Fitness for parenting – it takes a village

Bella Bond case prompts call for fitness test

Ms. Bond’s ability to parent was not appropriately assessed.” Review of the Death of Bella Bond: Report of the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, October 28, 2015 

AS A FATHER AND GRANDFATHER, I know the gifts and blessings of children. I also know the awesome challenges and responsibilities of raising them in a healthy, wholesome way. In his famous classes on child development at Cornell University, my old professor, Urie Bronfenbrenner, used to teach us that it took two adults to raise and socialize one child. The good professor, of course, was defining the ideal case, assuming non-dysfunctional adults who were normal, competent, rational human beings.

Those assumptions fall apart when the mother is a prostitute and drug addict, living on welfare with her drug-crazed boyfriend. Two years ago, the tragic case of baby Bella Bond broke the hearts of parents everywhere; now, the current murder trial of her caretakers (I can’t call them adults), Rachelle Bond and Michael McCarthy, is reopening old wounds. We will never be blessed to know what Baby Bella would look like, but her few photographs suggest she had a lot of spirit. That spirit was quenched brutally after two short years, another voiceless child victim who lacked advocates for her welfare.

During those years, where were her champions, her protectors? We were all MIA apparently: her absentee biological father, the state’s Child Advocate, the Department of Children and Families (which twice investigated Baby Bella’s life, and removed two other children from the mother’s care), the neighbors who heard the child’s cries and then her silence, and certainly we, citizens of the Commonwealth, who don’t pester our politicians enough to make sure child services are well funded. It is a sad commentary on our local priorities that, at the same time Boston was promoting itself as a “world-class city” we wanted everyone to visit for the Olympics, the body of a 2-year-old was washing up on shore in Boston Harbor.

Rachelle Bond was not fit to be a mother or parent. From the baby’s perspective, however, whom you get as a parent is a crapshoot. If we can imagine such a thing as an Embryos Union, they would probably invent a kind of Angie’s List of recommended parents, and then pray like college applicants to get one of their top three picks. Baby Bella was not lucky.

But she was a victim of more than her mother and boyfriend’s drug-infused mistreatment. I contend that she died of an overdose of assumptions – our tacit assumptions (social and cultural) that all women are “fit” to have and/or raise children. We make judgements about parental fitness all the time: The default position in our individualistic culture is to give mums and dads the benefit of the doubt about their child-rearing competence. We do the American thing – we leave single moms and couples alone, we don’t stick our nose in, we mind our own business, we “let them do their own thing.” We assume that mummy and daddy know best when, in actual fact, they often know worst – and in really bad cases like Baby Bella, or the father in Hardwick who starved his son almost to death, they often do worst, too.

In the post-Bella age, unquestioned assumptions and expectations no longer work. It is time to begin a conversation about “Fitness for Parenthood,” to challenge at least two dubious assumptions – first, that any woman anywhere has the inalienable right to have a baby; and second, that all spouses or partners have the maturity, the emotional stability, and economic circumstances to be good parents. We must begin to define and establish minimal standards of “fitness” for both parties to a conception. The American Civil Liberties Union would probably balk at Fitness for Parenthood evaluations, but this is not an alien notion. We require “proven fitness” in many walks of life: doctors, for example, are not allowed to practice medicine until they prove their “fitness” through years of rigorous training. Your teenage children are not deemed “fit” to drive a car until they reach a certain level of maturity (16 years), take instruction, and pass a test before they get a license to drive. But no permit is required to be a parent.

We must get beyond our naive (and dangerous) assumptions and put safeguards in place to prevent bad candidates for parenthood from getting the job. Preventing harm to infants is justification enough. Fitness for Parent programs would have to be interdependent and integrated with other public programs: with sex education in schools which teach the morals and ethics of child-bearing as well as the biology, with public provision of birth control advice and assistance, and with oversight by government agencies who can provide a whistleblower hotline for concerned citizens and neighbors who suspect that a child is being mistreated. Invasion of privacy? Baby Bella might still be alive today if someone had invaded Rachelle Bond’s privacy.

In short, in order to honor our responsibilities to the future, we have to become nosier about the present. Since “any individual can file a report of abuse and neglect on behalf of a child under Section 51A of Chapter 119 of Massachusetts General Laws,” we have to start filing “51A” reports with the Department of Children and Families, or, in their own words, “To report abuse or neglect, call the Child-at-Risk Hotline anytime of the day or night at 1-800-792-5200.”

Meet the Author

Arthur McCaffrey

Retired psychologist, Harvard University
Fitness for Parenthood must become a healthy conversation in our society, with its own education and advocacy programs producing good outcomes for infants and children, just as prostitution and drugs are a lethal part of our society producing bad outcomes for everyone. May God welcome the beautiful soul of Bella Bond. And may He also have mercy on all of us who failed her. RIP, June, 2015.

Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist who writes frequently about child abuse.