The legal status of children in society is in itself a complicated issue. Children are the most vulnerable members of society. The Canadian legal system protects the children through established institutions and laws. These laws and institutions are enforced within both the legal system and the community to ensure that the rights of the children are protected. Many organizations exist in Canadian society to promote public awareness and active involvement of the community. The Canadian legal system has designed conceivable means to protect the legal status of children in Canada through institutions and laws, enforcement of these laws, and active public awareness and involvement.
The Canadian legal system has institutions and laws which protects the legal status of children. The United Nations (Talos, 1990:513), the charter of International Human Rights (Talos, 1990:576-80), and Canada s Charter of Rights and Freedoms are examples of existing institutional bodies that are working to ensure a more positive legal status of children within societies. In 1989 the United Nations (UN) adopted the Conventions of the Right of the Child, which is an international legal document setting out standards that must be achieved by the governments that sign it. (Exploitation of Children, Ennew, p.26)This is a legal document that establishes the basic rights of every child and outlines standards surrounding issues such as family care, food and clean water, health care, free education, safety from abuse and other important problems faced by children. By creating such a document, children can be protected only if the correct laws are applied within their respective communities. Each country that signs on is obligated to impose laws that enforce the 54 articles of the convention.
Another document that recognizes the importance of documenting laws that protects children is the charter of International Human Rights. Article ten section three states that special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination and adequate standard of living is everyone s right (Talos, 1990:579). Documents such as these are important because they create laws that acknowledges that children have special needs and clearly differentiates between the legal status of adults and children.
Canada s charter of rights and freedoms is a Canadian body of laws that embodies the basic principles outlined in the two charters described above. However, the Charter of Rights and freedoms does not acknowledge the special needs of children or the differences between children and adult situations.
There are many ways to enforce institutional laws that have been created to uphold the legal status of Canada s children. The Juvenile Delinquents act (J.D.A.), The Young Offenders Act (Y.O.A), and an alternative justice system are only a few institutional laws that have helped shape the status of today s children. The Juvenile Delinquents Act (J.D.A.), was passed in 1908 in the best interests of the child accused of committing a crime (Marron, 1992:65). The J.D.A reflected beliefs that children are innocent only misguided, misdirected and in need of aid, encouragement, help and assistance (Talos, 1990:436), for the crimes they have committed requiring guidance and treatment, unlike adult criminals who deserved to be punished. As a result of this philosophy the children were viewed as innocents who simply needed to be saved from the corruption of the adult world through the intervention of kindly, firm, and judicious juvenile courts which acted in a sense as parents for society s delinquent children (Talos, 1990:436-7). The J.D.A. was founded on the strong belief that family was the repository for all values of social well being, behavior, religious conviction, respect for the law and benevolent attitude towards fellow beings (Marron, 1992:67). It was presumed that the juvenile courts, the parents of society s delinquent children, were acting in the best interests of the children to uphold their legal status. Little attention was paid to affording juvenile offenders the same sort of rights and procedures in justice as offered to adults. Children s rights activists criticized the wide ranged power given to the juvenile courts under the Juvenile Delinquents Act (Talos, 1990:436). This criticism was reinforced by the arrival of the Charter in 1982, section 15 of which guarantees equality before the law without discrimination based on age (Talos, 1990:437). As values and morals changed, so did the serious levels of criminal conduct by a newer wave of intelligent criminals. Society began to believe the J.D.A to be naive in accordance to the new criminal activities, and expressed a need to be as protected from juvenile offenders as it was from adult offenders. Furthermore, society expressed a need for youthful offenders to assume a more personal responsibility for their anti-social behavior (Talos, 1990:436). The Juvenile Delinquents Act was successful in establishing a new legal status for children in Canadian societies. As society changed so did the children s preconceived status, hence creating The Young Offenders Act (Talos, 1990:437 55).
The Y.O.A. represents the change in principals concerning how society views and should treat youthful offenders. The Y.O.A. was created to acknowledge the individual needs of the child offender in the Canadian legal system. It clearly expresses the importance for distinction between adults and children, and their legal status. Young people should bear responsibility for the illegal acts they commit, although they will not be held accountable in the same way as adults (Talos, 1990:437). The new act is enforcing special laws designed for young offenders. These laws give them rights and freedoms that were not available to them in the earlier J.D.A. and is necessary in the protection of their overall status in society. Children are the future of society and should be given protection and aid in occurrences such as criminal conduct and convictions. The philosophy of the Y.O.A. reflects this and is designed feeling that
while young persons should not in all instances be held accountable in the same manner or suffer the same consequences for their behaviour as adults, young persons who commit offences should nonetheless bear responsibility for their contraventions (Talos, 1990:439).
This is done while at the same time young offenders are protected from exploitation in the media. This is done by keeping their identity and all records confidential, the legal system is allowing the young offenders a chance for rehabilitation and a future free of a criminal record. Adults however would be sentenced to life in prison but a criminal record remains hampering the chance of a normal life outside of prison.
Alternative justice has been created by the Y.O.A. to better develop the responsibility and overall status of young offenders. Punishments given to young offenders are not the same as those sentenced unto adult offenders. The child offender is given a chance of rehabilitation and change in order to become constructive members of society upon their dismissal from their sentence. The legal system is attempting to use alternative methods of custodial dispositions (Talos, 1990:445), to help rehabilitate and redirect the misguided young offenders. Some punishments consist of physical or mental attention. First the offender is assessed by a psycologist who writes a report declaring the youth in need of medical attention. The offender then must give consent to be treated and institutionalized. In any case the final punishment decided upon by youth court cannot exceed three years. Other alternative justice methods consist of custody in an open or secure facility (Talos, 1990:444) Provincial correctional authorities decide the exact location and the type of placement the young offender will be sent. If the young offender is sent somewhere in open custody, …it would be to a place where custody would be held in a community residential center, group home, child care institution, forest wilderness camp or similar place (Talos, 1990:445). A secure facility involves custody in a place designed for the secure containment or restraint of young persons (Talos, 1990:445). Secure custody is the closest in likeness to an adult prison. Young offenders are placed in secure facilities to protect society s best interests, as well as the young offender, since it keeps them away from other adults. If this alternative method of punishment wasn t available to young offenders, they would be exposed to the detrimental influence of more hardened or incorrigible adult offenders.
The rights and status of Canada s children are safeguarded by society, especially the local community. The function of the community is to uphold and disperse established laws and the morals upon which these laws are based. The future of the children and the way society views and values the children depends on the individual community s involvement and upholding of the laws. Community involvement has a direct effect on protecting and saving the children from ignorance, and delinquency. Such a feat is accomplished by creating community awareness regarding laws and children s human rights. Community awareness can be achieved through such agencies as Children s Aid Society, the Kids Help Line, and many shelters and homes for troubled and abused youths. These organizations function on the volunteerism of the members of the community. Such places give youths somewhere to turn for help in difficult situations and are important to the development of children in Canada s society.
Through education, awareness of the important status of children in a society can be increased. Since children spend a lot of time in school, the teacher has become a very influential role model. Basic Laws and values are normally picked up through the educational system. In schools abnormal behaviors are corrected or reported to the appropriate organizations that are able to deal with the offending behavior. Through modeling of appropriate conduct and clarification of what is right and wrong, youths can have a better understanding of what is expected of them and where they stand in society.
Improvements in education and community involvement are required. More money is needed to fund the various organizations and to ensure that the appropriate people are placed in the schools to help target and assist with managing troubled youths. A return to strong family values is also required so that the children have a dependable support system at home. The educational system and various community organizations can work together to strengthen the family unit by encouraging greater understanding of developmental behaviors and how to effectively deal with them so that negative behaviors can be controlled. In learning the difference between right and wrong and of their status within the legal system, the child is given an advantage that could lead them on the path to becoming productive adults.
By creating, monitoring, and enforcing institutions and laws, Canada s legal system has established and is presently maintaining a desirable status of their children. Through changes over time in the Juvenile Delinquents Act and the Young Offenders Act greater awareness of children s rights has been achieved. It is clearly the community s duty to ensure that rights are properly respected and that laws are reflective of what is needed to ensure equality for all, including children.