The following is part of a series of articles on the rights and responsibilities of children and of families. On our site, we’ve published a Children’s Bill Of Rights, with all of the sections in the bill. You can take a look at Children’s Bill of Rights.
(To read more about the Children’s Bill of Rights, look at articles at this site, and at Homeschool Under Siege.)
Every child should have the right to the same recourse to law as any adult. What is more, the law should make special efforts to protect children. A child has the right to have their testimony heard and accepted, as would any adult, particularly in matters where the child has been in some way potentially abused.
Many adults have a tendency to look at children as somehow “less than” complete human beings.
To these people, a child is just a “human being in the making” of sorts. They do not feel that children, as such, should have many rights. They support the current, legal definitions of children which largely relegate them to the category of possessions of their parents and guardians. Chairs and cars don’t have rights, do they?
Children are, however, not “incomplete”. They are completely human within themselves, just as any adult is. They change and they grow. Adults change, too, every day – but we would never sanely consider treating an adult in legal terms as less than a human being, even though that adult was still learning, or evolving in some way. That’s because we have a double standard in our laws and in our civilization.
One standard applied to adults, whom we expect the law to treat with equal rights and protections. People have fought for that equality for centuries. It was hard won, and is still being fought for. We honor that sort of equality.
Then there’s the standard applied to children. And the legal standards in some ways reflect the attitudes that many adults have about children. They do not feel that a child is “mature” enough to tell the truth when it matters, for some reason. They do not feel that a child’s “testimony” – whether before parents or in a court of law – should carry much weight. They feel that the word of a child somehow lacks the credibility of the word of an adult. It must be supported by…who? A doctor? A psychiatrist? A teacher?
You remember, the credibility of the word of an adult? Like the credibility of our adult politicians, the ones who promise anything and everything to get elected, and once in office keep almost none of their promises? Or how about the credibility of adults who advertise products? You know, like the people who used to advertise cigarettes on TV as “cool”, even though they knew that millions of people had died and would die from smoking them? Or how about the credibility of those who sell products like used cars? Or who sell their legal services? That kind of “adult” credibility?
That is what we hold in higher esteem than the credibility of the word of a child?
It is certainly true that children have less experience than adults. Their views are generally immature and colored by their own needs and wants. Then again, that could be said about many adults, so that’s not a good argument to accept an adult’s testimony over that of a child’s.
Let’s try again.
Children have lived less than adults. Well, of course, that depends of the kind of life each is living. Some children lead hard lives indeed and have a very good, even frightening understanding of the world around them. And many adults are quite sheltered and have little or no experience with life. Experience with life could lend testimony or an eye-witness account its credibility, as it lends that testimony perspective. There are certainly children whose description of something that has happened I would accept more readily than the description of that same event provided by certain adults.
Okay, let’s try again.
Many parents, when given opposing accounts of something that has happened and which may have involved their own child, will give credence to the adult testimony over the account of the child. Where self-interest plays a part, it is certainly possible for a child to “make something up.” Of course – the same could be said for many adults. Remember politicians? Used car salesmen?
Many parents will accept on face value a report of a bad thing supposedly done by their child from an adult (or even another child), over the conflicting report of their own child. This may happen because the parent knows their own child, and may be fully convinced that the child is making it up, or lying. Some children do lie, especially when they feel endangered. There are times when a child’s testimony is falsified. In this manner, a child’s testimony should be viewed in the same light as any adults – possibly true, possibly not.
What does all of this add up to? Well, what it means is that a child’s testimony effectively can have the same value as an adult’s. It contains the same potential, human flaws and strengths as an adult’s testimony. And it has one thing more to recommend it to our serious attention – the fact that it is a child’s testimony. Children require protection from adults. Their rights, their voices are severely limited.
When a child informs an adult that something has been seen by the child, this should at least initiate an investigation – “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” notwithstanding. And remember, even that boy was telling the truth when the wolf actually showed up. Shame on the adults around him to ignore his warning when it mattered!
When a child informs an adult that something has been done to the child, something wrong, that is grounds for immediate action and an investigation to follow. First, the child should be immediately removed from any possibility of further harm, immediately and without discussion or appeal. If the child is telling you the truth, he is in danger. The fact that he told someone about what happened places him in even more danger. That child REQUIRES immediate protection. You may investigate once the child is safe. But do not let anyone talk you out of making those moves that will immediately remove the child from possible harm. THEN investigate. And if proof is found, I’d assume that the child told the truth.
According to a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report, some 6%-10% of ALL children (and there are currently 77 million of them) in public schools will be sexually abused at some time during their years in school, by either a teacher or school staff member. That’s around 4-7 MILLION students who will be or have been sexually abused while in school by teachers or staff members. That’s a lot of children and remember, that’s the government’s own number dealing with their schools. Given these numbers, is it wise or safe to ignore the report of a child regarding such potential abuse? Of course not, even if these numbers were inflated by a factor of one hundred! And sexual abuse is among the most subtle and hard-to-detect of abuses. Violence directed at children by other children or adults, including verbal abuse, is not uncommon in schools. I’ve seen it.
Teacher unions and other vested parties will protect teachers to their last breath, and they will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. Most school districts would rather not try to fire a teacher, regardless of the abuse the teacher committed. It is strange that if a child appeared at a police station and reported that his parents had abused him, the child would be removed instantly from the family’s care pending investigation by the state. But a teacher, a stranger to the child and to his or her family, is defended and protected from that same allegation to the last breath – and the state will often REQUIRE the child to continue to attend that teacher’s class!
Most children have imaginations, sure. But they are not stupid. They generally know when someone has said or done something to hurt or abuse them. Adults who commit such abuses count on the fact that it’s their word against a child’s. The law demands evidence, which is sometimes in short supply where such abuses are concerned. On the other hand, parents really should only require the word of their child to initiate instant protective action. And then they should demand that the law and “the system” work to protect their child, and to remove offenders to some desert island far removed from sane people who truly do care about children and our future. It is the laws job to protect the helpless amongst us. When it fails to do so, we are living in a lawless land.
Children are fully human. Until proven otherwise, we should take them at their word.