The History of Children’s Rights
October 6, 2022

CHILD USA is working every day to ensure that children have a seat at the policy table to ensure their rights are protected. But why is this something we need to fight for? At the founding of our country, only the rights of a select few were included in the protections written by our Founding Fathers, those of white men. Since then, every group has had to fight for their right to be included in those groups whose rights are protected, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. However, with children, they cannot fight for themselves – which is why CHILD USA is fighting for them.

Early America
In the earliest days of the colonies, children were actually considered the property of their fathers. Many newcomers to the colonies were indentured servants (i.e. someone required to work for free to pay off travel and housing they are provided) and so were their children since they were considered property. The colonies adopted a framework inspired by Britain’s “poor laws” – a model that allowed for the economy to profit from, and even depend on, indentured servitude, including of children. As the Industrial Revolution also took hold, children were used as workers in factories to help provide income for their families, in the same way they would have helped out on the farm to keep the farm running. However, factories were far more dangerous and the hours were long and children suffered many injuries as a result of their work including bronchitis, tuberculosis, and loss of limbs.

It isn’t until the 19th century that we see the action of a movement to protect children, with the establishment of the first organization to prevent cruelty to children (1875) and to ban employment of any children under 14 (1881). The century closed with a seminal moment in the movement for children’s rights. John Dewey, a hero of the movement in his own time, was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and proceeded to publicly advocate for children’s rights and the criticality of children’s access to education.

20th Century America
The 20th century saw landmark moments in the push for children’s rights, including the passing of the first federal child law in 1916. This law was unfortunately invalidated just two years later in the Supreme Court case Hammer v. Dagenhart. But in Darby (1941), the Court reversed course, paving the way to uphold child labor laws. Throughout the 20th century, we continue to see pivotal decisions that recognized children’s civil rights including:
US v. Darby in 1941 finally overruled the previous decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart to protect children in work settings
Prince v. Massachusetts in 1944 recognized children as persons deserving protections separate from their parents
In re Gault, U.S. 1, 20 in 1967 held that juveniles were entitled to the same due process rights as adults.
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969, stated students do not lose their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression when they enter school
Hodgson v. MInnesota in 1990, held that a minor was not required to inform both biological parents to obtain an abortion, which paved the way for a minor to get needed healthcare without parental permission
Roper v. Simmons in 2005 held that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18

Great strides were made to protect certain rights of children in the 20th century, but there is still more to do.

Children in Today’s America
While we’ve been able to trace things back all the way to the earliest days of pre-colonial America and see the progress made, it can fool us into thinking we’ve made enough progress that we can rest easy. Quite the contrary – the stark reality is that children are still endangered by inadequate rights to health, education, and safety.

The same country that has played a major role in rethinking the rights of children has its own shortcomings, one of the biggest being that the U.S. is the only developed country who has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that sets out the rights of children around the world.

Our country has had major cases that furthered civil rights for children – as listed above – they remain without comprehensive legal, social, and fiscal coverage within our nation to execute on these decisions.

At present, the need for children’s rights is more salient than ever. Children are still at the mercy of the decisions of others, no matter if those decisions are in their best interest or not. There are still children being denied medical treatment that they so desperately need, children being abused and neglected, and children being kept from getting a quality and necessary education.

In spite of growing support and awareness, obstacles remain at every level of society to ensure children’s rights are protected. We have seen even in just the last several years, exposure of places where we thought children would be safe, but the reality is they often are not. From practicing gymnastics, to being a boy scout, our society is failing to keep our children safe.

We at CHILD USA believe someone needs to fight for our children, and that is our mission. We believe it is paramount to advocate for changes at the legal level in a manner that disseminates these changes of legal practice into our culture as a whole; we believe that we must fight for children – past, present, and future – in order to ensure the protection of their civil rights.

We hope that you will join us here at CHILD USA in the Civil Rights Movement for Children. Meet and mingle with the brightest minds and heroes working to protect children at our Annual Awards Celebration on November 3rd at the National Convention Center in Philadelphia!