By Bob Simmons, executive director – Council for Children’s Rights
Not long ago, at a banquet recognizing non-profit agencies, a table mate asked me which agency I represented. When I replied, “Council for Children’s Rights,” my table mate said, “Children don’t have rights. Their parents have the responsibility to care for them.”
“Children don’t have rights”: we often hear this, even from kind people who wish the best for all children and who generously support agencies working for children’s welfare. We disagree.
In addition to being part of our agency’s name, the protection of children’s rights to be safe, healthy, and well-educated is at the heart of our vision and mission.
So what rights do children really have? How do we stand up for them? Why should our community join us?
All people have two kinds of rights: human and legal. Human rights are not uniformly codified, and there many different opinions about what they are. From Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, history records efforts to describe a worldwide vision for human dignity and to establish a basis to protect people.
In the United States, where our founding expression of human rights is the Declaration of Independence, our aspiration to create a nation of laws that define and ensure human rights resulted in the creation of our three-part government of checks and balances under a Constitution with a Bill of Rights and a system of State constitutions and laws. Legal rights exist in that structure.
Although human and legal rights apply to all people, children’s rights have been limited, debated, and sometimes ignored.
Part of the reason is based in good intentions. We recognize that children are developmentally different from adults, both physically and mentally. We recognize their vulnerabilities and their need to be protected from dangers, including from mistreatment by adults or from a lack of food, shelter, clothing, or medical care that they are less capable of obtaining independently. So we subordinate children’s rights to the parental responsibility my table mate cited.
But in its extreme, this desire to protect children has been manifested as the deprivation of all rights and the treatment of children as the exclusive property of parents who are given sole responsibility and authority for their care and upbringing. While we honor the independence of families, we have come to recognize that parents’ and caregivers’ prerogatives must be subject to intervention by the State at least in cases of abuse or neglect that violate a child’s human rights to safety.
In the US and in North Carolina, we now also recognize that children have rights beyond the bare safety protection of abuse and neglect laws. But that has not always been so. This month we celebrate a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) who, in the case know as In re Gault (1967), said “Neither the 14th Amendment, nor the Bill of Rights, is for adults alone.”
The case started in 1964 when 15-year-old Gerald Gault allegedly made a prank phone call to a neighbor. Shortly after the call, he was taken into police custody. His parents were not notified of his arrest; he was interviewed without a lawyer or his parents present; and he reportedly he confessed. He was not advised of his right to silence, his right to an attorney, or his right to have an attorney provided by the State. He was sentenced to serve six years in a state industrial school. The case was appealed and made its way to SCOTUS where the Court determined that Gault’s trial violated his right to due process, which every citizen—including a child—is guaranteed.
In re Gault established that children facing prosecution in juvenile court have the same due process rights as adults. It transformed juvenile court proceedings and afforded children essential rights that are the foundation of a fair juvenile justice system.
We recognize and celebrate both the progress that has been made nationally in children’s rights since Gault and the commitment to children’s rights demonstrated by our own Juvenile Court system in Mecklenburg County. But for many children in our state and around the country, the promise of Gault remains unfulfilled and there is much work still to be done.
Many children in America, including 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina, still face charges in complex justice systems without the basic representation guaranteed by Gault. Our work for children’s rights includes issues such as raising the age for adult prosecution, reducing socioeconomic and racial isolation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, improving access to mental health services for children, expanding placements and services for children with difficult histories, and working with Race Matters for Juvenile Justice to reduce disproportionate involvement and disparate outcomes for children of color.
The promise of Gault empowers us to stand up and speak out to help children receive the protection, care, or education they need. We show up for them in court, in school meetings, in hospitals, and in other settings to help them through trouble and to help them find a path past obstacles to a brighter future. Ultimately, we hold adults, institutions, systems, and our community accountable for not letting our children fall through the cracks – for helping as many of our children as possible enjoy the childhood our community hopes that all of our children will enjoy.
This month, there will be a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Gault led by the National Juvenile Defender Center. We encourage you to visit www.gaultat50.org to learn more and to join the Council in signing and committing to their Statement of Principles.
It is said that a community will be judged by how it treats the people who can least protect themselves, and, as my former table mate and I agreed after a little discussion, we want our community to be known for treating all of our children well. We hope that you will join us in standing up and speaking out to make that aspiration a reality.
Tune in Monday, May 15th at 9:00 a.m. EST
Mike Collins welcomes Council’s ED Bob Simmons, Judge Elizabeth Trosch and public defender Mujtaba Mohammed to Charlotte Talks for a program exploring the history and impact of In re Gault on the juvenile court system. Where have we come from? Where are we going? Listen online at wfae.org or at 90.7fm.
More information on Gault events, history and ways you can get involved with our policy initiatives is available at our Gault at 50 page.
Join us on Twitter on Monday, May 15 at 12:00 noon EST as we join partners across the State for a Twitter Town Hall on #Gaultat50 and #RaiseTheAgeNC. Share your questions, comments and ideas online by using the hashtag #Gaultat50 from 12 to 1.
Bob Simmons has been the executive director of Council for Children’s Rights since April 2015.