Research Paper Lisa R. Pruitt

Judging Parents, Judging Place: Poverty, Rurality and Termination of Parental Rights
Lisa R. Pruitt (Affiliate in Law) and Janet L. Wallace

While parents are judged constantly, by fellow parents and by wider society, the consequences of judging parents may extend beyond community reputation and social status: one of the harshest potential consequences of parental judgement is the state’s termination of parental rights. In these cases, impoverished parents who live in rural places suffer harsher judgements as they do not have ready access to state supported parenting programs. This project calls attention to the plight of poor rural families in gaining access to state funded programs that would improve their parenting outcomes.


In parental rights legal contexts, the state assesses parents’ merits in relation to a wide array of their characteristics, decisions and actions, including where the parents live. Researchers argue that such judgments against poor rural parents are unjust because these parents often do not have ready access to state support in the form of programs that would permit them to be better parents. They note that spatial obstacles may prevent these parents from meeting their children’s first order needs by gaining access to public benefits. Investigators highlight that rural parents are often similarly without reasonable access to the types of services and programs that would enhance their parenting skills, either because such programs are not offered in rural places or because the transportation obstacles to reach the programs are too great. The project notes that the state fails to make meaningfully available the very assistance and services that would enable poor rural parents to be better parents.

In considering termination of parental rights in rural contexts, researchers survey cases that have used rural residence as a strike against a parent in termination proceedings. Their critiques based on these cases fall into three categories: First, while courts have stated that poverty is an impermissible basis for terminating parental rights, cases reveal that place may become a proxy for poverty and may be cited to justify removal of a child or termination of parental rights. Second, courts sometimes make decisions based on rural stereotypes, and these decisions may disserve rural families. Third, and in a similar vein, courts sometimes fail to account for rural realities when making child welfare decisions about populations and circumstances with which they may be less familiar. In short, courts often impose impractical expectations upon parents. All of these critiques call particular attention to the plight of rural families, who – like rural people and places generally – often are overlooked in the increasingly metrocentric realm of law and legal scholarship.