What We Owe to Our Children. Relationships and Obligations in Public Care
Doctoral thesis, Peer reviewed
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Public care is part of the child protection system. Public care institutions are childrearing institutions where foster parents or employees in residential institutions assume responsibility for the daily care and upbringing of minors whose parents are unable, unwilling or unfit to care for them. The thesis is an inquiry into the normative foundations of public care arrangements. It is concerned with the obligations of foster parents and staff in residential institutions – the obligations of substitute carers. It is not clear what substitute carers owe the child they care for. First, the content of substitute carers obligations is not clear. According to the Child Welfare Act (CWA), the child's best interest shall be a decisive consideration in all measures that affect the child, including placements in public care. However, although the best interest principle is central in both family law and child protection law, the content of the principle is unclear and it is not obvious that it should apply to substitute carers. Among other things, it is difficult to determine what is in the child's interests. There is also a question of whether substitute carers should always promote the child's best interests. For example, one might also ask if expecting carers to promote the child's best interests is to expect too much. Is it always wrong not to promote the child's best interests? Second, the basis of their obligations is not very clear. Substitute carers occupy a role somewhere between a parental and an occupational role. On the one hand, they are caregivers. They have child-rearing responsibilities that resemble or mirror parental responsibilities. On the other, they are contractors. They are free to exit the contract on the same terms as an employee, and the child is a source of income. Since it is widely accepted that the child needs parents and a family, and public care is regarded as a substitute for the family, one might assume that substitute carers have parental obligations. However, it is not clear that substitute carers satisfy the conditions for parental responsibility. They have neither caused the child's existence nor agreed to become parents: rather, substitute carers enter into a contract where what they consent to is different from full parental responsibility. Also, there is a question of whether it is reasonable to require level of self-sacrifice from substitute carers that we ordinarily expect from parents. Questions concerning the content and basis of substitute carers' obligations are moral questions, and concern the ethics of public care. There is no systematic philosophical account that specifically target the ethics of public care, and this thesis aims to contribute to fill that gap. The thesis provides a general and abstract account of the content and basis of the obligations of substitute carers. The focus is on how someone who cares for a child makes judgements of right and wrong with respect to that child. Unlike approaches that see judgements of right and wrong as based on conception of the child's well-being, the thesis defends a different view. I argue that, to answer the question of what the caregiver owes to the child, we should base our account on the relationship between the child and the caregiver. The nature of the relationship between the child and the carer can explain how the substitute carer as caregiver ought to make judgments of right and wrong. The approach is developed in dialogue with existing accounts in applied ethics. I develop an account of the content of substitute carers' obligations that is different from some common interpretations of the best interest principle. The approach involves comparing substitute carers with parents, and explain in what sense substitute carers should identify with a parental role. I also explain when substitute carers satisfy the conditions for parental responsibility, even though they are not the child’s biological or legal parents. The thesis also contains contributions on how substitute carers and other carers should relate to children as agents. One chapter provides a relationship-based account of what respecting a child means, which explains why the child should participate and have influence. Another chapter gives a relationship-based answer to what it means to hold a child responsible and how substitute carers and other adults should respond to children's actions. Finally, I argue that the ideas of what should be relevant considerations for the carer, and how the carer ought to think about how he or she should treat the child, can be expressed as a conception of justifiability. I refer to this conception as Future Rejectability. This conception expresses how a caregiver arrives at justifiable conclusions on what he or she owes to the child.