of parental rights. Second, courts sometimes make decisions based on rural stereotypes, and these decisions may disserve rural families. Third, and in a similar vein, courts sometimes fail to account for rural realities when making child welfare decisions about populations and circumstances with which they may be less familiar. In short, courts often impose impractical expectations upon parents. All of these critiques call particular attention to the plight of rural families, who – like rural people and places generally – often are overlooked in the increasingly metrocentric realm of law and legal scholarship.

Keywords: termination of parental rights, rural and urban, geography, rural, poverty, family law, social services, child protective services, parenting plan, transportation, health care

JEL Classification: I3, K10

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R. and Wallace, Janet L., Judging Parents, Judging Place: Poverty, Rurality and Termination of Parental Rights (April 14, 2011). Missouri Law Review, Vol. 77, p. 95, 2011, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 253, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1810076

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

Janet L. Wallace

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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