Coming of Age

To hear politicians talk, you'd think children were a uniquely privileged group. Whether lamenting welfare cuts or the federal deficit, just about anyone with a point to make gets around to invoking the innocent child. But as actual people, kids do not enjoy many of the political and civil rights that adults take for granted. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that principals can censor student newspapers that are at odds with the school's "educational mission" and that schools can test student athletes for illegal drugs without specific cause for suspicion. Cops aren't supposed to beat a criminal, but neither law nor tradition forbids parents from spanking their children. Children whose parents are warring over them in court may never have the opportunity to tell the judge what's in their own hearts. Though minors can usually get birth control and some forms of medical treatment without parental consent, they often lack the power to refuse treatment.Advocates for children have traditionally concentrated on so-called "welfare rights": their right to a minimum standard of living, basic health care and education, and freedom from exploitation in the work force or abuse at the hands of adults. Today, some activists argue that children must also have certain basic civil rights. More sophisticated than the "child liberationism" of the '70s -- which in essence sought to abolish childhood, letting kids act like adults and suffer the consequences -- this new sensibility acknowledges children's need for special protection. It, however, challenges the view that until they reach 18, kids are mere objects of adult authority and concern. No one wants to let 10-year-olds quit school or smoke cigarettes. But some advocates think kids should have a role in making school rules, be able to vote at 16 or publish their own ideas -- even controversial ones.Perhaps most importantly, they say, children should have the right to express their own views in legal proceedings that affect them. Groups like the National Child Rights Alliance (NCRA), formed by child abuse survivors who remember what it was like to have no legal recourse, and Justice for Children, founded by a former prosecutor fed up with the court system's failure to protect abused children, think kids need legal standing -- the right to initiate legal action independently of their caretakers -- and the right to an attorney who will act as an advocate. Nowhere would these rights prove more decisive than in legal wrangles over who will serve as a child's family. In the famous case of "Gregory K.," it was the 12-year-old's attempt to "divorce" his mother that made headlines, but the substantive legal issue was whether he had a right to go to court on his own behalf to seek termination of her parental rights. In 1993, the year after Gregory won his case, a Florida appeals court allowed him to stay with the foster parents he loved but reversed the finding that he had a right to sue in the first place.The long-standing legal principle that cases involving children be decided according to their "best interests" does not guarantee the child a say in determining what those interests are. Although the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recommends that court-appointed guardians should convey the wishes of the child, this is not always the case in practice. NCRA co-founder Jeanne Lenzer recalls a 9-year-old New York girl who told anyone who would listen to her that she did not want to go back to the mother who had killed her younger brother. Until NCRA intervened, the girl's court-appointed guardian -- who had never even met her -- agreed with the child welfare agency that she be reunited with her mother. By the same token, the state often separates children from their parents against the children's wishes, sometimes for tendentious reasons such as a parent's homosexuality.In her book Children First, child psychologist Penelope Leach espouses the Norwegian policy that gives the children of divorced parents the right to decide whether or not to visit the noncustodial parent. If such a policy were in place in the United States, a North Carolina judge couldn't have ordered that a 14-year-old girl be locked up for three days this past July because she refused to visit her father in Los Angeles. Those who object to allowing minors to express their views about custody and visitation fear such rights would traumatize children and leave them vulnerable to manipulation. Writing in Texas Lawyer, one attorney argues that children's preferences about custody should be carefully excluded from evidence in divorce cases. "Sometimes, a child chooses a particular parent to make someone else feel good, to get what he or she wants, to avoid hurting one parent," writes Jolene Wilson-Glah. "[T]he desires of children to do what 'feels good' may be carrying more sway than teaching children lessons that are not always fun."But ignoring what children feel has its own consequences. The American public is repeatedly faced with disturbing images like that of 4-year-old "Baby Richard," shown on television two years ago clinging and crying "No!" as he was torn from the arms of his adoptive mother to be raised by biological parents he had never met.The right to determine what happens to one's own body is another prerogative adults expect to exercise absolutely but that minors do not have in most cases. Courts have generally ruled that minors cannot consent to medical care unless they are married or living on their own and financially independent. Exceptions are sometimes made for prenatal care (in 27 states, according to a 1995 survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute), treatment for sexually transmitted disease (49 states), contraceptive services (23 states) and mental health services (21 states).One of the nastiest battles in youth rights has been over whether a young woman can consent to her own abortion. Thirty-nine states require her to get her parents' permission or inform them of her plans to abort. The issue is often cast as a dispute between parents and the state, with the pregnant minor as its passive object. A Pennsylvania woman was arrested two years ago for driving her son's 13-year-old girlfriend across state lines to get an abortion. She received probation, not for violating any abortion law -- it's legal for minors to get an abortion in another state -- but for violating the custody rights of the child's mother -- "usurping a parent's control," according to the state Attorney General. In September, Ohio became the latest state to pass parental consent legislation. In commenting on the new law, its sponsor Jim Jordan erased the pregnant teenager's perspective from the equation. "Moms and dads make better decisions than a bunch of bureaucrats," he said.Minors have little power to refuse medical treatment. In 1995, 16-year-old Billy Best ran away from his Massachusetts home to avoid another round of chemotherapy for his Hodgkin's disease. He left this note: "The reason I left is because I could not stand going to the hospital every week. I feel like the medicine is killing me instead of helping me." When he finally returned home, his parents relented and agreed to an unproven alternative therapy. While Best's cancer is now in remission, critics argue that he could have died after discontinuing chemotherapy. The nut of the issue is why an 18-year-old's right to refuse medical treatment is held sacred, while a 16-year-old has no legal say.Adults can violate their children's physical integrity in other ways as well. The Dade County, Fla., school board voted in September to pull high school students out of class at random and test their urine for illegal drugs. As in the abortion cases, debate has centered on parents' rights. Schools will test only those students whose parents have given their written permission, and results will go only to parents. "It's total parental empowerment," the sponsoring school board member boasted following the vote.Another area in which adults often give themselves carte blanche to restrict children is in their self-expression and access to ideas. Earlier this year, Ohio's public library system announced plans to install special software to restrict children's access to offensive Internet material. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued, pointing out that the software inadvertently cuts off innocuous sites as well. According to People for the American Way (PFAW), the book most frequently targeted over the last 15 years has been John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Parents inevitably try to purge the offending book from the curriculum or library. And that isn't always necessary, says PFAW's Director of Education Policy Deanna Duby, because most school districts give parents the right to excuse their own kid from the class or assignment. The child, needless to say, has no say in the matter.On the day they turn 18, children go from being dependents with few rights to adults who are expected to make decisions for themselves and contribute responsibly to society. Precisely because they are impressionable citizens-in-training, children's evolving capacity to make decisions should be nurtured. We know from the example of child abusers who were once abused themselves that what children learn about power is not so easily unlearned. What do kids learn when adults allow them no influence on important decisions that affect them, show no respect for their physical integrity and no restraint in restricting their speech? "Kids are our future," politicians are fond of saying. Meant to exalt children, this language implicitly dismisses them. It seems to say that children's value lies not in their basic humanity but in the fact that one day, they'll be like us. In other words, one day, they'll be running things.

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