A familiar public response to intrafamily harm is child protection. It is a response that occurs when cases of child abuse or neglect are given over to a family or juvenile court. The court orders a disposition primarily aimed at protecting the child from further harm. The disposition may consist of court ordered home services for the family, temporary transfer of the child to a foster family, or permanent severance of the parent-child relationship. In creating the disposition, a judge will first attempt to determine what is in the child’s best interest. This is where philosophical questions arise. What is an interest? How does an interest relate to the concept of a harm? What should count as a child’s interests? What interests are best or better than other interests? The answer to these questions often depends on one’s conception of the relationship of a child to the family. We look at a distinction between different models or ideals of the family, each of which generates different answers. These answers are closely related to a debate between social welfare professionals over whether it is more important to protect the child or to preserve the family, and to a related debate between those who want to criminalize abusive conduct and those who want to take a therapeutic approach to domestic violence by searching for and correcting its underlying causes.
“It is time to abandon the myth that ‘the best foster family is not as good as a marginal biological family.’ The ability to make a baby does not ensure that a couple have, or ever will have, the ability to be adequate parents.” Richard Gelles (1996)