This text is intended for use in law school, political science, social science, and social work/public health graduate courses. The book focuses on the leading court cases interpreting and defining American law pertaining to children. It is supplemented with important data, brief commentaries, and questions to stimulate discussion.
The subject matter is deliberately broad, covering the political/legal context of rights and remedies available to children, and twelve substantive areas. Three themes tie together all of the issues and discussion of this work. First is a pervasive dichotomy underlying child-related public policies. On the one hand, children are all persons entitled to the rights and privileges of any citizen. Indeed, our affection for them gives them special status. In a sense, the status of adults is believed by many to be a floor above which children are properly elevated. On the other hand, however, children are immature. They are not merely “little adults” and cannot be relied upon to always judge their own self-interest. Rather, they require protection and guidance. This dualism underlies much public policy affecting children and has often worked to their disadvantage, as the materials to follow indicate. Sometimes children are not granted the minimum floor of rights reserved for adults. Their inferior status does not always relate to their immaturity or to their protection.
Second, children represent the politically weakest grouping of persons. Adults have organized across a wide spectrum of characteristics, from disabled status to sexual preference. To offend any grouping is to risk quick approbation. This status is reflected in many ways; for example, the media coverage of school shootings failed to report the marked diminution of youth crime and the fact that violence against children occurs hundreds of times more often than the reverse. Would similar reporting have occurred based on shootings by an Hispanic, a Lutheran, a gay man, or a senior citizen? A more critical reflection of this lack of status can be found in our attitude toward adult reproductive rights (which are expansively defended) as opposed to a posited right of a child simply to be intended by two adults. The statistical correlation between this rather simple stated “right” and child welfare is remarkable. But it brooks virtually no weight against the prerogatives of adult groupings. This political power deficit is exacerbated by their lack of organization, lobbying presence, ability to vote, lack of campaign finance resources, and limited access to court redress. How would the rights and remedies of children differ were they to have the organization and resources of energy corporations, trade associations, or senior citizens?
The final feature binding all of the chapters of this work is a cliche. But like many cliches, it covers a seminal truth. Children are our future, what we shall leave behind. One of the marks of civilization is the recognition of the sacrifices of our parents and of their parents—for us, and the ethical imperative to pass that legacy onto our own legatees. These sentiments cut across many cultures, from the People of Israel (“I have drunk from wells I did not dig, and warmed by fires I did not build”) to the Native American (“I did not inherit this earth from my parents, I have borrowed it from my grandchildren”).