A Children’s Bill of Rights measure is slowly weaving its way into the California legislature, sparking heated discussions between those who see it as a crucial safety net for neglected, abused, and poverty-stricken youths and those who say it will result in government control of parents and unconstitutional intrusion into family affairs.
What’s more, a handful of congressional members have been pressing similar bills of rights for the nation’s children, and the fate of this California measure could signal what’s looming ahead for the country as a whole.
SB 18, introduced by Sen. Richard Pan, a legislator and pediatrician who’s already raised the ire of parents’ rights groups for his successful press of a vaccination mandate for students, is a broad statement of state support for the rights of children.
The bill, as written so far, “finds and declares that all children and youth, regardless of gender, class, race, ethnicity, national origin, culture, religion, immigration status, sexual orientation, or ability, have inherent rights that entitle them to protection, special care, and assistance, including, but not limited to, the following: The right to parents, guardians, or caregivers who act in their best interest. … The right to live in a safe and healthy environment. The right to social and emotional well-being. … The right to appropriate, quality education and life skills leading to self-sufficiency in adulthood. The right to appropriate, quality health care.”
While all might applaud the goals, the means have generated controversy. “As if all these outcomes could be delivered to children on a silver platter. And the state would make it so,” quipped freelance investigative journalist Jon Rappoport.
State authorities, however, are determined to improve the lives of the nine million or so children living in California. The state has one of the largest economies in the nation, yet consistently scores poorly on child poverty statistic lists.
In 2007, more than 17 percent of children in California lived in families without enough money to make household ends meet, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. By 2014, that number had soared to nearly 23 percent, PPIC found. A year later, the Anne E. Casey Foundation determined that California’s child poverty rate had risen to 27 percent, the worst in the nation and fully 5 points higher than the second-place states, Arizona and Nevada.
So in 2016, a consortium of political, business, education, and community leaders came together as the Right Start Commission to chart a course toward improving the lives of California children. From this commission came the Children’s Bill of Rights. Members asked Pan to solidify the goals of the bill of rights in legislative form and carry it across the finish line in the General Assembly.
Common Sense Kids Action Vice President Craig Cheslog, whose organization is fueling the drive for the Children’s Bill of Rights, said the aim of the legislation is to foster discussion about children and to ultimately hold the state responsible for making sure children are adequately provided for, including in state budgets.
“As one of our parent organizers, Beverly Kumar, asked, ‘Isn’t it time to make sure all California children have access to high-quality early childcare and preschool? For every child to have the ability to get an appointment with a doctor or dentist? For parents to have the tools they need to nurture their children’s brain development?’ We say yes,” Cheslog affirmed.
Federal authorities are watching the bill’s progression with interest.
Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Judy Chu, D-Calif., have all pressed Children’s Bill of Rights legislation in Congress. A thumbs-up in California could mark the beginning of a nationwide law that not only recognizes certain rights for children but also holds government entities—and ultimately parents—responsible and accountable for ensuring these rights are upheld.
To some, that would be a disaster. Just think of the trouncing of parental rights by government that could occur, said Jacob Sullum, writing for Reason magazine.
“A legislature that takes this vacuous list of rights seriously would be more inclined to err on the side of intervention, with potentially pernicious implications for parental prerogatives and children’s welfare,” he said. “Does homeschooling qualify as ‘appropriate, quality education’? … Are parents who let their child eat junk food, walk to the playground by himself or participate in risky sports acting in his ‘best interest’? People’s opinions on such subjects vary widely.”
Sullum’s overall fear is that such legislation would create “blatantly unrealistic aspirations that could be disastrous as a guide to policy.”