MILWAUKEE -- When the police finally came, Joshua Foreman wasn't surprised, and he wasn't afraid. He had been expecting them.
Trained in the art of civil disobedience, he didn't make it easy. He went limp, forcing the police to drag him across the pavement, hoist him up and handcuff him for the ride to the booking desk.
Joshua Foreman is 9 years old.
A devoted anti-abortion protester and the veteran of six arrests, Joshua came to Milwaukee determined to shut down clinics or be arrested trying. In one short week of demonstrations, he succeeded in being taken into custody three times.
"If babies are really in there being ripped to shreds, I've got to stop it," he said.
Joshua is part of a new phenomenon in the crusade to stop abortion: child protesters who lead the charge on clinic doors.
Their parents say the youngsters are independent-minded Christians who have decided that they cannot stand by while abortions continue. Their critics, from the abortion-rights side of the debate, say they are just impressionable children exploited by a movement that's having trouble turning out enough adults to fill the ranks.
"Parents are getting their kids to do their dirty work for them," said Jane Kramer, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Clinic Protection Coalition, as she stood outside an embattled Planned Parenthood office.
But the children on the protest lines insist they're nobody's pawns.
"Kids our age can go in there and have abortions," said John Stenson, 13, of Waukesha, Wis., sitting in a Milwaukee downpour at 7 a.m. holding a "Stop Killing Babies" sign. "We can make up our own minds."
A corps of about a dozen children, members of a Marietta, Ga.-based brigade called Youth for America, tour the country to "rescue" the unborn. Often, the children travel without their parents, who sign a letter giving custody to another adult protester.
Rarely have children been so visible in U.S. social movements -- and they've never taken so active a role, said Margo Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Over the past year, the youngsters have "rescued" in Atlanta, California and Wichita, and some are now at protests in Baton Rouge, La. Later this month, they will be back in Atlanta. In each city they visit, local children join them on the lines to confront the abortion-rights supporters, whom the kids call the "pro-aborts."
In Milwaukee, children were arrested in numbers not before seen in the abortion conflict: 31 one day, 15 another. Of more than 400 people taken into custody since the protests began June 16, about a third were under 18, a police spokesman said. The youngest was a 7-year-old girl.
Clever, cheap strategy
It's a clever, cheap strategy, abortion-rights advocates say. And the Youth for America newsletter, aimed at "radically saved young people who believe abortion is murder," notes as much. The children are arrested one day and back on the lines the next without even having to pay a fine.
But Anne Foreman, mother of Joshua and four other children, said the protests are no strategy, just a youngsters' crusade.
Joshua had come to Milwaukee from his home in Marietta with his siblings and parents, who waited for hours after his police encounters to claim him. "Obviously, I don't like it," Mrs. Foreman said of her son's arrests. "But the kids take the persecution, and they just keep coming back. I can't stand between their hearts and God."
For as long as there have been public demonstrations, parents have been bringing their children to marches and rallies. And abortion-rights backers certainly have carried their babies in parades and picket lines.
But the abortion protests are different, Dr. Anderson said. "They are, in fact, training the children to be in the vanguard," she said.
"Here, you're essentially baiting the police to beat up on the child, and I think that's what has raised the issue about whether this is a proper use of children. These are provocative situations, and overtly provocative."
The numbers of children arrested, and their sophistication, took Milwaukee police officers and social service officials by surprise.
Before the protests began, the Milwaukee County Department of Human Services, expecting hundreds of adults to be arrested, had prepared to care for children whose parents were hustled off to jail. Instead, the agency found itself dealing with arrested youngsters whose parents were waiting outside.
At a National Guard armory set up as a police staging center, the Human Services Department provided lunch, television and videos to help the children pass the time between mug shots and release. The police used light, flexible plastic handcuffs for the trip to the armory.
"They're good kids," said Capt. Darrel Rodgers of the Milwaukee Police Department's Juvenile Division. "Like their parents, they believe in what they believe in."
Children's guardians charged