Time to Foster Change

Lack of Children’s Rights in US

It is difficult to comprehend why Congress, for the past thirty-one years, has chosen not to act in ratifying a crucial international treaty regarding children’s rights. The Convention on the Rights of a Child was actually signed by President Clinton decades ago, but Congress opted not to vote on it. Therefore, it was not ratified and the U.S. is not bound to follow it. The United States stands alone as the only country who hasn’t ratified this vital treaty. Along with this unsettling snub, there continues to exist within our country no amendment, federal Act, or law of any kind that specifically spells out the rights and privileges of children residing in this so-called leading nation. One can only ponder as to why this is so. My guess would be the prominence of parental rights, fear of government involvement in family matters, the ultimate cost of protecting at-risk children, and the systemization for doing so. All of these concerns may be relevant, but so is the significance of a child. Why, in present day circumstances, are any of these reasons given more prominence than an innocent human life?

The issue of children’s rights is a complicated issue, especially in the United States. The federal government has only those powers delegated to it by the Constitution. All other powers not forbidden to the states by the Constitution are reserved to each state. Child welfare responsibilities actually fall within each state’s regulatory powers. However, the Constitution allows the federal government to intervene in broad policy objectives (such as child welfare) by exerting certain enumerated powers. For example, a state may receive matching federal funds for child welfare concerns by following strict federal administrative guidelines.

The co-mingling of federal and state powers is a delicate undertaking. The states may need the financial assistance from the federal government, but they also want the independence to enact their own laws and systems. Which of course leads to inconsistency across the nation.

Child welfare and children’s rights are further affected by the right to a family. This is a protected right recognized not only by our Supreme Court, but also validated and defended as an international human right. The right to be a parent and have a family is obviously a sacred right in the eyes of the world. No one would disagree that this right shouldn’t be a protected one, but in addition to these sacred rights there should be ones just as secure and revered that safeguard the rights of a child. I understand and respect why the protection of the family unit is so highly regarded, but I also believe that individual rights are equally or perhaps even more important. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, we should all be able to agree that we are each separate, individual souls unlike no other. We belong to no one. A child is not a piece of property and shouldn’t be treated as such. Along with the rest of us, they are human beings with thinking minds, beating hearts and emotional souls. We all just get one chance at this, one shot to fill our cup from the fountain of life. Nobody, including those who believe, act or assume otherwise has the right to fill, confiscate, or poison another human being’s cup. But somewhere down the line this world and its laws somehow forgot that we all enter into this world alone and all turn to dust in the end. No one can deny the reality that we are all just here for a brief period of time, no better or more deserving than anyone else who is drawing breath on this planet. Yet, children are continually treated as non-entities, an extension of DNA that just so happens to take the form of a child, a possession to be shaped and controlled. Over the centuries, as this country has expanded on different class rights, there has been one class that is perpetually overlooked… our children. According to Wikipedia there have been approximately 30,000 federal statutes that have been enacted since 1789. I can count on both hands how many dealt with children. The laws and Supreme Court decisions affecting children in the U.S have had more to do with giving our government more authority to regulate the actions and treatment of children than anything else. These laws and decisions to some people might seem perfectly adequate in protecting a child’s welfare. I’m sure the individuals who think this way are also the ones who have never personally dealt with the foster care system. I’m sure most of the politicians involved in such matters have absolutely no clue about the inner workings of child welfare. They most likely follow the lead of so-called experts in the field. How many of these experts and legislators do you think have suffered ongoing abuse or neglect or experienced for themselves what it means to be a foster child? How many have experienced the frustrations of being a foster parent dealing with the system? How many have adopted a foster care child with significant emotional, physical, and behavioral issues?

Our federal and state legislatures need to understand that the current statutes in place are not sufficient. Legislation needs to be enacted that addresses a child’s right to exist without enduring repeated abuse from biological parents, robotic actions of case workers, and uninformed judges who may only possess information the system allows. These children are left defenseless. There is absolutely no shield between them and a government system that is hell bent with placing them back into their family unit. No matter how badly they are neglected and abused, more often than not, the parents rights will undoubtedly take precedence over theirs. It is a repeated tragedy we see in our newspapers on a weekly basis. A child once in the system reunified with parents is now dead. What about the children who continue to live, but are forced to endure a living hell everyday? Is the family unit so valued in this country that it must take precedence over the essence of a child. Is the fact that the damage done to this child will be lifelong lost on everyone? These children, damaged to their core, will eventually enter into society and nobody within the system seems to grasp this concept. Case workers have a job to do and files to close. The courts have cases to clear. Welfare agencies have budgets to uphold. Governments don’t have enough money to go around. It takes empathy to care. The children who find themselves in the system deserve far more than the afterthought they are given. What we need is a change in societal thinking about parental rights and the use of common sense in search for better solutions in order to protect these innocents properly.

It took up until 1990 for the world to recognize the rights of children. The Convention of the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that defines the human rights of children, has 196 countries party to it. And while this treaty affords many protections to children it also acknowledges and protects the importance of the parent/child bond. Totally understandable if the parent and child have a healthy relationship. What the treaty doesn’t do, however, is expand much on the protection of a child from parental abuse and neglect. The only statement found in the treaty in regards to this scenario is as follows: a “child has the right to live with his or her parents unless this is deemed incompatible with the child’s best interests.” The ever present “best interests” standard. This clause can be found everywhere including many current U.S. statutes. The issue I have with a child’s best interest standard is that it holds no standard definition of what that is. The guiding principles that shape the determination of what this standard entails and the specific factors used to determine the child’s best interest vary considerably from court to court, state to state, country to country. What one judge may determine to be in a child’s best interests based upon California legislation may differ significantly from a decision rendered by a judge in Florida utilizing Florida legislation. This standard can and is subjectively interpreted by any court, therefore inconsistency can be found not only within the United States, but throughout the world. These children who cannot speak for themselves deserve better protection. How is it fair to compare an innocent’s life with a set of subjective guidelines? What is needed are carefully defined words that specifically guarantee children the right from abuse and neglect. Words that expressly establish a child’s right to live a productive life. The significance of that life is just as or more relevant then an individual’s protective right to have a family.

We must hold our politicians, judges, government agencies, and anyone else who serves in a capacity wherein their actions affect innocent people accountable. The time in office, on the bench, or in any position that impacts the lives of others should be carried out with the utmost deference to those they represent and protect. Our society is in dire need of public servants who actually possess a moral compass, empathetic heart, and the courage to act upon a concept that might not be so popular with their colleagues. Until we see this shift and experience this change we can expect to receive more of the same. So what must be done in order to envision a country where children’s rights are protected, gun laws are enacted, social inequalities are addressed, and injustices are rectified? We need to stand up and make a whole lotta noise. So, that’s what I’ve chosen to do here. Be a voice for the voiceless and rattle some cages. The message I wish the world to hear is very simple. The weakest, most vulnerable ones among us have no protection. These children deserve every right their abusive, negligent parents are afforded. In addition to those rights, what our legislature and courts need to fully grasp is that concern, empathy, compassion, understanding and acceptance are just a few of the many different components needed to create a family bond. What is not necessary is a bloodline. Blood does not think or feel, the heart does that. And our current laws need to reflect this simple, but profound truth. When we focus on children’s rights we illuminate their relevance and importance and acknowledge their purpose for existence.