It is a sad reality that one bad apple can definitely spoil a whole bunch. Thomas McClellan and people like him make it harder for innocent parents to get a fair treatment in the criminal justice system and in child protective proceedings. For those who did not follow his case, McClellan just received a life sentence for murdering his five-year-old step-daughter after she woke him up wanting some food. This brings an end to a heart-wrenching case except for a family that will mourn the loss of a child for years to come. In some other states, McClellan would be facing capital punishment. Cases like these are tragic for families, and they have a ripple effect through a legal system with a stated goal of protecting children.
It is true that as a society we need to protect children. Society, however, cannot rely on the long arm of the government to accomplish that. In too many cases, the government overreacts and overreaches, throwing families into turmoil and tearing children from loving arms. As a society, we depend on parents to protect their own children from harm. Thomas McClellan represents perhaps the most horrific failure of the child protection role. Sadly, it is difficult for anyone, government or otherwise, to intervene in time when you just don’t see it coming and the very person who should be protecting a child becomes the aggressor and assaulter.
Shocking cases like People v. Thomas McClellan have a way of rippling through the child protection system, with courts, CPS workers, police and prosecutors all wanting to ramp up the effort – often to the detriment of children rather than their protection. To be sure, we need to do everything possible to protect children. It is always good to pause and ask what we as a society can learn from a horrible case like this. There is one thing that will never change: What children need most is parental guidance, parental protection, parental nurturing and care. The government is never going to be able to do for children what parents must do.
And so, while we understand that one family is grieving the loss of an innocent child, and we understand that one man is sentenced to life in prison, the fact remains that as a society we need to find better ways to support families and encourage healthy and loving parenting. And that’s not by going after innocent parents who are falsely accused of causing harm.