Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L. Q. C. Lamar Chair in Law at Emory and serves as faculty advisor for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic. She is one of our most eminent scholars on the topic of children’s rights. She has developed an account of five basic human rights that represent what other experts agree is crucial to the well-being of children. (Please read her excellent book on children's rights, here.)
These are: privacy rights. While we are familiar with how these work in regard to adult lives, for children, “the basic unit of privacy is not the individual but the relationship between the child and the caregiver. “ Children, in other words, need us to respect their relationships and their capacities to form relationships.
Agency rights. Children develop voices and they have agency. They need to have a voice in matters that affect them, even if “they are not ready to take responsibility for the ultimate choice.” Children are both citizens-in-training and valuable in their own right, as they are.
Equality. Children, dependent on communities as they are, deserve access to the necessities of life that other children in the community are given.
Dignity. Children are their own persons, and “laws that penalized innocent children for the sins of their parents,” as existed in the Victorian era, have come to look “inhumane.”
And finally, protection rights. Civilization depends on the weak being protected from the strong. Situations where children are put in danger of harm violate these children’s rights.
Woodhouse explains that children’s rights flow “from the same set of basic values” that give adults rights. We cannot, in other words, pretend adult rights are on some firmer basis than those of children.
Recent news on the case of three children sentenced to juvenile detention (“jail” in the language of the court) by Michigan Family Court Judge Lisa Gorcyca shows us just how readily Family Court judges violate each of the above rights.
Here is the court transcript. (Due to pressure from the public (nearly 10,000 signatures are requesting Judge Gorcyca be removed from the bench) the Judge shortened the sentence, which she had originally claimed was to last until the children were 18-years-old.)
Agency. The three children have repeatedly requested not to see their father due to his violence and what they have witnessed. The judge did not care.
Equality. Other children are not taken from their caretaker, and are allowed to stay with their safe and stable mothers in their homes.
Dignity. Judge Lisa Gorcyca asked a nine-year-old girl if she liked to go to the bathroom in front of people in an effort to humiliate and threaten (and then follow through).
Protection rights. Judge Lisa Gorcyca took the children from a home where they had been thriving: getting on the honor roll and being described as perfectly well-mannered, and forced them into a detention facility. Survivors describe such places as, even on the first night, requiring them to dissasociate from themselves, so horrible is it to be ordered around under detention to take showers, wake, and eat. Adults would fare terribly in such conditions and not get over it; Judge Gorcyca and the father she calls a "great man" put three children there indefinitely.
The Governor of Michigan has said nothing about this international scandal. The Judge herself quickly moved the children after the transcript of her treating the children abusively in court was circulated. And yet my worry is nothing will be done to make a judge in charge of children recognize that they deserve rights just as much as she does.
Then they'd be allowed to return to their home and to the only loving parent they have.