No Place for Children: Addressing Urban Blight and Its Impact on Children Through Child Protection Law, Domestic Relations Law, and 'Adult-Only' Residential Zoning
James G. Dwyer
William & Mary Law School
Alabama Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, 2011
William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-217
For any child, residential location is a large determinant of well-being. At the negative extreme, a neighborhood can pose threats to children's well-being far exceeding those present within the home in typical cases of child protection removal. The worst neighborhoods pose direct threats to children's physical and psychological well-being, and they also adversely affect children indirectly by creating stressors that undermine parents' abilities to care for children. Pervasive crime and substance abuse, in particular, substantially elevate risks to children beyond those created just by less capable or less motivated parents. Given that a relatively high percentage of adults who live in the worst neighborhoods are marginal to begin with, in terms of their inherent capacities for giving care and maintaining safe and healthy homes, the additional threats present in the larger residential environment push the experience of most children in such neighborhoods below what most people -- including those who live in the neighborhoods -- would regard as a minimally acceptable quality of life. Because such neighborhoods are also likely to have inadequate -- even dangerous -- schools and few legal employment opportunities, living in them severely diminishes the life prospects of children forced to grow up in them.
To date, government efforts to improve the lives of these children, and scholarly writing on the topic, have focused on urban renewal and criminal law enforcement in these neighborhoods. These have mostly been unsuccessful, where they do succeed they typically do so by simply relocating the dysfunction to another neighborhood, and even if renewal efforts undertaken today might ultimately be successful that is of no help to a child born today into dangerous urban blight. The only way to ensure that children do not suffer the effects of growing up in deeply dysfunctional communities is to get them out now. Policy should shift to a strategy of separating children as early as possible from the adults who are creating toxic social environments in impoverished areas. In fact, programs that have assisted parents who wished to relocate with their children from high-poverty, inner-city neighborhoods to low-poverty areas have greatly improved the children's well-being and longterm life prospects. This Article presents a novel argument for expanding such relocation programs, an argument founded upon basic rights of children -- not rights against private actors who might harm them, though children certainly possess such rights, but rather rights against the state. I argue that the state violates basic rights of children by making certain decisions about children's lives that effectively consign many of them to living in hellish conditions. To remedy this violation of children's rights, the state should now institute reforms such as giving children first priority in distribution of housing vouchers and in provision of relocation assistance and, most controversially, making relocation out of the most dangerous neighborhoods mandatory rather than voluntary for parents who have and wish to retain custody of children. The state should no more permit parents to house children in apartments where stray bullets come through windows and drug addicts clutter the hallways outside than permit parents to take children into casinos and nightclubs. This Article argues that the state is legally free, and in fact morally and legally obligated, to adopt new legal rules and policies aimed at ensuring that no children live in the horrible neighborhoods that exist, and likely will always exist, in our society. It also presents a constitutional lever for overcoming political and community resistance to taking the necessary measures. These measures would entail changes to the law in three broad areas -- child maltreatment, domestic relations, and zoning.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 74
Keywords: urban blight, neighborhood effect, child custody, child protection, zoning
Date posted: June 19, 2012