Advocates for Youth' is opposed to H.R. 1946, the "Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995." As an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of young people by facilitating and increasing their access to sexual and reproductive health information and health care services, we do not think H.R. 1946 will advance the interests of youth or their families.
H.R. 1946 purports to "protect the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children as a fundamental right." The bill's sponsors hope to achieve this in part by reestablishing a `4-step process for evaluating judicial cases and administrative proceedings concerning infringement on parental rights."
Yet parents are already the principal decision-makers on matters affecting their children's health, education, discipline and religion. This seeming redundancy prompts one to ask what the real purpose of this bill is, as well as what are its potential unintended consequences. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in part during this hearing. For the time being, there is significant room for speculation about just what the impact of H.R. 1946 would be if enacted and whether it would promote the rights of parents at their children's expense.
In a Less Than Perfect World the Rights of Youth Must Be Safeggarded
This legislation places parents' rights in opposition to the rights and interests of their children even though a child's best interest should always be guiding principle for parental and/or governmental action and the framing of parental rights. It is unclear whether H.R. 1946 will inhibit the protection of children in situations where intervention in the parent-children relationship is warranted.
Horrific stories in the media of child abuse and neglect are reinforced by national statistics that confirm that all parents do not act in the best interest of their children. In 1994, 3.1 million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported in the United states, an increase of 4.5 percent from 1993. Of the reported cases, 26 percent were physical abuse, 11 percent were sexual abuse, 45 percent were neglect, 3 percent were emotional maltreatment, and 15 percent were classified as "other."
It is precisely the inability of some parents and the refusal of others to act in their children's best interest that necessitates the intervention of other concerned adults and the government. In a perfect world, no one would have to take responsibility for a child
' Advocates for Youth, a national non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., has worked for the past 15 years to improve the lives of young people through the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Advocates for Youth provides information, education, training and advocacy about adolescent reproductive and sexual health to youth-serving professionals, policymakers and the media.
other than the parents of that child. The vast numbers of children in the child welfare system attest that this is not a perfect world. It will not made better by further subordinating the rights children, a totally vulnerable population. When a child's wellbeing is placed in peril by the assertion of parental rights, the rights of youth must be safeguarded and must prevail.
Young People Need Trust to Learn Responsibility
An underlying premise of H.R. 1946 is that young people cannot be trusted to make sound decisions about their own lives. The bill suggests that parental authority must be paramount in all situations because only parents can make good decisions for their children. Yet good parents want children to become critical thinkers and to learn to make the right decision for themselves. At what point does this lifelong lesson begin? Based on the premise of this bill, not until a person is of adult age (which may vary depending on the state).
Too often young people are accused of not being trustworthy or not making responsible choices. In the course of the welfare reform debate, for example, many people characterized teen mothers as irresponsible, even immoral. Yet responsible adults will acknowledge that being responsible, making sound decisions does not come automatically. It is a learned skill, achieved in stages, with the proper guidance and instruction.
Many adults exhort young people to act responsibly but do not teach them how or trust them to do so. It is parents' responsibility to see that their children are prepared for adulthood. To be successful this lesson cannot begin on a person's 16th or 18th birthday. Learning responsibility should begin as soon as there are opportunities for a child to be responsible. If parents trust themselves they should trust young people to make responsible decisions.
Parent-Child Communication Cannot be Mandated
Just as young people are not represented in today's hearing, their voices are too often muted in matters affecting their health and welfare. This legislation seeks to further squelch their input. Seldom are young people credited with being able to discern what is in their own best interest, even though in today's world they make tough decisions every day.
H.R. 1946 presumes that good communication exists in most families, and where it does not, it can be mandated. Indeed, positive communication between parent and child is a vital element in the growth of children into confident individuals whose values,goals, and decision-making skills will promote emotional and physical well-being. Most parents work diligently to teach their children values, to supply them with information, to help them learn how to make good decisions, and to understand and communicate with their children.
Every young person needs the appropriate information, skills, resources and opportunities to make a healthy transition to adulthood. A key source and an essential element of a healthy transition is the active involvement and trust of positive and concerned adults. Ideally, the central adult figures are parents. There are many young people, however, whose lives are missing this essential element or whose parents are not equipped to provide the guidance and nurturing their children need. There are families in which constructive communication is rare. There are families in which young people do not feel comfortable or sometimes even safe confiding in their parents. Even in the best of families, there are occasions when children choose not to share personal matters with their parents. Will H.R. 1946 encourage parents to deny children live-saving information or health services? Should young people's future be placed in jeopardy based on no fault of their own?
Many states have already determined that in some instances a young person's well-being is more important than a parent's right to control a child. These states have recognized that forcing children to communicate with their parents about sensitive or critical issues is not realistic nor always constructive. This is why in many states adolescents may seek some medical services confidentially rather than go without care. Would H.R. 1946 be used to nullify state laws?
Medical, mental health, social service youth-serving professionals and youth agree that communication between parents and children cannot be legislated. Where the foundation for healthy, regular communication has been laid through the efforts of all family members, young people generally will seek out their parents or other concerned adults when the need exists. In fact, the overwhelming majority of young people do talk to their parents. Where families are dysfunctional, where parents have not encouraged or facilitated open communication, no assertion or mandate of parental rights will achieve this result.
H.R. 1946 underestimates children and parents. It has the potential to erect barriers where bridges are needed. The bill should be rejected. It should, however, encourage parents, young people and the community at-large to think about the questions raised at this hearing.