Legal Protections for America's Young Treasures

by Charles D. Gill

Twenty-five years ago I participated in a special educational tour of what was then the U.S.S.R. with American and Soviet educators. The pre-detente Soviet Union of 1972 was a foreboding place and our visits to schools in its largest cities and Siberia made many impressions upon me.

The most memorable occurred in the Armory Museum within the walls of the Kremlin. I was awestruck by the enormity and splendor of the treasures there. The golden carriages of Catherine the Great and the jeweled tiaras were eye-boggling. I remarked to my omnipresent in-tourist guide, Boris Somanov, that I was truly impressed with their national treasures. He immediately corrected me. "Oh no, these are not our national treasures, our children are our national treasures."

I am afraid that for all our pious platitudes about loving our children and how they are our future, we Americans still do not treat our children as the national treasures that they are. We treat them as property rather than people. And we treat them badly at that.

We have 40 million children in America under the age of 10. Both conservative and liberal researchers predict dire consequences for America if we do not take a different tack, make a paradigm shift or find a new answer. John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, warns we soon will be facing the "super predators." James P. Comer, the preeminent Yale child psychiatrist, contends we are losing this generation of children, and "we are creating a powder keg."

Capacity For Change

As public school leaders, you can be in a vanguard of a movement to change all that. You are potentially the most powerful group of your size in America. You are the only group that has direct daily influence on the lives of nearly every single child in every town, city, and county in America. You are the only group in America that has direct contact with every parent in America.

All of you know about the developmental needs of children. You know the realities of being a child in contemporary America. Because of your experience, position, and leadership, you have the capacity to become "armed and dangerous" on behalf of our national treasure—our children. You are "armed" with knowledge and "dangerous" because you can put that knowledge to work in the political arena.

AASA’s dynamic executive director, Paul Houston, really set the stage for this essay with an observation he made last year. He noted, "Our institutions are much better at providing a rear-view mirror than at providing shining headlights toward the future." And so, colleagues, I am suggesting you join in the forefront of a movement that will make that paradigm shift and supply a new answer. I suggest you join with other professional groups that approve the possibilities of creating a children’s amendment to the U.S. Constitution!

Already, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Nurses Association, and the National Education Association, which has drafted its own bill of rights for children, have welcomed this exploration.

Eighty nations around the world now provide specific protections and rights for children in their national constitutions. The word "child" does not appear once in the U.S. Constitution.

A Single-Minded Focus

Three monumental social changes occurred in the first 200 years of American history. Each produced a radical shift in the relationship of people to their government. Each extended new protective status and rights to people living in America. The first was the Bill of Rights. The second was the abolition of slavery. The third was women’s suffrage.

All moved us closer to the idea of a viable democracy. All also were accomplished by amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which reflected society’s evolving obligation to protect and respect individuals. The infamous Dred Scott decision told us the fate of those not granted constitutional protection. Slaves, called "other persons" in the Constitution, were property, not people. Women, while people, were not full citizens. They could not own property, vote, serve on juries, or enter the legal profession.

Today only one group of "other persons" remains unprotected by the Constitution, corporations, governments, or courts in America. This group is children.

We need a single focus for children’s advocacy in America. Presently, children’s advocacy is a thousand shards of incohesive glass that have no real political impact. One advocacy group deals with child poverty issues, another foster care issues, another early childhood education, and others with hundreds of splinters each with a specialized and often esoteric health care need.

Traditional advocates are really traditional beggars, each appealing to an unrealistic vision of man’s inhumanity to children. Each shard of glass begs for its particular turf crumb from the legislative or corporate cake. None has the audacity, clout, or legal basis to demand a real slice of the cake. Children’s concerns are simply not powerful issues in legislative bodies.

Present strategies never will change that. Children get in the begging line with the highway paving program and a new basketball arena for the university. The highways and gyms always win.

Sidetracked By Issues

A successful precedent for a unified social movement for a constitutional amendment should encourage us to try the same strategy for children. That precedent is the Equal Rights Amendment. Like the ERA effort, a Children’s Rights Amendment is a win/win situation.

Recall that the ERA did not make it to the U.S. Constitution by the narrowest of margins. Was it worth the effort? You bet. Over half of our states have amended their constitutions with an ERA. Consider all the hiring, firing, promotional, and education policies that have changed in the wake of the ERA thrust.

Oddly enough, it is not a children’s rights amendment that is on the American agenda, but rather a parents’ rights amendment! About 30 states and the Congress have been presented with such amendments that grant all parents the inalienable right "to direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children." Such an amendment would have enormous and disastrous consequences for the health, safety, and education of our children.

It is ironic that America, which trumpets its concern for human rights in everybody else’s country, is considered backward by much of the world when it comes to children’s rights. For example, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child has been hailed as the Magna Carta for children. Nearly 190 nations have ratified this amazing document. Shockingly, America joins Somalia as the only two member nations in the non-ratification camp.

However, another subject constantly sidetracks all efforts to recognize children’s rights as a viable way to vastly improve the status of the American child. That is our fixation on poverty and racial issues. Some children’s advocates and government leaders, while well-intentioned in their zeal to rid our nation of the twin disgraces of poverty and racism, simply are not cognizant of what Paul Houston calls the "changing reality of children in America."

Today we have a school population increasingly beset by special education needs, alternative educational settings, remedial courses, violent behavior, and excessive truancy. We have a school population that has increased its use of drugs and alcohol. And, according to one source, we have more than 2 million children on Ritalin and more than 1 million on Prozac.

Because some observers always start by adjustment the poverty microscope, they miss Houston’s point. They only look at the laboratory slide that says "poverty." Our children face many different types of poverty. Economic poverty is one of them. But economic poverty alone is not the only slide we should be examining. This is not a case of children being poor as much as it is a case of children being poorly treated.

A poverty of governmental interest in children exists because we are beggars rather than demanders. There is also a poverty of time that we adults are spending with our children. Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University who has followed 20,000 school children for a decade, says the major reason for poor pupil performance is the fact they have parents who are less and less engaged with their children’s lives. (This is certainly true for the 15 million children who have little or no contact with their fathers.) Membership in PTA, he tells us, has dropped in half, from 12 million a few decades back to 6 million today.

A Values Meltdown

We also are confronting a poverty of values. Two knowledgeable children’s advocates recently concluded this type of poverty should be center stage.

Dr. Benjamin Spock puts it this way: "When I look at our society and think of the millions of children exposed every day to its harmful effects, I am near despair. … I believe that very strongly, and I really think the United States is slipping downhill in such terms as violence, in terms of numbers of divorces ... our society is not working; our marriage is not working; children are getting involved in premature pregnancies, and the violence is increasing. ... To just have the society survive and not end up in chaos, I think we’ve got to instill more values and more spiritual values."

Child psychiatrist Jack Westman of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine says this: "Whether we are judges, lawyers, social workers, educators, or health professionals, all of us feel the frustrations of trying to intervene in the lives of children after they have been damaged by incompetent parenting. We know that the severity and the prevalence of that damage is far beyond the scope of professional solutions. And we have a responsibility to convey that awareness to the public. The solution lies in changing values, not in professional services."

Creating Critical Mass

Consider these prophetic words of two professionals who are seeing the realities of today’s children.

In a speech last July, James Comer, professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, said: "(T)he year 2000, in my opinion, is going to be a psychological watershed. The nations that go into the year 2000 having figured out how to make it possible for as many young people as possible to develop the skills they need to function well will go on an uphill course or continue to do well. The nations that go into the year 2000 not having figured it out and still talk about survival of the fittest and ‘trickle down’ are going to have difficulty, and it will be slow at first, but in one or two more generations, we will go on a quick downhill course in this country. We have got to make a difference. ... All of the people involved in education and human services and the like must get the country to understand that we must develop our children, because a country that does not develop children is a country that does not have a future. ... We have got to create a movement."

Meanwhile, Justice Jean Toal of the South Carolina Supreme Court, wrote in a 1995 legal opinion: "(T)he state of the child in this country and this state is a disgrace. The parents are protected to the utmost extent but the children, who cannot reasonably offer any protection of their own, are ignored. If our state and federal constitutions do not protect our children from abuse and an unstable family life in their formative years, then they should be amended so that they do.

An outstanding elementary school principal from Butte, Mont., Kate Stetzner, makes the point with perhaps more clarity. She subscribes to something she calls "the bathtub theory." Children come to school each day as empty bathtubs. Caring teachers and administrators dutifully fill that tub with nurturing, values, inspiration, and information, then the children go home ... and somebody pulls out the plug.

Anyone who thinks the solution to society’s maltreatment of our national treasures will be found on our present course or with the usual strategies is sadly mistaken. We have to make a paradigm shift that puts children first. We have to create that critical mass of educators, pediatricians, social workers, nurses, and others who will focus on that single objective. We need a movement that organizes that mass. And we must explore the feasibility of having a children’s rights amendment as the unifying banner.

You have the power to do that.

Charles Gill, Connecticut Superior Court judge, is chair of the National Task Force for Children’s Constitutional Rights, an organization he co-founded in 1988.