Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2012


The purpose of human service agencies to serve vulnerable populations such as abused and neglected children derives from the common law doctrine of parens patriae, embodying the inherent role of the state as parent of the country. However, along with this foundational purpose, the parens patriae doctrine also provides power that is illusive to public knowledge and oversight. To maintain their cloak of power, the very agencies created to fulfill the parens patriae obligations — to protect the rights of children — have systematically battled the children’s efforts to claim those rights as their own. Also, the agencies have now come to view their child beneficiaries as a source of revenue. As the agencies continue to face bleak budget outlooks, anti-tax sentiment, and the desire to cut state spending, revenue maximization strategies have led to conflicts between the obligation to serve the interests of children and the fiscal interests of agency self-preservation and growth. Considering just one of the agency practices of treating children as a revenue source, foster care agencies across the country are taking over a quarter of a billion dollars each year from foster children in their care. Part I of the article describes the conflict between parens patriae purpose and power in its historical, theoretical, and practical context. Part II exposes the details of self-interested fiscal pursuits of human services agencies. Part III explains the additional layers of interrelationships between the agencies and the federal government, the poverty industry, and their parent states that both heighten and further complicate the conflict. The article concludes with recommendations to restore purity to parens patriae, both in theory and in agency application.



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