A tragic story, played big across all local media. Last Tuesday, in a Provo courtroon, a young father tearfully pleaded guilty to the murder of his own 5-month-old son.
By entering the plea, and accepting a life-without-parole sentence, 21-year-old Joshua David Petersen does not only avoid the risk of a death sentence. He also spares himself and the other people who loved his son, Ryker, the painful process of a trial. (The only murder trial I ever covered was that of a mother who shot her own 10-year-old son with the family’s deer rifle. Minute-by-minute recollections. Medical examiner’s testimony. Autopsy photos. Nobody comes out of one of those trials unaffected.)
But, wait a minute. This child was killed by his own father. Not some stranger, a live-in boyfriend or a creepy stepdad.
This is Utah, where the family is supreme, fathers rule the roost, and we don’t want no nosy nanny state telling us how to raise our kids, by darn.
So what if this man was depressed to the point of madness, planning to kill both himself and his dear son as a way of sparing both of them any more time in this vale of tears? Isn’t child-rearing a family’s private affair? Why is this poor man being hauled before a court for caring for his own family as he saw fit?
Before you scroll down to the comment button, wait another minute. Of course, that is a ridiculous argument, reductio ad absurdum, the academics might say. But even that kind of argument can be used to stimulate a little thought.
The argument that families, not the state, have primary, secondary, tertiary and just about every other kind of responsibility for their offspring and their upbringing is the root of various trends and beliefs.
They include the resistance to such useful services as universal preschool, or even all-day kindergarten. The unquenched drive to take tax money from the public schools and use it to fund private schools, online schools or for-profit charter schools. The cruel reluctance of Utah’s leaders to get with the expansion of Medicaid and other parts of Obamacare that would unquestionably help many families, and many children, avoid the physical, emotional and economic traps of illness.
The family-first approach also underlies the best spin that can be put on the new grading system the Utah Legislature forced on the state’s schools. By making it likely, if not inevitable, that some hard-working schools facing the toughest odds would get Ds or Fs, backers of the grading plan argue that affected parents will become aware, even enraged, and demand that those schools be improved. Though how such improvement would be possible, absent the resources that the Legislature habitually refuses to provide, is not explained.
Like much of life, there is a continuum. At one end, no, fathers and mothers are not allowed to kill their own children. Or even beat them, though, through much of human history, that was considered to be within a parent’s private purview. As was selling his daughters into slavery.
At the other end, yes, fathers and mothers are allowed, expected, to choose their children’s food, dress them funny and attempt, with widely disparate degrees of success, to inculcate them with their own views on everything from religion to guns to taste in TV shows.
In between, somewhere, is a line dividing where the state will step in and where it will not. It is not firmly drawn, nor easily applied in all cases. But the common responsibility to care for children in our communities does not stop with our revulsion when one of them dies violently.
It also includes the duty to provide all children the best schools we can possibly afford, a standard of health care that already is common throughout the civilized world, air and water that do not poison them.
Because even parents who do know best don’t always have the means, on their own, to do right by their children.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is a proud stepdad. Though not, he would argue, creepy. firstname.lastname@example.org
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