A free-ranging examination of the conflict between parental rights and the state’s interest in the welfare of children. Journalist Shapiro (Japan: In the Land of the Brokenhearted, 1989; The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, 1990) focuses on two families: the LaFlammes, from whom the state took away a baby they were in the process of adopting, and the Meltons, 5 sisters whose 17 children were removed by Chicago police when they were found to be living in such squalid conditions as to defy comprehension. In the case of the LaFlammes, Connecticut reversed its decision to let the couple adopt a baby when the birth mother, who had abandoned her, asked for her back before the adoption was final. In doing so, Shapiro notes, the state denied that the adoptive couple had acquired parental rights. As for the Melton sisters, Illinois found them guilty of neglect and abuse but led four of them to hope they might get their children back if they reformed their lives. Shapiro observes that any expectation that the sisters would respond positively and be able to reclaim their children was doomed; their lives were simply too out of control for that. Into the stories of these destroyed families, whom Shapiro interviewed at length, he weaves background material on other cases, the history of the family and parental rights, the evolution of settlement house to modern welfare system, and conflicting theories about the best interests of children. He argues that the state must accept existing family relationships and whenever possible work closely with mothers to help failing ones. When children are taken away, ways must be found to keep their mothers in their lives. While offering no easy or neat solutions, Shapiro gives tough problems a human face and puts them into historical perspective.