A sweetly smiling young woman on a busy Ottawa street pats a child on the head and the child says: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The child is a midget who doesn’t like being treated as a child. Andrew Cohen’s true story of the “cuteness syndrome” makes the point.
It doesn’t happen often to midgets, but it happens every day to small children in public places. They are patted, poked, pinched, stroked and kissed by adult strangers afflicted with the “cuteness syndrome.” And they have to put up with it. “How would you feel if someone on the street came up to your wife, gave her a pat, pinched her cheeks and said she was cute?”
Cohen, executive director of the Canadian Council on Children and Youth, is making the point that children are discriminated against, that they have very few rights. Admittance Restricted:
The Child as Citizen in Canada, a major report released last week by the council, says Canadians view children (age 18 and under) as “exotic pets” and have built a society that has abused and discriminated against one-third of the population. Have you ever seen a child trying to make a purchase in a store? More often than not he has to wait until the adults are served. Have you watched a small child try to use a public telephone? Or a public washroom? Cohen uses the development of housing projects for adults only as an example of how children’s rights are denied or ignored. “If these developments tried to exclude bankers or left-handed people, the promoter would either be taken to court for violating obvious human rights principles or institutionalized for being a fool. But when they discriminate against that third of the
population which has no say in these matters, no one thinks it odd.”
It gets worse. Children have few rights under the law and what rights they have are often described in negative ways. A child does not have the right to education, for example, but a parent may be punished for not providing it. A child has no right to refuse medical treatment at 17 years of age, but one year later, when he is no longer a minor, he has the right. In divorce and custody proceedings a child has no right to be there, let alone to have a say about his future. Nor does he have the right to counsel. The use of corporal punishment in schools is still permitted, taking away the right of every citizen under the law, the right to be free of physical threat or violence.
It is a perception of children as dependent, incompetent possessions, to be
seen and not heard, without rights or the intelligence to say what they think or feel. Admittance Restricted (Cohen thought up the title after reading the movie ads in a newspaper) is timely; the United Nations has designated 1979 as the International Year of the Child. It is an indictment of how institutions ana parents have failed the young.
he three-year study found, to no surprise, that the rich get richer, the poor, poorer (winners and losers). The statistics are dramatic. If middle-class kids are discriminated against and have few rights under the law, then the children of the poor can only be described as victims.
• More than IV2 million Canadian children live in poverty.
• The number of single-parent families has increased at three times the rate of two-parent families. There are 631,360 children living in 300,000 oneparent families. About 60 per cent of single-parent women live in poverty, compared to 14 per cent for single-par-
ent men and 12 per cent for families.
• Of the 631,360 children of singleparent families, 143,000 are pre-schoolers. In 1974, only 50,303 day-care spaces were available. There were fewer than 5,000 spaces available for school-age children in need of lunch-hour and
• In the past 14 years divorces increased five-fold to about 50,000 a year. One in every four first marriages is ending in divorce and the trend is toward one in three.
• Canada has an infant mortality rate of 15 per 1,000 live births, ranking seventh (after France) of 16 developed countries in infant life-expectancy. (The United States is 15.)
• One in 10 Canadian children has an emotional or learning disorder.
• Twenty-seven per cent of first admissions to public mental hospitals and public psychiatric units occur at 19 or younger.
• In 1974, 38,314 babies were born to teen-agers in Canada; 5,504 were born to mothers between the ages of 12 and 16. The risk of death for teen-age mothers is 60 per cent higher than for mothers in their 20s because they deplete the nutritional resources needed for their own growth.
• Accidents and acts of violence kill more than twice as many people between the ages of one and 19 as do diseases.
• The fitness of Canadian children declines steadily after they start school so that a 12-year-old Canadian is as fit as the average 35-year-old Swede.
Admittance Restricted (172 pages, English and French, Cannonbooks, $8.95) is not a goody-goody report concluded by a tiresome list of recommendations. “Such a list, we believe, could at best only alleviate some of the symptoms while leaving the disease—society’s persistent refusal to view children as individual citizens—untreated, even ignored. We hope this report can spark the debate that will begin that change.”
The 11-person task force, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Emmett Hall of the Ontario Supreme Court, has examined four areas of tangible need for children: economic support, health care, protection and education. The authors reject any suggestion that the study is a call for children’s suffrage or other simplistic notions associated with kids’ lib, but at the same time they talk about the “dimensions of the struggle ahead. We believe very strongly that what is at stake in our discrimination against children and youth is not only the rights of the young but the human rights of our society.”
An alarming trend reported in the study is the increased rate of young suicides. In 1975 almost 10 per cent of all
suicides in Canada were committed by people under 19. The study makes no attempt to analyse the increase in suicides, but another startling statistic reveals that last year almost 80,000 children in Canada, the victims of family breakdown and abuse, required official protection.
The concern for the physical protection of children is becoming a major social issue of the 1970s, yet the phrase “child protection” has a narrow meaning to lawyers, child-care workers and government officials responsible for child welfare. For them, it means a child is reported to have been neglected, abused or exploited, meaning sexually exploited.
The provinces have defined the basis for abuse and neglect in various ways (there is no mention of the child in the BN A Act), but one common tl stands out: child welfare legislation in Canada, despite improvements in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec, expresses a standard of negative behavior, which means that are told what they must not do to children. David Cruikshank, a professor of law at the
University of Calgary, one of the authors of Admittance Restricted, advocates an about-face:
“If we start to focus upon what ‘ought’ to be provided for children, instead of what ‘must not’ happen to children, I think the legal system can begin to accommodate the goals of child welfare services. We can then begin to con-
centrate upon the child’s needs instead of the fitness or unfitness of the parents. And isn’t that what ‘protection of children’ is supposed to be all about?”
A child’s protection has always been decided behind the closed doors of a courtroom, a practice disliked by the study group. “We cannot expect the public to become educated and concerned about the rights and needs of children if a main forum for decisions about children is closed to the public.”
Yet behind those closed doors there is a growing awareness of the need to listen to the child; but it’s not a right. “Furthermore, the child could be heard through his or her own testimony or through the submissions of a separate lawyer for the child. The idea of a lawyer for the child causes consternation in some ciry des, but we are con-
vinced that there are separate interests,
apart from the parents and child welfare authorities, that must be advanced and considered.”
Worse, it seems, a child who is in need
of protection has no guarantees of protection in government institutions. No legislation recognizes government neglect, but the study found that direct cases of physical abuse and neglect occur “more frequently than we think” in institutions. “The financial bias toward keeping a child ‘in need of protection’ is a complex and unique problem in each province. But one common theme prevails: children’s aid societies and government departments get money for every day a child remains in care; they lose those funds the moment a child is discharged.” Parental neglect can result in institutional profit, but this form of “government neglect”—failure to deliver promised treatment—has led to a number of successful “right to treatment” cases in the United States and the same is about to happen in Canada.
hat the politicians and the law makers have virtually ignored children and their rights is a fact. An example is a federal working paper in 1974 that saw two major shifts in health care—a trend now—from the institution to the individual,from intervention to prevention. But of the report’s 74 recommendations, not one concerned itself with child health; the issues of child health involve such things as pre-natal care, nutrition, dental care, day care, immunization, early diagnosis and the handicapped.
The task force examination of education came up with what others have outlined—a tale of woe, especially for poor children. A study in Toronto, for example, found that most poor kids end up in dead-end vocational schools. The laborer’s child has 18 times the chance of being in a vocational school as an accountant’s child. The unemployed person’s child has 44.2 times the chance, and the child of a welfare family has 57.2 times the chance.
Another study for la Commission des écoles catholiques de Montréal found that it is the prevalent, unfounded belief that poor kids have less ability. Project Director Francine Bonnier-Tremblay discovered that “ ... the children of working-class neighborhoods grow up in an environment that is as stimulating and enriching as those of children from other neighborhoods and they arrive at school with the same learning abilities as other children. But we have so underestimated these children by lowering our expectations of them that they have responded in kind. Studies have shown that character traits such as perseverance, dependability, consis-
tency and punctuality are better rewarded in schools than are independence, creativity and imagination.”
No wonder the study finds that “when curriculum is not developed in correspondence with the realities of family, home and neighborhood, it denies the individual experience of children, leaving them to believe—quite accurately—that school is of little relevance to their lives.”
Admittance Restricted should bring about an awareness of attitudes and practices derived from a distant past
and it will certainly spark debate, perhaps reform; not a bureaucratic reform but one that will finally permit society to say, without question, yes, we do love our children.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.