The 1838 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision Ex parte Crouse elaborated the doctrine of parens patriae by establishing that the state has a right and an obligation to remove children from improperly supervised households. The common law doctrine parens patriae, or "the state is the father," provides that the state has the responsibility to care for those who are legally incapable of caring for themselves. During the nineteenth century, JUVENILE JUSTICE advocates frequently relied on this doctrine to justify their efforts to protect children, both from the harsh adult criminal justice system and from parental neglect and abuse.
Ex parte Crouse was heard by the court as an appeal brought by a father whose daughter was committed to the Pennsylvania House of Refuge. The House of Refuge was established in 1826 to house and rehabilitate children who were charged with or convicted of committing criminal offenses. In 1835, the law governing the House of Refuge was amended to provide that girls under age eighteen and boys under age twenty-one could also be committed to the care and supervision of the House of Refuge for incorrigible or vicious conduct. The local magistrate committed Mary Ann Crouse to the House of Refuge under this provision after her mother filed a petition alleging that she was no longer capable of controlling Mary Ann's "vicious conduct." Following the commitment, Mary Ann's father filed a petition with the court in which he argued that the commitment was a violation of Mary Ann's constitutional rights because the magistrate did not conduct a trial before placing her in the House of Refuge.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed with the argument that Mary Ann's commitment was a violation of her constitutional rights. Instead, the court held that Mary Ann's proper place was in the House of Refuge because, according to the doctrine of parens patriae, the state had an obligation and a right to assure her well-being. According to the court, if Mary Ann's parents were unable to control her, to educate her, or to protect her virtue, it became the state's responsibility to protect her. The court stated that although parents have a right to parental control, the right is not absolute, and if parents fail to exercise their rights in the appropriate manner, the rights and responsibilities of caring for the child are transferred to the state. Furthermore, Mary Ann's commitment was not a violation of her constitutional rights because the House of Refuge was a place of rehabilitation, not of punishment. The court reasoned that Mary Ann's placement in the institution would save her from a course of certain harm and that to release her from the House of Refuge would itself be an act of cruelty.
According to historian Michael Grossberg, Ex parte Crouse can be considered "the most influential antebellum judicial analysis of newly created children's asylums." In addition to providing an explanation of the rehabilitative goal of houses of refuge, the case was also important because it expanded the application of the doctrine of parens patriae. The expansion of this important legal doctrine was later relied upon by legal reformers to support the expansion of the legal powers of JUVENILE COURTS.
Grossberg, Michael. 1985. Governing the Hearth: Law and Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Krisberg, Barry, and James F. Austin. 1993. Reinventing Juvenile Justice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Ramsey, Sarah H., and Douglas E. Abrams. 2001. Children and the Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West Group.
Vito, Gennaro F., and Deborah G. Wilson. 1985. The American Juvenile Justice System. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
AMY L. ELSON