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
"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
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
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. …