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CAN SOCIETY PREVENT PARENTS FROM KILLING THEIR CHILDREN?

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QUESTION: A Baltimore woman was charged late last month with killing her two daughters in a house fire, becoming the most recent in a series of monstrous acts by parents. Has parental irresponsibility become so acute that we should take a new look at society's ability to prevent it?

BONNIE ERBE: Maybe the issue is just in the news more often, but it seems every month we hear about another incredibly horrible event in which a parent maims a child.Earlier this year, the nation was enraged at Susan Smith's murder of her two small children in Union, S.C. Then Renee Aulton of Baltimore was charged with setting her house on fire in order to kill her two daughters.

Even the Justice Department has informed local police that parents should routinely be considered suspects in child-disappearance cases. And national figures show roughly half of the 8,000 children who are murdered each year are murdered by a parent or close relative.

Each child deserves to be born into a home with several base-line requisites: two loving parents who are emotionally and financially capable of raising that child without outside intervention.

The first thing we as a society can do is to stop pressuring everyone to have children. Our culture considers it "strange" not to have children. Conservatives add to that pressure with their love of "life." Yet we are now painfully aware not everyone is emotionally or financially fit to provide children with a stable, loving home. Second, we must crack down harder on inadequate parenting.

Parents who abuse or neglect their children should be treated like other common criminals.

BETSY HART: I disagree. Parents who abuse or neglect their children should not be treated like common criminals. They should be treated worse. Theirs is a special and precious responsibility to nurture and protect life. When violated, it is a heinous act indeed.

When real - and I stress real, provable and physical - abuse or neglect occurs and cannot be remedied, parental rights should be severed and the child placed in a permanent adoptive home.

But even if the foster care system could be revamped, there would still be situations like Susan Smith's, where previously no known abuse of the children had taken place. True, the killing of one's children dates back to ancient times. But are we surprised it continues?

Sometimes evil acts are just that, and not indicative of a larger social trend. But as we examine these recent child-killings, is that a chance we as a society are willing to take?