BATH — “I gave my children the right to life,” a friend said to me recently. I was struck by how proprietary that view – that who conceives a child owns the right to life. I had never quite heard it put that way. There is much more to be done to own life and nurture children than conception.

I remembered that conversation in late 2016, when the co-founder of a local youth theater group was indicted for sexual exploitation, unlawful sexual contact with children under the age of 12 and violation of their privacy. The accused’s attorney sought $500 cash bail. The judge raised it to $5,000 cash bail or $50,000 real estate surety and barred the alleged perpetrator from having contact with children under the age of 16.

Last week, the theater group co-founder was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the sexual abuse of eight children.

Sexual exploitation deprives a child of the right to a life free from emotional and physical torment and lifelong impaired functioning. The legal system seems to set a very high bar regarding the proof required to show that children are in need of protection from an alleged exploiter. Those who see a verbal warning to an alleged child molester as seriously inadequate protection for children have far less legal leeway to engage in far less shame-laden protest than are those who demonstrate outside Planned Parenthood clinics, holding pictures of fetuses, directing their disapproval toward those who see parenthood as a privilege calling for commitment and planning.

Still, this “sole proprietorship” claim – “I give them the right to life” – does nothing to protect children when there is no ownership or accountability, either personally or by society, for a life damaged by neglect and abuse, dangerous parenting, poverty, less-than-vigilant child care or a legal system that relies on a verbal caveat to alleged abusers “to avoid contact with children under 16.”

Twenty years ago, the Maine Sunday Telegram reported that the average prison sentence for people convicted of killing a child in Maine was less than four years. A state study conducted in 1980 found that the co-occurring factor for most Maine children who die by any means between birth and age 18 is the family’s receipt of food stamps – poverty. Since then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences study has further confirmed that child abuse and neglect lead to markedly higher levels of physical and emotional illness and persistently impaired functioning later on.


At the same time, personal choice after conception to continue a pregnancy or not – what an individual can claim as theirs to decide – is always being disputed by those who claim to be the better judge than the pregnant woman of whether she has the emotional, physical and social capacity to bear and raise a child free from abuse, neglect and torment. It is only the child who suffers from misjudgment when a woman who does not believe she can give a child a safe life is humiliated into parenthood.

Ownership of the suffering that children experience when raised by parents whose reckless self-indulgence or -deprivation take precedence over a child’s well-being may be nowhere to be found. Accountability does not freely follow from the sole-proprietor “I give the right to life” claim.

There’s now a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for killing a child, but there’s little funding for programs that protect children and support mothers. Children are not guaranteed good care if the state enters into the home because of neglect or abuse. The foster care system is miserably underfunded. Maine has recently witnessed yet another killing of a child in a foster home deemed adequate by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

One in four new mothers in our country goes back to work 10 days after giving birth. There is little extension of care to children of illegal immigrants, asylum seekers or legal immigrants. The separate detention of parents and children seeking asylum is soon to be implemented by immigration authorities.

I’m not sure how one marries the proprietary “I give the right to life” to the “I give the right to life free from emotional and physical torment.” In St. Exupery’s book, “The Little Prince,” the title character has an imaginary rose; the care with which we treat children in our society is, too often, equally imaginary.

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