The Trials of Childhood High Profile Test Cases Define Rights of Minors

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CHILDREN'S RIGHTS. For Kristi Hamrick of the conservative Family Research Council, that phrase amounts to a "nuclear bomb," a "tremendously destructive" weapon aimed right smack at the integrity of the family.

But for David Liederman of the Child Welfare League of America, children's rights are a move toward "a level playing field with adults," a reminder that "parents have rights and responsibilities. You don't own your kids."

The issue of children's rights has achieved high visibility - but not clarity - because of several highly publicized cases.

Last year, Gregory Kingsley, now Shawn Russ, successfully "divorced" his biological parents whom he accused of neglect. This year, Kimberly Mays - who was sent home to the wrong family after birth - is trying to sever ties with her biological parents, who are seeking visitation rights.

In Missouri, three siblings are suing to end court-ordered visitation with their father who they describe as manipulative and domineering. And, finally, the Baby Jessica case is viewed by some as one in which the child's rights were ignored.

Although the details differ, these cases have gained the public's attention. Children's advocates warn that the issue of children's rights encompasses far more than children against their parents. They say the most important battleground for children's rights is entitlements, what they perceive to be a child's right to health care, to education, to housing - essentially to a decent life.

"The big issue is not the right to sue, although access to the courts is important," said Bob Horowitz, associate director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law. The "focus is on rights to entitlements and, in a period of retrenchment, how entitlements get played out."

Still, the cases followed by the media dramatize the point at which children's interests or rights can conflict sharply with parents' interests or rights. In so doing, they raise provocative questions about the family because they challenge a fundamental legal and social presumption: That children belong in their biological family and their interests are best served there.

There are three major areas in which parents' and children's rights can - and have - conflict:

Medical treatment. In general, parents are entrusted with the medical treatment decisions for their children. But there are controversial exceptions. In cases of life-threatening illness, courts have held that the child's right to treatment supercedes the parent's right, for religious or whatever reasons, to deny it.

In other instances, youths have been recognized as having an independent right to treatment for drug abuse, contraceptives or abortion.

Some conservatives object to any challenge of parental authority. "We are reluctant to intrude on the sovereignty of the family," said Hamrick. "We have to be afraid of the slippery slope."

Custody and visitation. "Not to take the child's wishes into account is a recipe for disaster," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the director of the Children's Rights Project of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.

Few experts believe that the Grissom children in Missouri had any case in trying to eliminate the visitation order with their father. "Traditionally, courts are reluctant to limit visitation," said Horowitz. "There are too many implications for child support and free will, (meaning) has the mother poisoned the well?"

Foster care and adoption. In the foster-care system, the "main issues are the termination of parental rights on a timely basis and how decisions are made for children," said Lowry.

The ACLU's foster-care cases concern primarily the less glamorous aspects of the functioning - or malfunctioning - system. For example, the resolution of G.L. vs Zumwalt, a case from Kansas City, led to more regular medical and dental screenings for foster children, more caseworkers and training for foster parents. …