It is impossible to weigh the merits of selling children for bribes against the casualties produced by dysfunctional families.
Kids as commodities or kids suffering abuse and neglect?
These are the extremes in Pennsylvania that seem to wend the maze of social responsibility from family services to family courts and then on to volunteer watchdogs for the courts and family services.
Once the cash-for-kids scandal broke, in which judges from Luzerne County sentenced juveniles to detention for minor infractions and received kickbacks from the institutions, it became clear that power over young lives could not be vested in the secret chambers of family court -- where all who work there answer to a judge, for better or worse.
Out of that grew the patch-on court appointed special advocates or CASA roles, possibly a good idea for the survival and care of children, but clearly a reaction to the failure of adults as parents, social service providers, other legal guardians and judges.
Now, the numbers show that the state is moving in a different direction. Fewer juveniles are being taken from their homes by court order, down 29 percent from 2007 to 2011.
Success is measured these days in terms of family unification, a kind of progression through the antecedents in a child's gene pool until aunts, uncles, grandparents or siblings can be organized into some sort of network that shores up or substitutes for the failure of traditional parenting.
Understandably, that sounds accusatory in the context of our cultural past, which lingers as the dominant concept for the cultural and institutional present.
Collectively, we still subscribe to a two-parent, nuclear family world. Actually, social evolution toward assembled families, single parenthood, two-income survival and mobility that imposes vast physical distance between generations all conspire to contradict our beliefs.
Asking the courts and caseworkers to bridge this gap between cultural memories and current reality condemns society to the climbing costs of perpetual patchwork.
If today's parents and families cannot keep it together well enough, long enough to nurture young lives, society needs to develop social supports that fill the void before detention or unification are the only remaining options.
For that, the better bet appears to be investment in quality early education and public school systems that coach and apply peer guidance well and wisely to correct and overcome dysfunction born of disadvantage.