parens Patriae

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parens patriae

The concept that the state has responsibility for a child when the parent or guardian cannot effectively continue in a parental role. As a result, if a parent abuses or neglects a child, the state has the right to remove the child from the home. If the state determines the parent cannot or will not become an adequate parent, then the courts may terminate parental rights without the consent of the parents and place the child in an adoptive home. (See TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS.)

Parens patriae was based on the English common law whereby the king protected children within his kingdom. According to Lela B. Costin, one of the contributors to A Handbook of Child Welfare, the concept of parens patriae was given a more liberal interpretation in America during the frontier period, when children were at great risk for being orphaned, abandoned or neglected. As a result, parens patriae came to be interpreted as a rationale for the state stepping into the parent-child relationship when needed.

Parens patriae is a principle also used beyond the field of adoption; for example, the state requires children to go to school up to a certain age, and parents and children must comply with this requirement. (Some states recognize home schooling as acceptable.)

Up to about a century ago, the parents were usually seen as the supreme arbiters of the children's fate, and it was not up to neighbors or society in general to set rules or standards for parents. Child labor laws did not exist, and many children worked long hours at low wages. Social reforms were passed, and today children occupy a special role in society.


Lela B. Costin, "The Historical Context of Child Welfare," in A Handbook of Child Welfare: Context, Knowledge, and Practice (New York: Free Press, 1985).

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