Many children today complain about having to do small chores at home. But there was a time in this country when young children were routinely legally forced to work at hard labor right alongside their adult counterparts. During the 1900s children, often as young as 10 years old and younger, were forced into manual labor. They worked not only in industrial settings such as textile factories, but also in coal mines, retail stores, on the streets, and in home-based industries. 

Children from lower class families were frequently employed, whereas the concern about idle youths did not appear to be one shared by the upper classes. Well-to-do fathers in the early 1900s believed that it was their duty to work for their children, plan for them, spend money on them, buy life insurance for their protection, afford them a good education and teach them to be upstanding citizens. But lower income families were forced to use their children to help with the home’s finances without the luxury of saving for their futures. 

By the turn of the 20th century, the labor that the children of the working class performed were varied. In rural areas, young boys, some reportedly under age 14, toiled in mines, sometimes working their fingers literally to the bone, breaking up coal. While young boys in urban areas often earned their living as newspaper carriers known as “Newsies”. In many towns, mills and glass factories regularly employed young girls and boys. 

Although many child laborers, such as the Newsies, worked in plain view of others on city streets, many did not. While their coal-stained faces have now become known through pictures, at the time, the children who worked in mines labored in relative obscurity. Some labored in the mines as “trappers,” others were known as “breaker boys,” and many worked as “helpers.” The trapper’s sole job was to sit all day waiting to open a wooden door to allow the passage of coal cars. These doors, which were part of the mine’s ventilation system, required opening between 12 and 50 times a day. During the rest of the time, the boy sat in dark idleness next to the door. 

Although less monotonous, the job of the breaker boys was likely more dangerous. Their job was to use a coal breaker to separate slate and other impurities from coal before it was shipped. To do so, these boys, some as young as 14, were precariously positioned on wooden benches above a conveyor belt so they could remove the impurities as the coal rushed by.  At times, the dust from the passing coal was so dense that their view would become obscured. Other child coal laborers worked as helpers. Journeymen miners frequently hired their own helpers, and some parents hired their own children to perform this role. These children were not usually employees of the mine but were instead paid out of the wages of the journeymen. And if the child worker did not fulfill his duties well they could expect brutal blows to the head or other physical abuse.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of child laborers in the U.S. peaked. Child labor began to decline as the labor and reform movements grew and labor standards in general began improving, increasing the political power of working people and other social reformers to demand legislation regulating child labor. 

But it wasn’t until The Great Depression that political attitudes in the United States changed, especially surrounding child labor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” sought to prevent extreme child labor. And almost all of the codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act significantly reduced child labor. Overall, these laws were successful, not only to the generally widespread disapproval towards child labor, but also because many previously unemployed adults became employed once children were limited in the workforce. 

Violations of the child labor laws today continue among the agricultural industry. Despite the existing laws regarding forced child labor, some children are still forced to labor excessive numbers of hours with their migrant parents or hold prohibited jobs. 

There has been discussions for some time now about paying reparations to descendants of slaves. Some refer to the reparations that were paid to the Japanese Americans who were held in the internment camps during WWII as a reason to do the same for descendants of slaves. So along that line of thinking, maybe reparations should be paid to descendants of the children of forced labor too?

In recent years people have discovered a new and even more evil way to exploit children that is also more profitable: Human sex trafficking. Unfortunately, in most cases of child sexual abuse, victims are not treated much differently by the courts today than they were in the 1930s. They are still treated as second class citizens and are not recognized as having any real rights. The courts and lawyers are more concerned with working a plea deal for the abuser than getting justice for the under age plaintiffs.

It is estimated by the CDC that 1 in 6 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Most will be sexually abused by someone they know well and trust. Because of the trauma this causes, many survivors of child sexual abuse suffer a life of PTSD, depression, anxiety and are at higher risk for drug and alcohol addiction and other criminal activity. 

Many of these children are taken from their families and placed in foster care where they are abused again. And 90% of those convicted of child sexual abuse will only be sentenced to probation and placing absolutely no restrictions on them. Some judges even allow the perpetrators to have contact with their victim!  

Clearly, the United States still has much to do to eliminate the abuses and violations of vulnerable children. To make matters worse, it seems that our legislators don’t really care about protecting our children. I have written to more than 20 Nebraska legislators asking them to place restrictions on those convicted of child sexual abuse. I also sent a petition to the Nebraska legislators though change.org with over 8,000 supporters. The very few that responded told me that there was nothing they could do. Really? Many legislators are concerned with stopping sex trafficking, but trying to solve sex trafficking without working on the epidemic of child sexual abuse in the home is like having a doctor prescribe cough syrup for someone with lung cancer. 

If half as many people spoke out and organized marches to protest the sex offender registration laws as they do to protest gun control, equal rights and sexual harassment in the work place, maybe our legislators would do something to change it.

One day perpetrators of child sexual abuse will be held accountable for their actions. But so will all the people who refused to speak up for the victims.   

Vince Gill – Forever Changed

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