By LEON SCIOSCIA
Whether through family court, foster care or the juvenile justice system, many young people will come into contact with the legal system. The rights and responsibilities of juveniles under the law was the focus of Law Day 2007.
Hosted by the Law Library of Congress on May 1, the moderated panel discussion titled "Perspectives on Childhood and the Law" was part of the Leon Jaworski Public Program Series. Organized by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Public Education, program partners include the Law Library of Congress, the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress and the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The topic was derived from the 2007 Law Day theme, "Liberty Under Law: Empowering Youth, Ensuring Democracy," and emphasized a major ABA presidential initiative, Youth at Risk.
Law Librarian of Congress Rubens Medina welcomed the audience to the Library and stated that it was an honor for the Law Library to serve as a program partner.
"This relationship enables us to not only be better American citizens, but to be better global citizens as well," said Medina. "As the Law Library of Congress reflects upon law and justice during our 175th anniversary year, we recognize that access to the legal system is a basic human right. We pledge to do whatever we can to foster access from around the world."
ABA President Karen J. Mathis welcomed the guests and the distinguished panelists, whose task was to explore various legal definitions of childhood as reflected in different cultural contexts and analyze the impact of these definitions on the administration of justice.
The panelists discussed the following questions:
- How do legal definitions of childhood reflect different cultural understandings?
- How do our notions of "family" and "adulthood" affect and determine our understanding of childhood within the law?
- How do our basic values concerning children, youth and families affect our public policies and laws?
John Milewski, a veteran broadcast journalist and instructor at Pennsylvania State University, served as moderator. Panelists included Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Karen Pittman, executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment; Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, associate director for clinical affairs and professor of law at the University of New Mexico; David W. Young, State of Maryland Circuit Court Judge for Baltimore; and Michael Zuckerman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
The panelists engaged the audience with a thought-provoking discussion of how to define childhood and its relationship to laws, lawmaking and legal systems.
"Childhood is characterized, first and foremost, by dependencies, and secondly by different legal systems," said Lopez. She said the ability of children to exercise their rights is determined by the balance between the legal system in which they live and the extent to which they are dependent on and influenced by that system.
Morse agreed with Lopez's assessment of dependencies and legal systems: "We have to look at [children's] responsibility and competence." He added that it is essential that children be able to respond in an appropriate manner when dealing with a lawful society.
"The best way to keep children's feet on the ground is to keep responsibility on their shoulders," added Pittman. After years of working with children, Pittman has concluded that only a "minority of decisions" are left to children. Consequently, society should not expect them to be ready to deal with the complexities of the legal system.
Judge Young said, "Judges in child welfare sometimes have to decide at what point a child can be emancipated, at what point a child can be [an adult]. "[Sometimes] you have to decide, is this person mature enough to make a choice to determine his life from then on, because [that choice] can have dire consequences."
Zuckerman concluded the conversation about childhood definitions and their interdependencies with legal systems by saying, "The most interesting thing for me is to go back three or four centuries and see how strong the dependencies were back then. Kids during that period…were left to their own devices. They had to fend for themselves." He posed the question of whether children having to "fend for themselves" is more or less prevalent today than in past centuries.
Judge Young said that as our culture becomes more affluent, young people are less responsible and more present-oriented; they think only about today and not the past or future. Zuckerman said that we, as a society, are to blame for the current state of childhood irresponsibility. He said that it is a "kids' world," in which children are supposed to be irresponsible. On the other hand, Pittman said that young people are being brought into policy matters by local and state governments. She believes that young people are assets and that they take responsibility seriously.
The panel agreed that empowering young adults while protecting children can have a tremendous impact on public policies and laws.
Leon Scioscia is a special assistant to the Law Librarian of Congress.