Experts: US High-Level Office for Children is Critical for Children’s Rights
Authors: Miriam Abaya, Nandita Bajaj, Warren Binford, Michelle Blake, Carter Dillard, James Dold, Hope Ferdowsian, Wendy Lazarus, Reid Maki, Shantel Meek, Jerry Milner, Jennifer Nagda, Vidya Kumar Ramanathan, Nevena Vuckovic Sahovic, and Jonathan Todres
In a recent series of workshops to address the lack of leadership for child rights in the United States, our participants identified the need for a high-level federal entity to oversee children’s issues.
The United States remains the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Adopted 32 years ago, the CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world.
Currently, the United States falls short on various social and environmental determinants of child health and well-being, including poverty, health care access, nutrition, homelessness, and separation from family. An analysis of the federal budget shows that children receive an inadequate share of government funds. For example, among the 37 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the seventh highest child poverty rate and ranks second to last in family benefit spending. Despite improvements in food security and housing stability for some children in the early 2000s, the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession have resulted in an increased number of children experiencing food and housing insecurity and declines in mental health while exacerbating long-standing racial, ethnic, and economic disparities. Child uninsured rates increased for the first time in a decade, and Hispanic children, already nearly twice as likely as white children to be uninsured, have been disproportionately impacted. Systemic racism and other forms of discrimination worsen outcomes for children of color.
Despite these troubling trends, we believe that it’s never too late for the United States to advance children’s rights and well-being at home and abroad. The workshops considered avenues to integrate the principles of the CRC across all our sectors, including health care, public health, immigration, child welfare, juvenile justice, early learning, education, labor, and family planning. One priority rose above the rest: the creation of a high-level authority dedicated to children.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has encouraged States parties to establish institutions with the authority to protect children’s rights, both as independent entities and as part of the government structure. Many countries have high level leadership positions focused on children’s rights and well-being, from Ombuds to state departments. These entities serve as advocates for children’s interests both within and independent of government, and research indicates they’re successful in making children more visible and central in policymaking.
Accordingly, our workshop developed three options which would meet the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and promote children’s rights. The first option, the White House Office for Children, requires only the political will of the President, and so can be created quickly, bypassing congressional gridlock.
The second option is Cabinet leadership and/or a department for children. Creating a department for children would require legislation but solve a problem many at the workshops identified—children’s issues are buried within and siloed across many departments. With the exception of the Department of Education, federal offices dedicated to children typically are positioned at lower levels: the Children’s Bureau within Health and Human Services, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the Department of Justice, the Office on Children in Adversity within the Agency for International Development, and so on. This option could bring all these efforts together under one coordinated umbrella, finally giving children’s interests a literal seat at the executive decision-making table.
The third option is an Independent Children’s Commissioner, similar to positions in Australia, Ireland, Jamaica, and other countries, as well as independent commissions in the United States like the Civil Rights Commission. It would oversee children’s interests in both the executive and legislative branches, assessing policy proposals for their impact on children and pursuing research on various areas of children’s rights and well-being. Importantly, this entity would be a bridge between children and policymakers—using surveys, consultations, advisory boards, and complaints mechanisms to hear directly from children and youth about their needs, hopes, and desires.
Children need resources and advocacy embedded in a dedicated federal authority to elevate their interests to the same level as other issues that have cabinet leadership and whole departments dedicated to them. These authorities would help mainstream consideration of children’s interests in policy, such as through a children’s agenda or child impact assessments. They would promote coordination across federal agencies and with Congress so that policies and programs intentionally and methodically address the comprehensive needs of children. Lastly and importantly, children would finally have a voice in decisions that impact them. These authorities could operationalize the CRC’s foundational principles: children’s best interests, respect for children’s views, non-discrimination, and children’s right to survival and development.
Policymakers need political will to create, fund, and staff a high-level authority. The government will need to implement other system changes to advance children’s rights and well-being, such as the creation of a children’s agenda, consistent and sufficient funding for children’s programs, and ongoing evaluations to ensure government policies, practices, and programs are in children’s best interests. Experts in child development, child advocates, caregivers and parents, and children and youth will need coordinated advocacy and unified messaging. The creation of a high-level federal authority would be an important first step and could jumpstart all the policies that must follow to make children’s rights and well-being a genuine priority.
Miriam Abaya, JD, Vice President for Immigration and Children’s Rights, First Focus on Children, Washington, DC, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nandita Bajaj, MEd, Executive Director, Population Balance, Saint Paul, MN; Faculty, Institute for Humane Education/Antioch University, Surry, ME.
Warren Binford, JD, Professor of Pediatrics and W.H. Lea for Justice Endowed Chair in Pediatric Law, Ethics & Policy, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, CO.
Michelle Blake, MA, Director of Policy, Phoenix Zones Initiative, Albuquerque, NM.
Carter Dillard, JD, Policy Advisor, Fair Start Movement, Los Angeles, CA.
James Dold, CEO and Founder, Human Rights for Kids, Washington, DC.
Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, FACP, FACPM, President and CEO, Phoenix Zones Initiative, Albuquerque, NM; Associate Professor of Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, NM; Medical Expert, Physicians for Human Rights, New York, NY.
Wendy Lazarus, Co-Founder and Director, Kids Impact Initiative, Los Angeles, CA.
Reid Maki, Director of Child Labor Advocacy, National Consumers League and Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition, Washington, DC.
Shantel Meek, PhD, Professor of Practice and Founding Director, Children’s Equity Project, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.
Jerry Milner, DSW, Director, Family Integrity & Justice Works, Santa Rosa Beach, FL.
Jennifer Nagda, JD, Policy Director, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, Washington, DC.
Vidya Kumar Ramanathan, MD, MPH, FAAP, Pediatrician and Medical Director, University of Michigan Asylum Collaborative, Ann Arbor, MI; Physician Expert, Physicians for Human Rights, New York, NY.
Nevena Vuckovic Sahovic, LLM, PhD, Professor of Law, CRC Committee member 2003-2009; President, Child Rights Centre, Belgrade, Serbia.
Jonathan Todres, JD, Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law, Atlanta, GA.
[This piece originally appeared in the Health and Human Rights Journal, March 10, 2022]
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 Ibid. para. 39.
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