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Forcing Household Chores Isn't a Federal Crime

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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a Michigan man did not violate federal forced labor laws by having children do household chores. The court found that 18 U.S.C. § 1589, a statute designed to prevent forced labor by threat, harm, or abuse, does not extend to activities conducted by children in the home traditionally seen as normative chores. The opinion is here.

Jean-Claude Toviave, an immigrant from Togo in 2001, illegally brought four young relatives - a younger sister, two cousins, and a nephew - to live with him in 2006. After they arrived, Toviave made the children cook, clean, and do the laundry. He also occasionally made the children babysit for his girlfriend and relatives. Toviave would often beat the children if they misbehaved, didn't follow his rules, or failed to perform assigned chores. He was apparently quick to beat the children and did so with a myriad of objects as well as has fists.

After school personnel became worried about abuse in the home, they contacted local authorities and an investigation ensued. The Department of Homeland Security became involved once it became clear that the children had come into the country illegally. Toviave was charged with visa fraud, mail fraud, forced labor, and human trafficking. He pled guilty to visa and mail fraud, the trafficking charge was dropped, and he proceeded to trial on the forced labor charge. He was convicted of four counts of forced labor, one for each child.

While complicated by the fact that Toviave was neither the children's biological father nor their legal guardian, the Sixth Circuit found unanimously that while the abuse the children suffered was reprehensible and cruel, Toviave had not violated 18 U.S.C. § 1589.
Perhaps one of the more interesting anecdotes from the trial was during deliberations a juror asked the court, "Why is this [case] not tried under the child abuse laws?" The court answered, "Child abuse laws are state laws, and there's no reason that it couldn't be tried under both."

That judge is right of course, with regards to the visa and mail fraud, as well as the dropped human trafficking charge. What is problematic is the extension of a federal statute to the criminalizing of forcing acceptable chores on children. The Sixth Circuit notes several hypotheticals that demonstrate the slippery slope in doing so.

The Supreme Court of the United States, as recently as this past term in Bond v. United States, has noted the importance of not construing federal statutes to encompass areas traditionally regulated by states. 

Jean-Claude Toviave is without question someone deserving of punishment, but how that punishment is administered matters as well. As Kent has noted before, we are all-weather Federalists, and while federal law enforcement has an important role in that, the adjudication of child abuse cases belongs in state courts, not federalized as "forced labor."

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