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Children in Court: Public Policymaking and Federal Court Decisions

Children in Court: Public Policymaking and Federal Court Decisions

by Susan Gluck Mezey

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Through an analysis of Supreme Court and lower court decisions over the last several decades, this book determines the extent to which the federal courts have affected the legal, political, economic, and social status of children in the U.S.

This book examines the role of the federal courts in policymaking for children. Believing that the federal courts are


Through an analysis of Supreme Court and lower court decisions over the last several decades, this book determines the extent to which the federal courts have affected the legal, political, economic, and social status of children in the U.S.

This book examines the role of the federal courts in policymaking for children. Believing that the federal courts are uniquely situated to provide relief to the less powerful in society, Mezey assesses the judiciary’s response to the demands for children’s rights and benefits across a number of policy areas and a range of statutory and constitutional issues. Through analysis of Supreme Court and lower court opinions over the last several decades, she determines the extent to which federal court decisionmaking has affected the legal, political, economic, and social status of children in the United States.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“What I like most about this book is that I came away having learned a lot. I suspect there are many others who will come away with a much more complete understanding of both the political and legal dimensions of federal litigation involving the rights of minors. For those who teach courses in social policy and/or constitutional rights, this would make a nice text. This book succeeds as a sophisticated critique of how the federal courts, and especially the Supreme Court, have dealt with cases that deal with the rights of minors. It will spark a debate over the scope and application of the law as it should affect children and young adults.” — Gregg Ivers, American University

“Children as a part of the political system have been largely ignored by political scientists despite the important empirical and normative questions surrounding their disenfranchisement from politics. Mezey’s work addresses a significant and underdeveloped set of issues. The book also provides a thorough description of federal policy in a number of areas. While descriptions of some of the policy areas Mezey covers can be found elsewhere, it is difficult to find a coherent let alone concise explanation of federal child welfare policy and child support enforcement. In addition, Mezey provides a detailed account of the failure to expand children’s programs through the courts.” — Cathy M. Johnson, Williams College

Mezey's (political science, Loyala U.) concern is not the appearance or testimony of children in court, but how decisions of the US federal courts over the past few decades have effected the legal, political, economic, and social status of children. She assesses the judiciary's response to demands for children's rights and benefits across a number of policy areas and a range of statutory and constitutional issues, including AFDC, WIC, Head State, the child welfare system, and the enforcement of child support. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Twila L. Perry
During the past few years, the question of what kind of assistance the federal government should provide to families raising children has been at the vortex of public debate. The issue of welfare reform has appeared in newspaper headlines on almost a daily basis. A controversy rages over the rights of children of legal and illegal immigrants. There has been argument across the political spectrum about the role of "family values." Even the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has entered the fray. Her book, IT TAKES A VILLAGE, argues that society has a collective responsibility to provide for children's well-being. CHILDREN IN COURT: PUBLIC POLICYMAKING AND FEDERAL COURT DECISIONS examines the role of the federal government, and in particular, the role of the federal courts, in making public policy that impacts on children's lives. Clearly, this is a timely book. Many cases involving the rights of children have been decided in the federal courts in recent years. Some of these cases have involved issues such as free speech in public schools and the question of whether parents must be notified before a minor child obtains an abortion. Such cases wrestle with the question of how to balance the autonomy interests of children with the rights of parents and the interests of the state, and they often make for dramatic personal stories and legal controversies. CHILDREN IN COURT does not focus on these kinds of "hot" children's rights issues. Instead, it addresses a different and probably even more fundamental concern: whether children will have the minimal levels of economic and social support to enable them to survive and participate meaningfully in the society. The book begins with a chapter on the evolution of childrens' constitutional rights. The author describes the leading cases, beginning in the 1960's, through which principles such as privacy, due process and equal protection have evolved as they apply to children. This discussion is followed by four chapters that address the role of the federal government and the federal courts in several substantive areas. The first chapter discusses AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the primary program which, until recently, provided cash assistance to poor mothers and their children. The second chapter concerns two programs: WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a program which provides low income mothers and their children with special vouchers for infant formulas and other specified foods, and Head Start, an early childhood education program designed to address the problem of educational disadvantage. The third chapter examines the efforts of the child welfare system to deal with the issues of child abuse and neglect; the last chapter addresses child support enforcement. All four chapters provide a brief history of the programs discussed, a summary of the most important legislation and analyses of the major cases decided by the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. The chapter on AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) begins with background on the origins of the program. This is followed by a chronology of the government's efforts to impose work requirements on aid recipients, a description of the welfare rights movement of the 1970's and a discussion of welfare reform litigation. Since recently enacted legislation has replaced the AFDC program of federal assistance with block grants to the states, much of what is described in this chapter of the book has already been superceded. However, the analysis still provides important background for understanding the new developments. The chapter on WIC and Head Start emphasizes the consistent funding difficulties that have permitted these programs to serve only half of those meeting eligibility guidelines. The author notes that litigation under these programs has seldom involved the direct interests of program beneficiaries, but instead has involved employment controversies within the government and between the government and vendors and suppliers or grantee agencies. Her point here is that litigation is not a very effective tool for the poor where the main reason they have been excluded from government programs is because of lack of funding. The chapter on child welfare describes various federal laws designed to improve the response to child abuse and neglect. It describes laws designed to increase family preservation as well as laws designed to assist in the effort to find children new permanent homes where necessary. The author examines the continuing funding problems that have also prevented these efforts from achieving the maximum good. The chapter on child support enforcement focuses on two kinds of cases: suits brought by mothers to impose child support obligations on putative fathers, and suits involving the attempts of women to collect past due child support, often from ex-husbands. The author argues that despite recent improvements, there remains a need for greater centralization to bring consistency and uniformity to the support enforcement system. The author concludes that in the decades since the creaton of AFDC in 1935, the federal government has been responsible for society taking an increased interest in children and it has provided more resources to enhance children's lives and opportunities. She also concludes, however, that in recent years, there has been a decrease in federal responsibility, and that there is now a danger that important progress will be undone. The author describes those areas in which the court has been willing to expand childrens' rights and those areas where it has not been willing to do so. She concludes, for example, that while the courts have been sympathetic to the demands of children for increased independence from parental and state authority, they have been less receptive to claims seeking to impose affirmative obligations on states to protect children from physical harm. She also concludes that while the courts have been supportive of claims seeking child support enforcement and claims seeking equal protection for non-marital children, they have not been very supportive of claims which would require the court to order a greater distribution of wealth in the society. Thus, for example, the federal courts have generally declined to order changes in state policies involving taxation and spending which determine the ways in which educational systems are funded. This last point, that the courts have refused to compel a greater distribution of wealth in the society, is a recurring theme throughout the book. Indeed, it is the most provocative thesis in a book that is very effective from the standpoint of being descriptive and analytical but which does not really break new ground in terms of advancing new specific ideas or theories. It could be argued, for example, that the book would have been enriched by a more indepth discussion of the court's refusal to compel a greater distribution of wealth. Thus, the author might have deepened her critique of some of Supreme Court's recent decisions by using cases in the chapter on children's constitutional rights to argue for a state obligation to guarantee a minimum level of well-being to all children. On the other hand, this book covers a wide range of issues, and its major strength is that each area addressed is covered clearly and concisely. Confronting the larger and deeper issues in more depth is probably a task for a different kind of book. This author's project is a more limited one and she carries it out effectively. This is not a book for the reader who wishes to explore the arguments on both sides of current debates about the relationship between the government and the family. This author does not evaluate arguments in favor of the kind of welfare legislation that has recently been enacted, nor does she explore the possible merits of arguments that the states can do a better job than the federal government in administering social welfare programs. The author's stance is essentially that of an advocate and her position that not enough is being done at the federal level for children is clear. This is also not a book for those seeking a discussion of children's rights at an abstract or theoretical level. While the book effectively covers the applicable legal doctrines that form the basis for arguments about the rights of children, it does not incorporate discussions of sociological theory or legal philosophy. The overall tone of the book is somewhat pessimistic. The author ultimately concludes that, at least for the forseeable future, litigation is likely to be a limited tool for advancing children's interests in the social welfare arena. She does not devote much effort to exploring possible alternative approaches. Admittedly, the current political climate in which criticism has been redirected from the conditions that create poverty to poor families themselves is discouraging. Still, suggestions of possible future directions might have been helpful to those who will continue their efforts on behalf of children despite the author's rather bleak prognosis. A book which analyzes federal social programs must include a substantial amount of detailed description of lengthy and complex federal statutes. This can present an author with a daunting task in terms of maintaining reader interest. This author does a good job of meeting that challenge. She writes clearly and concisely, and effectively integrates descriptions of the statutes with discussions of relevant cases. Statements from interviews with lawyers and other advocates from groups such as the Children's Defense Fund and the Children's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union commenting on recent judicial trends also help to enliven what could otherwise have been a very dry discussion. One likely audience for this book would be students. The book would be an excellent text in courses on Children and the Law, public policy, or social welfare policy in an undergraduate, graduate or professional school context. Researchers seeking an introduction to the programs described in the book would also find the book extremely helpful. Scholars who already have an indepth knowledge of these programs may not find that the book substantially increases their knowledge or understanding, but might still find it useful as a reference to obtain a quick historical background and analysis of the programs discussed. The footnotes and the bibliography provide a valuable resource for those who wish to do further research.

Product Details

State University of New York Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.93(h) x 0.52(d)

Meet the Author

Susan Gluck Mezey is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Loyola University, Chicago. Her other books include In Pursuit of Equality: Women, Public Policy, and the Federal Courts and No Longer Disabled: The Federal Courts and the Politics of Social Security Disability.

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