Monday, October 14, 2013

Enforcing Filial Support Laws in China: A Window into Harsh Truths

When I first began writing about modern enforcement of  filial support laws, I was examining what I would now call a "little" Pennsylvania case, Savoy v. Savoy,  641 A.2d 596 (Pa. Super. 1994) where a mother was asking for financial support from her adult son because she was unable to work after a hospital stay.  Citing Pennsylvania's filial support law, requiring children "to care for, maintain, or financially assist" an indigent parent, the court ordered the son to pay $125 per month, but the court did not order him to pay her; rather, the court ordered the son to pay his mother's health care providers.  The relief granted in that case was probably of little practical value to the plaintiff.  Most likely, the mother could have discharged those bills in a no-asset bankruptcy.  What she really needed was help in the future.  She needed help with daily expenses because she was unable to work and was sliding into poverty.   I learned that even a few years after the court case was over, the family relations were still pretty much destroyed.  Money had been paid, but that was about all. 

I was worried about the implications of the Savoy decision for future cases involving reluctant adult children.  What if the reluctant child chose to provide direct care to the ailing parent only because the law imposes such a duty, or because the child is avoiding a court order requiring him or her to pay real dollars for future support?  It is great when family members voluntarily provide care, and it is often heroic when they do so even at huge emotional and fiscal cost to themselves.  But, doesn't court-ordered "filial support," imposed upon a reluctant family member, pose a real danger to the elder, especially a frail elder? 

So, let's look to China.  Earlier this year, some were talking about news of China's decision to enforce its filial support laws, and there was speculation that such enforcement could be a better alternative to the rising cost of publically supported long-term care, such as the costs of Medicaid in the U.S. 

This is where journalist Kristen Gelineau's latest work is important.  Kristen is in Australia, where she writes for The Associated Press.  Several months ago she contacted me, asking about Pennsylvania's law, as well as the law of other states and countries.  We talked about China.  It turns out Kristen went to China to track down exactly what happened in a key case of enforcement,  where a Chinese elder was granted relief under China's version of a filial support law.  Kristen travelled to a village with a photographer and translators (used to translate the local Chinese dialect to Mandarin, then Mandarin to English).

Kristen's story, In Aging China, Older Woman Sues Children for Care,  is powerful and it deserves careful attention.  She tracks the misery associated with desperate financial conditions for an entire family, and how such misery can be intensified when "by the book" enforcement of filial support laws takes place.  As Kristen told me over the weekend, everyone in Zhang's story is struggling to get by and "no one is happier now than they were before they want to court."

Kristen's story is a vivid reminder that there are reasons why Elizabethan-era Poor Laws were replaced with social insurance and public welfare programs, a reminder that is even more relevant to our aging planet in the 21st Century. 

And there is more to come from Kristen Gelineau. Her next piece, to be released later this month, looks at elder neglect in Australia and the wider problem of elder abuse globally.

Ethical Issues, Health Care/Long Term Care, Housing, Medicaid | Permalink

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