Parens Patriae

Literally “parent of one’s country,” this Latin term refers to the inherent responsibility of the government, or of the court system, to protect people who cannot protect or care for themselves. The concept of parens patriae in the U.S. legal system most commonly applies to issues of child custody and protection, though it may also be used in protecting others who cannot care for their own interests, such as insane or mentally incapacitated adults. To explore this concept, consider the following parens patriae definition.

Definition of Parens Patriae


pa·rens pa·tri·ae


  1. The “father of the country,” as in the responsibility of the state (government) to protect its citizens, or those who are unable to protect themselves.


First Century    Latin

Use of Parens Patriae in U.S. Law

The roots of parens patriae, as it relates to the law, lie in English Common Law, where powers and obligations to make decisions regarding the protection of the people, and function of the country, were held by the King. In feudal times, this was known as the “royal prerogative.”

In the United States, the doctrine of parens patriae commonly refers to the government’s responsibilities as supreme guardian of children, mentally ill adults, and people who are otherwise legally incompetent. Under parens patriae, U.S. and state courts have the power and obligation to intervene on behalf of the best interests of a child or incompetent person, in the event his or her welfare is in jeopardy. This may be in circumstances of divorce and child custody, healthcare, and other issues.

For example:

Amber and John have been locked in a bitter divorce and child custody battle for months. Amber provided plenty of evidence that John is verbally and emotionally abusive to the children, asking that he only be allowed supervised visitation. The night before their custody hearing, John offers Amber significantly more money each month as child support, if she will agree to joint custody of their children, with no supervision.

At the hearing, Amber withdraws her request for supervised visitation. After reviewing all of the evidence previously provided, as well as the recommendation of the child services mediator, the judge determines that the children are not safe from abuse while in their father’s care.

In his role as parens patriae, with the responsibility of safeguarding the children, the judge orders supervised visitation only for the father, and the statutory amount of child support. In addition, the judge orders both parents, as well as the children, to attend psychological counseling.

Additionally, the courts, acting as parens patriae, have the authority to make decisions regarding mental health treatment, or other healthcare issues, on behalf of an individual who is unable to make such decisions on his or her own. The state’s authority extends only to limited reasonable and necessary treatments.

Government Acting on Behalf of the People

In the U.S., the doctrine of parens patriae also addresses the right of a state attorney general to file a lawsuit, on behalf of the state’s citizens, regarding federal antitrust violations. This authority answers the state’s responsibility to protect the general and economic welfare of its citizens, and to ensure that benefits offered under federal law are not denied to the general public.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Incompetent – Incapable due to a physical or mental condition.