Monday, February 27, 2017

The Rights of Children

We have heard, and shall no doubt continue to hear, a good deal more about the rights of women than many people like, but there is another class of rights which it might be just as well to notice a little, and which we strongly recommend to the attention of any one who wants to do a really good action, and to prevent one of those gross and monstrous wrongs which are tolerated only because they escape notice and are not supposed to exist by people of common humanity. In order to explain our meaning we will invite our reader’s attention to the following extract from a report of the proceedings at the Clerkenwell sessions on the 4th of this month:—
“Alice Ledger, twenty-one, described as of no occupation, pleaded “guilty" to maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm on her infant daughter, Ida Ledger, a child about two years old. Mr. W. I. Abram appeared for the prosecution. In this case the evidence taken before the magistrate disclosed a prolonged course of cruel treatment of the child by the prisoner, a young woman who for some time past appears to have maintained herself by prostitution. She resided at Warner-street, Clerkenwell, and had been heard on different occasions to beat the child severely. On the night of November 9 the person occupying the room below the prisoner’s heard her, as she thought, dashing the child down on the floor. The next day this person spoke to the prisoner, who said she would not beat the child again, and let her see the child. In consequence of the state it was in the police were sent for, the prisoner was given into custody, and the child was taken to the workhouse. It was first, however, seen by Mr. Miller, surgeon to the G Division. That gentleman found the back of the head and the temple extensively contused, its cheek, nose, and lips forming one suppurating sore, while the body, arms, and legs were covered with scratches and extravasated blood. For some time the child’s life was in danger. Mr. Serjeant Cox said it was fortunate for the prisoner that she was not now on her trial for taking the child’s life. Her conduct had been cruel, heartless, and unnatural in the extreme, and she must undergo two years imprisonment, with hard labour.”
The story is a disgusting one, and if it had been uncommon we should certainly not have pained our readers by directing attention to it. No fault is to be found with the court. A miserable savage of a woman has been convicted of a brutal crime, and sentenced to a punishment which certainly does not err on the side of too much severity. It would seem, too, that the neighbours of the criminal did not on this occasion neglect the commonest duties of humanity, as the witnesses of great crimes often do. The point to which we wish to call attention is the condition of Ida Ledger. She was an illegitimate child, and was taken to the workhouse, there to be cared for during her mother's imprisonment, and here, again, no complaint can be made. So long as she remains in the workhouse she will, no doubt, be properly looked after; but what is to happen when her mother comes out of gaol, and when the little creature is just four years old? The mother will not only have a legal right to her custody, but if she is forthcoming it would, we apprehend, be the duty of the guardians to see that, instead of being a charge upon the ratepayers, the child was supported by its mother. No doubt if she should murder it she would have a reasonably good chance of being hanged. If she only maimed it for life, it is not at all improbable that she would be sent to penal servitude for a good many years. If she merely assaulted it, she would, perhaps, get another term of imprisonment; but what is all this to the child? What she requires is active protection against a wretched creature who has already nearly killed her, and who when she comes out of gaol is morally certain to revenge herself for what she has undergone on the helpless little thing whom she will no doubt regard as the cause of her imprisonment, unless, indeed, she has the grace and good feeling to desert her altogether and leave her to grow up in the workhouse. What protection, then, does the law give to Ida Ledger and other small children in her wretched circumstances? The following will, we believe, be found to be a pretty correct statement on the subject, though we cannot undertake to say that a long search in our labyrinthine statute book might not reveal some section or other of an Act of Parliament which might add a little to the list.

First, means might no doubt be found to bind over the mother to be of good behaviour towards the child, but what would be the use of that? The woman is probably in a position of life in which her own recognizance would be utterly worthless, and in which she could find no security. Besides, in the case of binding over to keep the peace, as in most other cases, the law helps those who can help themselves. How is a child of four years old to know anything about such matters, or to avail itself of the protection intended to be afforded to it? Secondly, if the child were within the Industrial Schools Act it might be sent to an industrial school, and the justices might make an order on the parent for the maintenance of the child there by the payment of a sum not exceeding five shillings a week; but the Industrial Schools Act applies only to vagrant and criminal children. It is not meant to protect children against the cruelty of their parents. Thirdly, if any one was to settle a sum of money on the child she might be made a ward in Chancery, and this would no doubt afford her complete protection, but this is obviously an altogether illusory remedy. The practical result of the whole is that there is no remedy whatever for this child or for any other unfortunate little creature in the same circumstances. When she is quite cured and has just learned to talk her mother will be ready to receive her, and to her mother she must go. Surely this is a definite and most hideous grievance for any member of a civilized and rational community to be exposed to. There is no question here about any of the numerous topics which make discussions about women’s rights and the like so attractive to some persons and so unpleasant to others. The right which is violated in the case of this child, and no doubt in the case of many others, is the right of children to personal safety from the most brutal bodily injury inflicted by persons who have absolute control over them. To prevent such wrongs when their existence is distinctly proved and put on record is, we think, as clearly the duty of Government as to put down a system of highway robbery. Indeed, the duty is one of still greater importance, because its victims are utterly defenceless, and are put by the law itself in the power of the criminals.

Fortunately, no very great exertion of legislative skill is necessary to do all that can or ought to be done for this purpose. A very short Act, which we hope would not be regarded as a case of over-legislation, would do all that can be done. It might be provided that in all cases in which any person was convicted of any assault upon a child less than ten years old under his care or control, the magistrate or court before whom the trial took place should have power to make for the child’s protection any of the following orders:—

I. The magistrate should have power not only to bind over the person convicted to be of good behaviour to the child (which he has already), but to order him, under pain of forfeiting his recognizance, to produce the child before the magistrate himself or such person (the parish doctor, for instance) as he should direct at certain intervals, so as to afford him an opportunity of seeing that the child was not ill-used. If there were any marks of ill-usage about the child, the parent should be bound to account for them, failing which he should be presumed to have inflicted them.

2. The court should also have power to sentence the parent, in addition to any other punishment which might be inflicted upon him, to be deprived of all his parental rights over the child, and to pay a sum not exceeding so much a Week for its maintenance. The court should also have power to commit the child to the custody of any person who might be willing to undertake its custody, or if no such person could be found then to send it to the workhouse, the parent in all cases being liable for its maintenance.
Some such Act as this would remove as far as the law can remove it a scandal which is all the more horrible because it exists at the expense of those who cannot complain, cannot understand their wrong, and cannot in the very faintest degree defend themselves. The law cannot, of course, interfere between parent and child until the parent has actually committed a crime upon the child. It would be monstrous do so, but what we propose would not involve this consequence. Consider what is implied in such a. conviction. Recollect that before a wretch like this Alice Ledger is brought to justice brutal cruelty must have gone to the length of disgusting neighbours and spectators so much as to lead them to go through all the vexation and loss of time implied in a prosecution. This being so, there is no sort of fear that such an Act as we suggest should be abused as against the parents, or that their lawful, and indeed indispensable, authority should be shaken. Moreover, by confining the Act to children under ten it is confined to those whom no humane man or woman could ever have any real occasion for punishing with any approach to severity.

It is one of the great defects of all law that it is indifferent to personal in comparison with proprietary rights. Certainly while the law of England will guard with the most scrupulous care every shred of property which belongs to a rich child, and even care for its person as a sort of appendix to its property, it leaves the lives and limbs of poor children unprotected.  This is a scandal which a very little effort, a few words on the part of Parliament, would remove.  Might not some influential person find time to speak them?  Baby beating is at least as brutal and wicked as baby farming, and if Alice Ledger’s story is not so exciting as that of the wretched woman who was hung for keeping a slaughter-house for children a year or two since, her crime is not so very much less hideous and is probably much commoner.

Pall Mall Gazette, December 20, 1872.

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