Various agents of the government confront the problem of defining the line between parental rights and the protection of children from physical abuse. Agents in such cases might respond in one of four ways:
1. Not intervene when parents are within their rights.
2. Intervene to save a child from serious physical abuse and/or death.
3. Not intervene when the child suffers from serious physical abuse (that possibly results in death).
4. Intervene when parents are within their rights.
Even though the first two types are (I can only imagine) much more common, the second two types are the ones that end up in the newspapers, and that is worth bearing in mind. Nevertheless, such abuses result in serious violations of people’s rights, so they rightly draw the extra attention.
On January 9, the Rocky Mountain News ran an article that describes a case that seems likely to fall within the fourth type of case. The author of the aricle, John Ensslin, begins:
A Garfield County man [Tom Shiflett] contends sheriff’s deputies barged into his home and forcibly took his 11-year-old boy to a hospital after he refused to allow paramedics to examine a bump on the boy’s head.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, however, said the deputies were acting on a warrant obtained out of concern about the boy’s injuries, which he said also included an ankle injury, a contusion and swelling over his eye. …
The incident started Thursday at the Apple Tree Mobile Home Park south of New Castle when the son, Jon Shiflett, hit his head “real hard” on the pavement after he grabbed the door handle of a moving car driven by his sister, the father said.
Someone called for an ambulance, but before paramedics arrived, Tom Shiflett said he picked his son up, brought him inside, put him on a couch and applied an ice pack to his head.
When paramedics arrived at the home, Shiflett said he let them look at his son, but refused to let them treat the youngster.
It is likely that, had a wealthy parent in a posh neighborhood, rather than somebody living a a trailer, told the paramedics to take a hike, they would have taken a hike, and the story would have ended there. But our story continues:
That led to a visit on Friday morning from two social workers. Shiflett said when he rebuffed them, they vowed to come back with a court order.
Deputies returned to serve the order later that evening. Shiflett contends he would have let them in if they said they had a warrant.
He claims they gave no such notice and barged in with a battering ram.
Shiflett said deputies temporarily handcuffed him and his wife and their oldest daughter and left with the boy.
Did this violent assault result in better care for the boy? No, it did not:
They returned the boy around 2:30 a.m. Saturday along with a doctor’s note advising them to make sure the youngster drank plenty of water, that he take some ibuprofen, that an antibiotic ointment be applied as needed and that a cold compress be put on his bruises.
“This is exactly what I was doing,” Shiflett said. He accused deputies of overreacting.
Did the sheriff, Lou Vallario, respond appropriately? The article reports: “Vallario also said two deputies gave the father, Tom Shiflett, 62, ample opportunity to resolve the situation peacefully before a team of officers used force to enter the home.”
The sheriff had a “court order,” but did he have a responsibility to force the child into treatment? A warrant grants permission to an officer; it does not compel an officer to act. The sheriff had no way of knowing the severity of the injuries. Then again, neither did he have any reason to doubt the claims of the father. Were the paramedics consulted regarding the court order? At least they saw the boy. Was the judge too hasty in issuing the order?
The article continues:
Vallario said his office has had previous confrontations with Shiflett.
In 2005, he said deputies arrested Shiflett on a charge of felony menacing after he allegedly threatened someone with an ax.
That charge was dismissed, the sheriff said, but the case was a factor in the deputies’ response. Shiflett said the charge was dropped because he was acting against a man who had threatened his family at his home.
If the charges were dismissed, then the case must be assumed to be lawful self-defense. Aren’t people who live in trailers also innocent until proven guilty?
Vallario also questioned why the father would not let paramedics examine the child’s injuries, especially after human-services officials assured the father he would not incur any medical bills.
“Why is this guy being so uncooperative?” Vallario asked. “Where’s the harm?”
However, parents — even those who live in trailers — have the right not be “cooperative” with paramedics regarding their children’s health care, so long as the parents do not place their children in real physical danger. Shiflett sensibly responded: “What’s the harm of letting a parent care for his own child?”
The claim that Shiflett should have released his son to “human-service officials” because Shiflett “would not incur any medical bills” is quite astounding. According to this reasoning, any time that the government creates an entitlement, that implies that government agents can force people to subject themselves to the related services. That road ends in a frightening place.
Ah, but Shiflett is an odd duck, and everybody knows that odd ducks don’t have the same rights as everybody else: “Shiflett has 10 children, ranging in age from 8 to 29 years old. All but one were born at home, he said. A remodeler, Shiflett said he has had trouble finding work since he rescinded his Social Security number.”
I am suggesting that the courts and the sheriff’s office forcibly intervened even though Shiflett was within his rights. However, consider a hypothetical case that begins the same way: a young boy falls, somebody calls an ambulance, the father lets the paramedics look at the boy but not treat him, and social services shows up. But then the judge tells social services to mind their own business, so the sheriff never breaks into the house. How would we evaluate the case if the boy died? Then the situation would seem to fall under type three as described above.
In this case, though, the father did seem to know that the boy’s injuries weren’t very serious, and he provided appropriate medical treatment. The sheriff’s deputies violently assaulted the family members, subjecting them to serious emotional trauma. Here in America, one’s home is one’s castle, and the legal authorities ought not force their way into somebody’s home without a very good reason supported by tangible evidence. In this case, it seems that the social workers, the judge, and the sheriff’s office got carried away without sufficient reason to act. But who cares, because Shiflett’s just some oddball living in a trailer, right?