One way to stop the epidemic of violence against children

Is there anything worse than witnessing the suffering of children? In fact, there is: Witnessing the death of children at the hands of inept, uncaring, ignorant, cruel, violent parents and other adults. Tragically, that’s what we have seen all too often in recent months.

On Tuesday, The Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller reported on a trio of adults in Lee County who wrapped a three-year-old boy in blankets so tightly that he suffocated. The victim, Michael McMullen, is among at least 25 Florida children who have died from abuse or neglect this year where DCF had been involved, according to Miller’s outstanding reporting. This is an epidemic of violence against our children.

So we must ask, what can be done to stop it?

More effective scrutiny of dysfunctional families by DCF and the community-based organizations that work with them on child abuse cases is essential. There also needs to be tougher judicial oversight of DCF in child abuse and neglect cases. Miami-Dade Juvenile Court Judge Michael Hanzman issued a blistering order after the death of a two-year-old boy in Homestead who he allowed to return to the care of his biological father on the strength of a home-study report — despite the father’s admitted “anger issues” and deplorable living conditions. The child, Jayden Villegas-Morales, was thrown down on a bed so hard that he smashed his head on the wall. From now on, the judge ruled, he won’t put much faith in DCF home study reports.

But Judge Hanzman has a more intriguing proposal to stop the epidemic of children’s deaths: Pay parents who’ve proven themselves unfit to have children not to have more. “There are just people out there,” the judge says, “who are not capable of safely parenting.”

What kind of cases is he talking about? Take little Mariah Neveah Johnson, just shy of turning 2, who was found drowned in a drainage hole in Florida City last week. It may well have been an accident and the mother’s boyfriend, who was caring for the little girl at the time, may indeed be devastated over her death. But why wasn’t he watching her more closely? Why did he let her wander off? Where was the biological father? Little Mariah was the 22-year-old mother’s fourth child.

Similarly, 22-year-old Brittney Sierra of Hallandale Beach got out of jail last month just long enough to give birth to her fourth child, who was promptly turned over to DCF. Given DCF’s dismal track record, what kind of life will that child have? Sierra is being held on child neglect charges in connection with the death of her 5-month-old son, Dontrelle Melvin, whose remains were discovered in the backyard of the house she shared with the child’s father, Calvin Melvin. Dontrelle’s head was bashed in; he was missing for 18 months before his battered remains were dug up. The father is the main suspect.

And the stories of violence against defenseless children just go on and on. Babies beaten to death by boyfriends whose child-rearing skills are non-existent. In a case in North Miami Beach in June, a two-year-old boy was hit so hard by the mother’s boyfriend, Alexis Claude, that he died. At the time, the mother was out turning tricks.

This cruel, wanton violence against children must stop. Hanzman’s idea could work. “We need to offer to incentivize not having kids, to offer people who are incapable of safely parenting a way to stop having children.” Hanzman proposes offering money — “It wouldn’t take much” — plus a free tubal ligation or vasectomy.

“The courts have said it’s a God-given right to have children,” Hanzman says, “but if we don’t take steps to disincentivize parenting this is just going to end up swallowing us. What we’ve got just can’t go on.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Would the Legislature be willing to pass a law giving judges the power to offer money for voluntary sterilization of people demonstrably incapable of being parents? It’s a freighted question and raises the specter of eugenics, which has a long and checkered history. But we’re not talking about forced sterilization. “These people would still have free will, they’d have a choice,” Hanzman says. “We would not be requiring it.”

Hanzman came up with his idea after dealing with a parade of misfit parents, including a woman who just gave birth to her ninth crack-exposed child and a 42-year-old man who’s the father of 20 children.

“At some point,” Hanzman says, “a society has to set some limits to protect the good of the whole.”

To be sure, this is extremely sensitive territory. The Nazis practiced eugenics in the hope of perfecting a master race. In the U.S., forced sterilization was legalized in several states more than a century ago as a means of preventing the mentally ill from giving birth. But in practice it was often misused to prevent women of color and those with criminal histories from having children.

In Puerto Rico, sterilization was widely practiced after World War I to control population growth and by 1965, 30 percent of Puerto Rican women were unable to have children. The last forced sterilization in the United States took place in Oregon in 1981.

The courts correctly have said that practice cannot resume. But voluntary sterilization in return for money could work in cases that meet stringent guidelines. Some people have proven themselves unfit to be parents. Let’s pay them not to be.

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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