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What is Parens Patriae?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Parens patriae is a concept in the law which is invoked by the state when it needs to act in the role of a parent to a citizen. Translated, the term means “parent of the nation,” and it has its roots in English common law. The idea behind parens patriae is that sometimes citizens are in need of someone who can act as a parent to make decisions and take other actions, and sometimes the state is best qualified to take on this role, usually in a temporary capacity.

This is commonly seen in cases where children are removed from their parents or guardians in response to concerns about neglect and abuse. The people who legally have parenting rights have these rights temporarily suspended in the interests of the child, and the state becomes the guardian while a solution is reached. Historically, such children were fostered and adopted out, although some governments have taken on a more rehabilitation-oriented stance to such situations, reuniting children with their parents whenever it is possible.

Children are not the only people on whose behalf the state can intervene. People who are judged mentally incompetent may also be subject to parens patriae, even if they are adults. This includes people with certain mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities. Elderly adults who have dementia and other conditions which might impair the ability to make decisions can also be protected by the state.

Under parens patriae, the state can make medical decisions on behalf of its ward, and it can also do things like suing on behalf of people who have been abused or neglected. For example, if the government determines that abuses occurred in a long term care facility for people with disabilities, it might bring suit on behalf of the residents who are considered incompetent and thus not able to bring suit themselves so that justice can be served.

When the state invokes parens patriae and takes on the role of guardian for someone in need of assistance and protection, it must make decisions in the best interest of the ward. Commonly a social worker is appointed to advocate for the person being cared for under parens patriae and to assist with the decision making process. In situations where people need to be placed in care with someone other than their parents, the new care situation is carefully evaluated to confirm that it is safe and healthy.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By strawCake — On Sep 21, 2011

@JaneAir - I think most states do the best they can to make sure children placed in their care are taken care of.

That said, I'm not sure I even agree with the concept of parens patriae in the first place. Why should the government be stepping in to private family matters? If a child is being abused it should be the responsibility of another close family member to take care of them, not the states. The same with elderly people.

By JaneAir — On Sep 20, 2011

I think it's great that the State steps in to be the guardian to children in abusive homes and abused elderly people. However, it's not actually the State who ends up being the guardian-it's other people.

One of my friends is a social worker, and she takes care of these kinds of cases. She is woefully overworked and underpaid, but she does a good job anyway. I just worry that other people in her situation wouldn't put in 100% you know? If the State is going to act as someones guardian they should make sure to do a good job.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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