Parens patriae is a Latin term meaning the “parent of the country”; it traditionally refers to the role of the state as sovereign and guardian of persons under legal disability. Parens patriae is the authority of the state to act in the best interest of a child and provide care and protection equivalent to that of a parent. This term is rooted in English common law and dates back to the chancery courts of England during the Middle Ages. The chancery court’s jurisdiction included the welfare of children in cases involving the guardianship of orphans and gradually expanded to justify the court’s intervention in the lives of family and children. The premises of the chancery courts were that children were under the protective custody of the king, and that the king’s authority extended to children in his role as the father of the country.
The evolution of parens patriae in the United States had its beginnings when early juvenile courts began to recognize as important the role of the parent in meeting the physical, emotional, and educational needs to the child. The court, it was thought, had the right to intervene in cases where the parents were unable or unwilling to provide for the child. This doctrine was expanded to address circumstances where the child was at risk for criminal behavior. As a result, a system of rehabilitative treatment programs was developed for youth deemed at risk, with the goal being that they grow up and become productive adults. In this way, the parens patriae model allowed the court to serve as surrogate parents for wayward children.
The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899. The goal of this juvenile court was to protect neglected children and rehabilitate delinquent children. Its charge was to use the parens patriae concept to protect the state’s right to officially intervene in the juvenile’s life, especially if the youth was neglected. Under this principle, the state has the power to intervene in cases if the child has not reached full legal capacity. Moreover, the state has the inherent power and the responsibility to provide these protections to children whose natural parents were not providing appropriate care or supervision. This power, which the court recognizes as inherent, has since been strengthened by legislation that defines the scope of child protection within each state. The original juvenile court’s focus was on the child’s welfare, which included dependent, neglected, abused, and delinquent children.
In subsequent years, the states have expanded the doctrine of parens patriae to include protections for other members of their citizenry. In Louisiana v. Texas (1900), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the propriety of allowing the state to sue on behalf of its citizenry. In Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. (1907), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that individual states have recourse to the judicial power of the United States to resolve disputes between the states.
This evolution of an increasingly broad application of the parens patriae doctrine permits the state to bring an action on behalf of its citizens to protect its sovereign or quasi-sovereign interests. This sovereign interest is the guarantee of the well-being of the state’s citizenry. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized two general categories of quasi-sovereign interests. The first is the protection of the health and well-being, both physically and economically, of the state’s residents in general. The second is the protection of the state’s interest in not being discriminatorily denied its rightful status within the federal system. In deciding whether a state can use the parens patriae doctrine in a specific claim, the Court may look to whether the injury is one that the state might address through its sovereign law-making powers and whether the conduct infringes, either directly or indirectly, on a significant portion of the population, per the ruling in Snapp and Son, Inc. v. Puerto Rico (1982).
The doctrine of parens patriae was established as a mechanism for the states to act in the best interest of children. When children are considered at risk, the state can step in and act as the parent. Over time, however, this doctrine has been expanded so that the state can act in the best interest of all citizens where the well-being of the state’s citizenry is at stake.
- Benekos, P., & Merlo, A. (2004). Controversies in juvenile justice and delinquency. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis.
- Elsea, K. (1995). The juvenile crime debate: Rehabilitation, punishment, or prevention. Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 5(1), 135-146.
- Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. 206 U.S. 230 (1907).
- Greenberg, D. (1985). Age, crime, and social explanation. American Journal of Sociology, 9(1), 1-21.
- Nolan, J., & Connolly, M. (1983). Black’s law dictionary (5th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.
- Siegel, L., & Welsh, B. (2005). Juvenile delinquency: The core (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson.
- Snapp & Son, Inc. v. Puerto Rico, 458 U.S. 592 (1982).