The History of Children’s Rights
During the 1870s, more than a century ago, the disturbing story of Mary Ellen changed how the world views children and their rights. Her life story prompted the US government to revise and give particular legal attention to children’s rights.
Mary Ellen was a child born to Irish immigrants. On the year she was born (1864) her father died in the brutal War of the Cold Harbour, Virginia. This left her mother the sole responsibility of caring for her. Unable to continue paying for her daughter’s care, Mary was turned over to New York City’s Department of Charities where a couple falsely claimed as her relations.
Over the next six years in the hands of the couple, she suffered unimaginable abuse and neglect. She was kept from going outside with no adequate clothing for the winter months and no comfortable bed for her to sleep. She was malnourished and was forced to work beyond her age and capacity. People around her tried to intervene, specially the Methodist caseworker, Etta Wheeler. But without adequate laws governing children, Etta fought a long and hard battle to save Mary until she sought out the help of Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in which she reasoned out that as children are part of the animal kingdom, Mary could therefore be protected under the same laws that govern animal mistreatment.
Mary’s story ended well as she was taken to a farm and raised among other children where she grew up and in a safe and child friendly haven. Mary’s case reverberated throughout the nation and resulted in the foundation of New York’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in 1874. Since then, the US and the rest of the world had become vigilant in amending and protecting the rights of children.
The United Nations took a substantial step in adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924 reaffirming it in 1934 stipulating a child’s right to “nutrition, survival, shelter, proper healthcare, humanitarian relief, protection from abuse and exploitation and the right to grow up in a safe environment that nurtures development; and in 1954 provided children “the right to identity, family, education and freedom from discrimination.” Although this was never legally binding, in 1979 the United Nations with representatives from around the world drafted the first Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which legally protects the rights of children. The CRC was ratified and became an international law in 1990.
Only two countries remain that have yet to ratify the 1990 treaty after 20 years, Somalia, which committed to ratification after they establish a centralized government and the United states which, until today, the treaty is still waiting to be heard in the US Senate’s floor. The US in under pressure to ratify the treaty, according to Linda Spears, Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs at Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), “The United States is a leader in the world; if we don’t ratify, we are not assuming our responsibilities.”
Quoting from the Spears, beyond international credibility, the CRC provides the United States a means of focusing on core issues related to the health, safety, well-being, and futures of children. For example, she says, “We know kids in the inner city, kids in poverty, kids in foster care … they don’t have high graduation rates. What can we do to increase the graduation rates among those populations? What can we do to reduce infant mortality? What can we do to lower rates of child abuse?” She believes that ratification would signal a strong commitment on behalf of the United States to address these and similar issues affecting the welfare of children.