Written by Marv Bernstein, B.A., J.D., LL.M., Chief Policy Advisor, UNICEF Canada
December 10th is recognized internationally as Human Rights Day. On this landmark day, it is important to recognize that children’s rights are also human rights.
In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention) we have a comprehensive accounting of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to support the optimal development and wellbeing of children and youth. Since Canada ratified the Convention on December 13, 1991, it has become the most universally accepted human rights instrument in the world, having been ratified by 196 nations.
We have all heard the old adage that ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ The Convention dispels this assumption by ensuring that children become active participants whenever decisions are being made that affect them. Article 12 of the Convention provides that children have the right to express their views freely, with those views “being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”
To put it another way, children who come into contact with the child welfare system should be seen as ‘the CEO’ when it comes to receiving information about themselves and providing input into decisions that affect their life conditions. This school of thought was coined by Dr. James Wilkes, an eminent child psychiatrist and recently retired Chair of the Children in Limbo Task Force.
It is important to see children as the experts when it comes to their own lived experiences and to ensure that their voices are truly heard and considered before decisions are made that impact their lives. For example, it is very easy to make assumptions about what children and youth know about their ‘in care’ and ‘discharge’ plans, without really hearing from them. But if we don’t engage in honest and timely dialogue with children, as suggested by Dr. Wilkes, there is the potential for emotional scars and unintended adverse consequences. This has led to the coining of another resonating phrase by Dr. Wilkes – ‘Truth or Consequences’.
It is important to see children as the experts when it comes to their own lived experiences
We should not interpret the concept of ‘the Child as CEO’ as meaning that the child is ‘the boss’ and that his or her expressed views must be followed directly. Instead, the concept of ‘Child as CEO’ means that the child should be placed at the centre of the experience, and be treated with respect and truthfulness at all times.
This approach then doesn’t detract from the judgement of service providers – such as frontline child protection and adoption workers. Quite the opposite – it enhances their role, allowing their decision-making to become more fully informed and ultimately their decisions are more likely to produce a best interest outcome for the child or group of children in question.
Article 13 of the Convention guarantees to every child “the right to freedom of expression”, which includes “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
This article recognizes the valuable role that information plays in the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, as children first have to access - and then consider - information before they can form their own views.
Accordingly, the adults who care for children and youth must keep them aware of relevant historical data, as well as current developments. For children-in-care and those adopted, this generally means that they should be informed about their parentage, their family history and significant events in their lives, in language suited to their developmental stages.
As far as their right to seek and receive information is concerned, children should once again be considered as ‘the CEO’ in relation to their individual and family history. Such a position means that children, while not being given the burden of decision-making, should - whenever feasible - be adequately consulted and should know and understand, as much as possible, the circumstances behind the realities and decisions that affect their lives.
Having said that, there is naturally no perfect time to impart difficult information to a child, but postponing the truth-telling process can often lead to negative consequences. This is especially the case when a child hears the information in an inappropriate or inadvertent way from peers or learns about it online. As we all know, it is even more difficult to keep secrets in the digital age.
On Human Rights Day, let’s all work together to turn the ‘paper rights’ of the Convention into ‘lived rights’ for all children in this country and embed a rights-respecting culture into all aspects of our valued child welfare and adoption systems.
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