An Arlington teen-ager is suing her parents for $5 million claiming that their negligence resulted in her permanent paralysis and pain following a diving accident at their summer home five years ago.
A San Francisco youth sued his grandfather for allegedly taking $1,000 from the young man's savings account.
And another Virginia youth sued her guardians, saying they committed her to a mental hospital when she was in fact mentally competent.
Court systems across the country are seeing more juveniles in court, not merely as delinquents in criminal cases, but as seekers of a kind of juvenile justice, a clarification of children's rights, some legal experts say.
Following the lead of ethnic minorities, women and other groups seeking equality through the court system, some children are creating their own movement for equal protection and are suing their elders in an effort to be treated as adults.
A handful of legal centers specializing in law for children began forming about five years ago across the country. Laws are being passed to protect children's rights and children are beginning to take advantage of them through the courts.
The trend has been spurred by children's rights advocacy groups that gained prominence during the late 1960s. These groups lobbied in Con gress and state legislatures for laws to protect children because many laws that apply to adults do not apply to children.
Although children's rights organizations are pushing for test cases to further their causes, many of the lawsuits start with confused, frustrated children, some as young as 11 or 12 years old.
They wander into lawyers' officers or are directed to children's legal centers by concerned adults. Their suits range from broad issues like freedom of the press and free speech to problems peculiar to youngsters.
Consider the case of Joshua Leibner, the Washington and Lee High School student who sued the Arlington School Board last year after being suspended from school for distributing an underground high school newspaper. Leibner eventally won his suit, which resulted in a change in the county's student conduct code.
Leibner said he never considered that at age 16 he might have been too young to file the suit. "It just seemed like I had no other recourse at that time."
"I went to the Library of Congress and looked up courts cases I thought proved I was in the right," Leibner said. He and a friend "just looked up First Amendment cases dealing with the press."
Leibner's father contact an ACLU attorney for him the youth said.
"I had to go with ACLU lawyers to Georgetown (University) library," he recounted. "The amount of books was real staggering. I was in on every discussion concerning the case."
When filing the suit, Leibner said, he thought of himself as a person, not an adolescent. "As long as the cases are justified, they should have that opportunity" to go to court, Leibner said. "I wish more people were aware about how the government works."
Attorneys for most of the children who have filed suits said that because their clients are juveniles it would be improper to question them about their experiences in court.
In Virginia a 15-year-old who alleged in a suit that she was committed to a mental institution against her will sued her legal guardians to reenter society. Under Virginia law a juvenile could be committed to an institution merely by having a parent sign commitment papers, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Stephen W. Bricker. As a result of the suit children in Virginia are now treated as adults in commitment cases, Bricker said.
In another Virginia case, a youth was taken from his home without a hearing when the state welfare department said his mother was retarded.
Following that suit state law was amended to require hearings before children can be taken from their homes, Bricker said, except in emergency cases.
Although more children's suits are trickling into courts, they are still few compared to adult cases. This is because the cases are not financially profitable for lawyers, few children, judges or lawyers are clear about what rights juveniles have and few children are willing to come forward with complaints, children's activists say.
There are few legal precedents in children's cases and children's rights are still unclear legally. Some cases brought by individual children are broadened into class action suits in an effort to change laws involving other children in similar circumstances.
Many lawmakers and lawyers are reluctant to change laws to enlarge the rights of children because they say it is interfering with families. Technically children cannot sue or be sued, but can instigate their suits through adults called "a next friend."
The legal services that do take children's cases are usually funded by grants and foundations. "There's no way you can collect any fees from children unless there's a judgment of some kind," as in personal injury cases, said Peter Bull, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
"By and large the legal profession considers children -- when it considers them at allas objects of domestic relations and inheritance laws or as victims of the cycle of neglect, abuse and deliquency," said Arkansas attorney and child advocate Hillary Rodham in the Yale Law Journal last June. "Yet the law's treatment of children is undergoing great challenge and change. Presumptions about children's capacities are being rebutted: the legal rights of children are being expanded."
Daniel Yohalam, an attorney for the Children's Defense Fund, said the increase in cases excludes the traditional domestic relations custody-type cases.
For instance, two high school students took the Fairfax County School Board to U.S. District County School Board to U.S. District Court so they could print an article in the school newspaper about birth control. They won.
A Loudoun County girl sued her school board claiming she was denied proper hearings when she was suspended for throwing a pie in a teacher's face. She lost.
In San Francisco a 17-year-old filed suit when his step-grandfather allegedly depleted his savings account by about $1,000. The youth's grandmother had opened the account for her grandson, but when she died, the suit claims, her husband took the money and spent it. The case is currently being settled, Bull said.
Another San Francisco case involved a high school youth living with his aunt in a public housing project. She was evicted from the project but the boys' possessions, which amounted to about $200, were taken from the apartment in the process. He successfully sued the public housing authority to recoup his losses.
Yohalem said more children's cases are being filed because the "number of positive decisions from the court increases litigation." But many of the cases still are successful.
The Children's Defense Fund handled a case in Washington in which six children allegedly were kept in the D.C. Hospital for Sick Children even though they were no longer ill. The suit claims they were kept there, sometimes for more than a year, because the D.C. Department of Human Resources failed to find foster homes for them, Yohalem said. The case is still pending, he said.
Bull said he handled a case in which an 18-year-old San Francisco high school graduate sued the school system because he could only read at a fourth grade level after receving his diploma. The student lost but Bull -- understandably -- said the case should have been decided like other cases in which promises are made but not kept.
"If you hire a plumber to fix your leaking pipes and he didn't fix them, you'd have a good lawsuit," Bull said. "Whereas the public spends somthing like $2,000 a year per student, but the schools are not doing what they're supposed to."
There are no figures available on the numbers of cases brought to court by juveniles and many of them take years of litigation.
If's a long hard fight," Yohalem said.