THE United States is a nation that cares for its children. It passes laws that mandate shelter and food and education for those who don't have them or are lagging behind. Americans lobby for day care. Courts prosecute those suspected of physical abuse or sexual molestation of youth. National groups repeatedly call for the adoption of a children's bill of rights. With a celebration in 1991 of the bicentennial of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the time may be right to spell out an agenda for children.
Society can start by asserting several things:
1. Young people rank at the top of the country's national resources.
2. Children must be provided with home, nourishment, and learning by their parents or other responsible adults. The state should underwrite or subsidize this support, when needed.
3. Laws that protect adults in criminal justice and other areas should be expanded in most instances to cover young people. For instance, privacy protections and search and seizure statutes should be reviewed so that children are not deprived of these rights.
4. Adoption and child placement policies, federal and state, should be more responsive to finding homes for all children, regardless of age, race, and color.
5. Local communities should place high priority on programs that divert youth from crime and drugs. Youth should be included, along with adults, from the planning stages onward.
6. A partnership should be forged between private youth advocacy and government child-help programs. For example, the Child Welfare League of America should work in cooperation, not in competition, with the federal Office on Children.
More broadly, people everywhere must raise their level of consciousness about children. Children are persons who deserve respect. Adults must guide them and often set limits for them, but not dominate them.
Rehabilitation, not punishment, is usually the most effective means of dealing with deviant behavior.
A continuing commitment to support of youth, rather than shotgun responses to crisis situations, is needed. It shouldn't take a McMartin Preschool case in California to highlight the need to protect the young from sexual molestation. A surge of youth-related violence in Boston and other cities may help focus on the need to keep guns from the hands of youth, but this doesn't solve the long-range problem.
The news media must also see their broader function in this area. Overly dramatized reports and programs on abuse of children, designed to shock, tend to anger the public, not mobilize it to intelligent action.
For example, last week's disclosures by Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole that 7,000 minors are working illegally in the fields and often in hazardous jobs received broad media coverage. So should scheduled hearings next month on a proposed comprehensive child labor bill. US Reps. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and Don Pease (D) of Ohio will introduce this legislation.
Secretary Dole suggests that the government may levy almost $2 million in civil penalties against employers as a result of recent raids uncovering violations of child-labor laws.
Such punitive action is probably appropriate but is not a substitute for addressing the underlying factors of illegal child labor.
Parents, out of work or beset by economic hardship, may put their children to work. Government often tends to overlook what it may consider a victimless crime, at least until an accident or a dramatic situation arises. Then a probe ensues and ``get tough'' tactics are suggested.
Children in need, children without homes, children abused, and children in forced or illegal labor deserve more than political rhetoric and shotgun responses. The youth of society are society's promise. How we treat them is indicative of our real values.