Thursday, August 19, 2021
By Co-Editor Jonathan Todres & Adrianna Zhang
With the number of COVID-19 cases rising again, children in the US are facing the potential of a third straight school year being disrupted by the pandemic. Yet as policymakers and school administrators make decisions about reopening protocols, an essential group has been largely left out of the conversation: young people.
The U.S. prides itself on being a beacon of democracy. But 73 million constituents have little to no voice in our democracy. Politicians consistently overlook and marginalize individuals under 18 years old. Over the past year, policymakers have spent more time talking about and prioritizing reopening restaurants and bars than addressing the housing insecurity, educational disruptions, and mental health consequences of the pandemic that millions of children have experienced.
These are big issues to confront, requiring complex solutions. What is baffling is that in many areas, decision-makers are attempting to address school issues—or any issues affecting children—without ever talking to young people. Young people are not just part of some elusive future; they are ready to contribute to their communities now.
The government, at every level, must become more accessible to and inclusive of youth, especially those from historically underrepresented groups. Youth engagement will introduce new perspectives on current issues and help inspire solutions to persistent problems. As the new school-year is beginning, education is an obvious starting place for including young people’s voices.
Schools can start by surveying young people about challenges they face and any ideas they have for ensuring all students succeed. To be clear, listening to children should not replace communications with, and input from, parents and other caregivers—parents and caregivers are essential partners. But young people have insights that adults don’t, just as adults have perspectives that young people don’t. There is absolutely no downside to hearing from young people, unless we’re afraid of what they’ll tell us.
So, survey all students. Young people’s tech-savvy makes this easier than you might think. Better yet, schools should involve young people in the design of the survey, so they ensure that they ask the right questions and not just questions that serve adults’ interests. Then schools need to set up a process for ensuring ongoing dialogue with young people—all students, not just those they find easy to work with.
A partnership with young people cannot be limited just to individual schools. School district leaders can do better as well. School boards and superintendents should hold their meetings at accessible times so students do not have to miss class to ensure their voices are heard. They also should allocate a designated portion of public comment times to youth.
Other agencies with mandates that affect children—from health care, to transportation, to urban development—should follow suit. Just imagine, for example, what policymakers might learn if they heard from young people about their transportation needs. They would learn that many youth need better transportation systems not just to attend school but also to travel to work so they can help their families economically.
It’s not enough, however, just to open the doors to young people. Governments need to enhance efforts to teach young people how to effectively engage with agencies and make their voices heard. Schools are central to this, but every government agency can provide interactive guidance to young people so they can learn to present their ideas more effectively. Not only will this ensure agencies hear all good ideas, but civic engagement can lead to improved academic performance and enhanced social-emotional wellbeing for students.
Finally, we have to go beyond making existing spaces more open to youth. We need to create more avenues for young people to engage, from direct representation through local youth commissions to statewide ombudsperson offices for children. These exist in some places, but they need to be in all cities and states. At the federal level, young people have already urged President Biden to create an executive “Office of Young Americans” and appoint a “Director of Youth Engagement” who would sit on the Domestic Policy Council.
Partnering with young people will not only help confront pressing issues in schools and other settings, it will also help longer term by teaching young people the skills needed for effective participation in a democratic society, which ironically adults expect them to have the moment they turn 18.
There is no shortage of ways to involve young people. Doing so will help build a stronger democracy. Equally important, young people deserve to have a voice and feel valued in the community they grow up in and will live in for years to come.
The starting point is simple: We need to see, and treat, young people as genuine partners.
Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Adrianna Zhang is Founder and Executive Director of SF CHANGE and a high school senior in San Francisco.
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Charlotte Alexander and Jonathan Todres, Evaluating the Implementation of Human Rights Law: A Data Analytics Research Agenda, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 43, forthcoming 2021. Abstract below.
Human rights law relies on national-level implementation and enforcement to give it full meaning. The United Nations’ reporting process, a built-in component of all major human rights treaties, enables monitoring and evaluation of countries’ progress toward human rights goals. However, the operation and effectiveness of this process have been largely under-studied. This Article lays the foundations for a data analytics research agenda that can help assess the reporting process and inform human rights law implementation. As a first step, we use a relatively new set of computational tools to evaluate the Concluding Observations issued by a human rights treaty body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Concluding Observations provide both an appraisal of states’ practices and a set of recommendations that act as an agenda for the state going forward. Using text and data analytics tools, we mined the text of Concluding Observations issued by the Committee on the Rights of the Child over a twenty-seven year period to identify the topics addressed in each report and parsed the language of these reports to determine the tenor and tone of the Committee’s discussion. We then mapped our findings by state and year, to form a detailed descriptive picture of what the Committee has said, and how the Committee has delivered its message(s), across both geography and time. In doing so, we hope to show how these data analytics tools can contribute to a deeper understanding of the Committee’s work and, more broadly, of the effectiveness of the reporting process in securing and protecting human rights.
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
New Article: Zero-Tolerance: The Trump Administration's Human Rights Violations Against Migrants on the Southern Border
Jeffrey R. Baker and Allyson McKinney Timm, Zero-Tolerance: The Trump Administration's Human Rights Violations Against Migrants on the Southern Border, 13 Drexel Law Review 581 (2021). Abstract below.
In 2017, the Trump Administration imposed its policy of zero-tolerance immigration enforcement on the southern border. This policy resulted in the forcible separation of families and the prolonged detention of children in harsh conditions, without due process or adequate resources. The Trump Administration unleashed these policies to deter people from immigrating and seeking asylum, consistent with President Trump’s racist rhetoric and campaign promises. This article analyzes and critiques these policies based on international human rights law, noting the resonance human rights norms find among diverse religious traditions.
The article begins with detailed analysis of the Trump Administration’s policies that divided families and detained children in wretched conditions, in violation of U.S. law. It proceeds to evaluate and criticize these policies under treaties ratified by the U.S., conventions it has signed but not ratified, and established customary international law. In the name of border enforcement and immigration deterrence, the Trump Administration’s policies violated the fundamental human rights of migrants and people seeking asylum in the United States, including the right to family life, rights of the child, and rights to be free from ill-treatment and arbitrary detention. The abrupt and often permanent separation of families, the indefinite detention of children without proper care, and the failure of process in these policies are all stark violations of binding international human rights laws. These policies affront the moral conscience of multitudes, eliciting sustained protest from civil society and faith leaders.
The article concludes with a recognition that international institutions and legal mechanisms may not be adequate to compel the Trump Administration to respect international law, so political and electoral responses are vital to ensure that human rights remain at the heart of the American enterprise. It suggests the accord between religious, ethical perspectives and human rights principles is valuable to reinforcing popular support for these norms. As the world bears witness to these cruel abuses of human rights, Americans must decide whether and how to hold the government accountable for the inherent dignity of all people within the rule of law.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Anniversaries are generally cause for celebration. And this week marks a significant one in the children’s rights world. On November 20, 2019, the global community celebrates the 30thth anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). What’s impressive about the CRC is not just its breadth of coverage (it’s the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights) or its widespread acceptance (it’s the most widely-ratified human rights treaty in history). What’s arguably most impressive is its transformative value. The CRC has compelled governments to recognize children as individuals with rights of their own. It has spurred countless laws, policies, and programs aimed at improving child wellbeing. And it has done all this while reaffirming the vital role of the family.
Since the advent of the CRC, we have witnessed significant progress on an array of issues affecting children—under-five child mortality has declined by more than half, school enrollment has increased, child labor has dropped, and gains have been realized in many other areas. So, on November 20th, we should celebrate these positive developments of the CRC era.
And then on November 21, we need to get back to work. Children’s rights—like human rights more broadly—are still a work in progress in every country.
Here in the United States, the “To Do” list is far longer than a short essay can capture. Racial disparities, barriers to education and health care, trafficking and other forms of child exploitation, exploitative child labor, child marriage, and other child rights violations persist in the United States. And arguably the most blatant violations of children’s rights are occurring at the U.S. southern border. As a colleague and I have detailed, the children’s rights abuses perpetrated by the Trump Administration, through its family separation and child detention actions, are extensive. And the trauma inflicted on children, including toddlers, will likely have lifelong adverse consequences. In short, when the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials calls your government’s actions a “crime against humanity,” addressing such gross violations of human rights must be at the top of any priority list.
Of course, the United States is the only country that has not ratified the CRC. Despite this, the treaty can still be an asset we can use to strengthen communities and support children’s development. After all, many of us are guided in our daily lives by moral, ethical or religious principles that are not enshrined in law. Children’s rights law offers the same potential. So while we may have to wait for U.S. ratification of the CRC, children’s rights frameworks can be employed effectively at the state and local level. UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative offers one potential model for partnering with cities and towns to help ensure children’s wellbeing.
Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson from the CRC is the value of children’s voices. Article 12 of the CRC establishes that children have a right to be heard. And their voices can make a difference. We need only look to recent youth advocacy on gun violence and climate change to see the positive power that children have and the thoughtful vision they have for their future and ours.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once stated, universal human rights begin ‘in small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world... Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’
Each of us can support and strengthen children’s rights by beginning close to home. We can use the CRC as a guide for creating more rights-respecting communities. And, most important, we can listen to and help ensure that all children are heard on matters that affect their lives.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has decided the case brought against the Trump Administration for human rights violations against the immigrant children being held in detention. The lower court had found the administration in contempt of the 1997 Flores settlement which addressed specifically the treatment of migrant children. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. The settlement requires the administration to provide safe and sanitary conditions for the children held in detainment. You may recall that the panel was astounded at the Justice Department's argument that the Flores agreement did not mandate permitting children to sleep or allowing them to wash.
Judge Marsh Bezon authored the opinion, stating: “Assuring that children eat enough edible food, drink clean water, are housed in hygienic facilities with sanitary bathrooms, have soap and toothpaste, and are not sleep-deprived are without doubt essential to the children’s safety.” The lower court had found that the children were not receiving hot, edible or a sufficient number of meals during a given day; lacked clean drinking water, clean bedding, toothbrushes, soap and towels; and endured sleep deprivation as a result of cold temperatures, overcrowding, lack of proper bedding and constant lighting.
Monday, November 19, 2018
All parents share one thing in common. Whatever our differences – across race, religion, socio-economic status, political beliefs, and more – every parent wants the best for their children. We disagree on a lot these days, but I haven’t heard a single parent wish that their children will do worse than they did.
Now consider this ambitious vision proclaimed almost thirty years ago: Every child in the world “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” and be raised “in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.” This ideal reflects what all of us would want for our children, for all children. After all, no parent hopes their children will suffer misery, war, and inequality.
This grand vision was announced in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Adopted in 1989, the CRC was the first comprehensive human rights treaty on children. It established a holistic framework for ensuring the rights and well-being of all children. The CRC covers both civil and political rights (such as freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment) and economic, social, and cultural rights (such as the right to education). It also includes rights unique to children (such as the right to know and be cared for by one’s parents).
Given the universal appeal of its goals, it won’t be surprising to hear that it’s the most widely-accepted human rights treaty in history. Every country in the world has ratified the CRC, except the United States.
In the United States, the CRC has become a victim of much broader political and ideological battles, a phenomenon that too often tragically happens to children themselves. Highly charged rhetoric masks the reality of the CRC and children’s rights more broadly—that is, the fulfillment of children’s rights is consistent with what the vast majority of parents want for their kids. They want their children to have access to health care and education, to be free to observe their faith without government interference, to live without discrimination, and to grow up without suffering violence or exploitation.
Despite the major role the U.S. government played in drafting the CRC and the numerous similarities between U.S. law and the treaty, the U.S. government isn’t likely to ratify the CRC anytime soon.
But given the shared values in what parents dream of and what the CRC mandates for children, the idea of children’s rights remains relevant in the United States. We don’t have to wait passively for government to act; we can take action, guided by children’s rights values.
So, for Universal Children's Day (November 20) or any day thereafter, here are three steps each of us can take to forge common ground and improve the lives of children:
1. Read the CRC. Whether it is the CRC’s declaration that the family is “the fundamental group of society,” the 19 provisions of the CRC that recognize the vital role of parents and the family in the lives of children, the treaty’s support for education, its prohibition on torturing children, or something else, find an element of the CRC that resonates with your values as a parent, family member, American, or human being.
2. Find and support (financially or as a volunteer) an organization in your community that advances an aspect of the CRC that you support.
3. Vote for kids. And not just on election day. Make your voice heard often, by urging your representatives to support initiatives that help secure the rights and well-being of children.
If we all can do that, then this Universal Children’s Day can be a turning point, a day when we found common ground on which to build a world where every child can develop to its full potential.
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
For decades those who consider the health of the nation have warned about the consequences of the widening gap between the rich and others. Along with the disappearance of the middle class has come the disappearance of empathy. Sense of community and willingness to help others has been replaced in many instances with an odd combination of beliefs. Contemporaneously, many believe that each individual is responsible for his or her own situation, as if the resources of the universe are available to all equally and somehow looming poverty is the result of individual failure to grasp the brass ring. Thrown into the mix is a smattering of distorted Christian biblical references used to justify whatever harsh policy or attitude promoted. Most recently, Attorney General Sessions quoted St. Paul in an effort to justify separating children from their parents at the border. Many pastors denounced Sessions' use of scripture and pointed out that the passage was taken out of context. It doesn't help that the cited passage was similarly used to support slavery which for generations entitled slave "owners" to practice family separation as a matter of right.
Then I saw Won't You Be My Neighbor? Fred Rogers foresaw the dangers of exposing children to violence and hatred. He spoke of consequences of exposure to violent television. Not only do our youth deal with violence on television and in movies, violence against students is a national fear with hyper-awareness of school shootings. How we extend the message of love to children today is our challenge. There is no Mr. Rogers to tell children that they are perfect just as they are.
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions when we consider policy, religion and resistance. The right question is "What would Mr. Rogers Do?"
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Enough outrage has been expressed individually and in print. Legislators agree that the practice of separating families at the border is horrendous but did not agree on legislation to stop it. Reports of the sounds of children's wails are heart-wrenching. Thousands of unheld and uncomforted children are caged. One guard was reported to say that all that was needed to coordinate the wails is a conductor. I imagine that in order to carryout the most despicable of orders, that guard and others harden their hearts.
The separation of young children and their parents was sinister. The President has no bottom to his cruelty.
Do we? Yes- I mean you and me.
In the years prior to his nomination, Donald Trump told the nation that President Obama was not born in the United States. Trump knew that wasn't true, of course. He was testing the American tolerance for lies and the extent of support of his outrageous behavior. That ensuing support gave Trump permission to engage in even more dangerous and outrageous behavior. Those behaviors have ranged from embarrassing to cruel.
There is a similarity of plan with recent events of separating children from their parents at the border. The President is testing the horror tolerance of those who do not support him politically. So far our response has not been commensurate to the offense. These are children being herded into cages. They are traumatized. They are screaming for their parents. But most of us went on with our lives without interruption, with the exception of perhaps the occasional Facebook post documenting our outrage.
While the number of public statements condemning the President's action rose and protests were planned, I ask was our response immediate enough? Why were we still working, vacationing and carrying on as if a new order is not upon us? Why were we not disrupting commerce? Why didn't we shut down universities and government? Most of us did not interrupt our lives to respond to the internment of our most vulnerable. By not responding en mass what horrors did we invite?
I was always moved by Niemoller's poem. I wondered if I would have the courage to resist.
I understand that the president's child separation action was our test and I wonder if we failed?
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
On June 5, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement condemning the U.S. policy of separating children from their families at the U.S. border. According to the UN spokesperson, "The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child’s best interest should always come first, including over migration management objectives or other administrative concerns. It is therefore of great concern that in the US migration control appears to have been prioritised over the effective care and protection of migrant children." The UN statement also noted that the U.S. is the only country "in the world" that is not a party to the UN Children's Rights Convention, and urged the U.S. to ratify the Convention.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, quickly responded to the statement, arguing (1) that it was hypocritical for the UN to criticize the US when other members also engage in human rights abuses, and (2) that the US, as a sovereign nation, can act with impunity when it is protecting its borders. Both of these arguments are flawed, failing to take into account the totality of actions of the UN and ignoring the ways in which international law has been incorporated domestically. In short, the administration's position, articulated by Haley, takes exceptionalism to new heights and, in the process, sends the message that no one's human rights are safe here.
First, the idea that the UN has hypocritically singled out the US for human rights criticism is absurd. In the same press statement that critiqued the US child separation policy, the High Commissioner addressed human rights violations in Egypt and Ethiopia. The day before, the High Commissioner examined human rights abuses in China. A day later, Bangladesh was the topic. The many mechanisms of the UN ensure that all countries are exposed to constructive criticism (as well as, when warranted, praise) through the Universal Periodic Review process, and by review of treaty monitoring bodies or Special Procedures. The assertion that the U.S. can never be criticized on human rights grounds because of the amount of foreign aid and financial support that it provides sounds a bit like some other positions taken by this Administration, i.e., if you're rich enough, you don't have to play by the rules.
Second, Haley's assertion that U.S. sovereignty excuses human rights violations is also misplaced. The human rights at issue here are so basic and fundamental that they transcend particular documents -- and in fact, have even been accepted by several U.S. courts as customary international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership, states clearly that the "[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Further under Article 14 of the UDHR, "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Certainly, an assertion of sovereignty doesn't excuse human rights abuses against children without some showing of absolute necessity and imminent harm. There is nothing like that here. Instead, the Administration has approached the impacts on children almost casually, as John Kelly noted that the separated children might eventually be placed in foster care "or whatever." In fact, the impacts on vulnerable children separated from their parents are long-lasting and profoundly negative. How far would the Administration go to protect U.S. sovereignty under the circumstances we have here? Would the Administration assert that it's acceptable to shoot the "trespassing" children of immigrants and asylees seeking entry at the border, in order to deter the migrating adults and to protect U.S. sovereignty?
Given Haley's defense of the Administration's policy of separating children from their families, we must all ask, has human rights lost all meaning to the U.S. government?
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
The separation of families at our borders is horrific and inflicts multiple traumas on already traumatized people. Even more distressing is the abuse of unaccompanied minors. Many find the topic too distressing to discuss. But the abuse of unaccompanied minors has been examined by the University of Chicago's International Human Rights Clinic along with the ACLU's Border Litigation Project. The partners have issued a report entitled Neglect and Abuse by Unaccompanied Minors by US Customs and Border Protection.
Documenting both abuse of children, ages 5 to 17, and the failure of authorities to investigate complaints, a partial findings are: 25% of the children reported physical and sexual abuse; physical abuse included the use of stress positions, as well as beatings by Border Patrol Agents. Have reported verbal abuse including death threats. Eighty percent reported inadequate food and water.
The report documents many additional indignities including unsanitary conditions that place the minors in holding areas filled with conditions dangerous to their health, such as overflowing sewerage. While the report is disturbing to read, the provided information and the exposure of the brutal treatment of children is critical if there is to be any hope in creating change. Further information can be obtained at the ACLU website.
Kudos to Chicago's IHR clinic students.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
This week, sixteen-year-old Mohamad Al Jounde from Syria was awarded the International Children's Peace Prize for his work ensuring the rights of Syrian refugee children. When he was 12 years old, Al Jounde, a Syrian refugee himself, decided that he was going to establish a school for children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camp. He convinced family members and other volunteers to help build the school and to teach various classes. After only a few years, the school now provides education to 200 children.
Al Jounde’s inspirational work matters so much because Syrian refugee children have suffered both tremendous disruption in their lives and countless violations of their human rights. His work also matters because education has a multiplier effect; as Katarina Tomaševski, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, wrote: “Education operates as a multiplier, enhancing the enjoyment of all individual rights and freedoms where the right to education is effectively guaranteed, while depriving people of the enjoyment of many rights and freedoms where the right to education is denied or violated.”
Al Jounde’s work is also a poignant reminder: Not only do children’s rights matter, so do children’s voices. Children are powerful allies in the movement to secure human rights for all. Mohamad Al Jounde’s advocacy on behalf of refugees. Malala Yousafzai’s bravery in standing up to the Taliban. The thousands of courageous children who marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963 to challenge racial discrimination in the United States. And countless other young people who have worked to fulfill the ideal that human rights belong to all. The youth of yesterday and today offer innumerable models of courage.
We should celebrate Mohamad Al Jounde’s work. And, as we do, we should remind ourselves of the transformative capabilities of young people and ensure that their voices and ideas are heard.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
Last month, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child met with a U.S. government delegation as part of its formal review of the United States under two of the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States ratified the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict in 2002, and this represented a combined third and fourth review of the U.S. government practices. The Committee has now released its Concluding Observations with respect to the U.S. efforts under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children.
While acknowledging a number of important legislative developments in the United States since the last review – such as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) and the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act – the Committee also addressed a number of critical shortcomings. What is notable (and troubling) is that many of the Committee’s recommendations highlighted issues in the U.S. response that the Committee previously addressed in 2008 and 2013. These findings should be a reminder to policy makers and anti-trafficking advocates that although significant efforts are underway, the U.S. response still has a long way to go.
Highlights of the Committee recommendations are below:
- Insufficient data collection and evidence-based research. The Committee reiterated concerns over the “lack of progress on establishing an effective national data collection system on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography” and the “insufficient research and evidence-based policy and programme analysis centred on children and the root causes of the crimes affecting them.” Simply put, without good evidence, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. can develop a truly effective response.
- Lack of evaluation of training programs. The Committee praised the U.S. government’s report that it provides training on trafficking and other issues covered by the Optional Protocol “to all persons and institutions that come into contact with children” (NGOs working on these issues will be surprised by this claim by the U.S. government). However, the Committee notes the importance of evaluating the effectiveness and impact of that training. Evaluation of laws, policies, and programs continues to be insufficient, leaving it unclear whether the U.S. is doing something or doing something effective.
- Unbalanced efforts in addressing sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The Committee restated its finding that across many areas the U.S. government’s emphasis on sex trafficking persists. There still are higher legal burdens for establishing trafficking of children for forced labor than for sexual exploitation, and research remains “overwhelmingly focused on trafficking for sexual exploitation” with relatively little on labor trafficking. All children deserve protection from exploitation.
- Lack of primary prevention focus and efforts. The Committee again noted that the U.S. response typically takes place after some harm has occurred and urged the U.S. government to focus also on primary and secondary prevention. Prevention must be the ultimate goal, and general awareness campaigns are not sufficient. The U.S. government must address the root causes of vulnerability and of the demand for goods and services provided by exploited children, if we are to make meaningful progress in preventing harm to children.
- Finally, the Committee also acknowledged the recent surge in the number of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, and it urged the U.S. government to take concerted efforts to ensure the protection of these children.
The entire Concluding Observations are worth a close reading. Addressing the above recommendations and other recommendations in the Concluding Observations will take significant effort and resources to address. However, they offer a roadmap to preventing harm to children and ensuring the rights of all children. Both of those aims seem worth the effort and resources.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
How distressing to learn that a school child who takes food in the cafeteria line then has the food taken away because the child has insufficient funds to pay. That is policy in many schools across the nation.
New Mexico recently passed a law outlawing "lunch shaming". The shame is in the need to pass a law to stop the practice. But there are many reports of humiliating children who cannot afford to buy food. The New York Times reports the following incidents:
- One child who could not afford to pay the full cost of lunch, had "I need lunch money" stamped on one arm.
- Others are forced to clean the cafeteria in front of their peers.
- Some school policies instruct workers to remove the food from the child and throw the food into the trash.
This leaves us to wonder what sort of environment leads adults to punish and humiliate students because of their inability to meet a fundamental human need. Perhaps those whose needs were not met as children? Those so desperate for work that they will participate in inhumane practices? While it is easy to be angry with those doing the shaming, the remedy can only be continued advocacy to meet the basic human needs of all.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
On December 5, 2016, California state senator Dr. Richard Pan introduced the Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in California. The bill will consider aims create a “comprehensive framework” for addressing rights and needs of children.
If approved by the Legislature, the Bill of Rights for Children and Youth in California would achieve two important aims. First, it would provide recognition of California children’s basic human rights, including “the right to parents, guardians, or caregivers who act in their best interest,” “the right to live in a safe and healthy environment,” “the right to appropriate, quality education,” and “the right to appropriate, quality health care.” These are foundational rights that would help ensure that every child in California can develop to his or her fullest potential.
Second, the Bill of Rights would provide a roadmap for action. The Legislature would be required by January 1, 2022 to develop evidence-based policy solutions to secure the rights of all children across the state, determine the resources needed to achieve this framework, and identify and obtain such resources.
Of course, there will be challenges on the road to achieving these goals, particularly in an era of limited budgets, but the Bill of Rights builds in a five-year period to develop appropriate solutions (even though many children really cannot wait until 2022 to access quality education or a safe environment).
No doubt there will be some who resist the first part of the Bill of Rights—the recognition of children’s rights, or human rights more broadly (see, e.g., the recently adopted Mountain View Human Rights City resolution). So let’s be clear on what it means to resist the idea that children have rights.
The foundational principle of human rights is that rights are inherent. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). Long before that, the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In other words, if you are human, you have rights. If you resist the idea that children have rights, you are saying that rights are not inherent, but that they are granted to you by the government only when you reach adulthood.
Perhaps you accept that rights are inherent and thus that children have rights, but you have reservations about the Bill of Rights’ roadmap for action. If your concern is that ensuring health care or safe environments for children is “socialist,” you are overlooking two points (beyond the fact that the U.S. will not become a socialist country): (1) recognizing children have a right to necessary medical care does not mean the government has to be the provider; and (2) if you have time to argue over whether socialism could ever gain traction in the U.S. instead of having to focus on figuring out how to ensure there is food on the table for your children, you are in a privileged position, and not every family or child is.
Second, if your concern is it will cost too much to ensure “quality education” for every child, what you are really saying is that you don’t think it’s a priority. Anyone who has ever worked with a budget, whether it is for an appropriations bill or a grocery list, knows that you must make tough choices. But if you don’t support the idea that every child should have access to quality health care and education, you are saying that our children’s development matters less than every other line item we choose to fund. Surely the future of our children—and thus this country—matters more than that.
I, for one, applaud the California legislature for taking this on, for daring to envision a world in which every child has the care and support needed to develop to his or her fullest potential.
Monday, October 31, 2016
“Can’t we just let kids enjoy Halloween?” Inevitably that’s the response I receive this time of year when I mention the ongoing exploitation of children in the chocolate industry. The answer to that question, by the way, is yes. Yes, children should be allowed to enjoy Halloween, but the evidence on cocoa production is that our enjoyment of chocolate comes at the expense of children in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and other countries.
Enjoying Halloween and supporting efforts to end child labor are not mutually exclusive. Don’t take my word for it. Click here to read what one thoughtful 10-year-old student in New Mexico wrote about the issue (and a list of Fair Trade chocolate brands can be found here).
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Next week is Yom Kippur (Sundown, October 11 to Sundown, October 12), the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. As tradition has it, atoning on Yom Kippur will address only sins against God. For transgressions against other individuals, Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those people first. Yom Kippur also marks the end of the High Holidays, and thus offers the prospects of a fresh start and an opportunity to do better than we did the year before.
While I’m well aware that President Obama is not Jewish (or Muslim—are people still really talking about that?), I’d like to invite him to participate, at least in spirit. And I think the timing is appropriate, because Yom Kippur falls approximately 100 days from the end of the Obama Presidency—leaving one final window of opportunity for the president while still in the Oval Office.
On his inauguration in 2009, newly-elected President Obama boldly proclaimed that “[a]s for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Human rights advocates hailed his election and speech as the dawn of a new, promising era of progress on human rights. The past eight years haven’t necessarily lived up to expectations.
So, with little more than 100 days left in the Obama Presidency, I have two hopes. First is that he is reflecting on shortcomings (e.g., no human rights treaty was ratified while he was in office; even President George W. Bush managed to achieve ratification of two human rights treaties). Second is that he will use these final 100 days to do better. Yes, I know he faces significant opposition in the Senate (the Senate’s failure to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was deeply disappointing). But at the risk of sounding naïve, if you aren’t willing to try to advance the ball on human rights when holding arguably the most powerful position in the world, when is the right time?
The “To Do List” for human rights is lengthy. But here are three options for President Obama that can be done within 100 days:
- End the federal government practice of confining migrant children in detention centers. No six-year-old who has fled violence in search of safety should be “welcomed” by being incarcerated. A recent essay by Wendy Cervantes at First Focus sheds light on this practice.
- Ban child labor in tobacco production. The adverse health consequences of tobacco use are well known. Less well-known is the harm inflicted on those who work in tobacco fields, particularly children. In August 2016, 110 organizations called on President Obama to protect children from “acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields.” (click here for the letter to President Obama from the Child Labor Coalition and other organizations).
- 3. Send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the Senate. The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. This is the closest any human rights treaty has come to universal acceptance. Since the U.S. signed the treaty in 1995, no President has taken further action. No one can prevent President Obama from forwarding the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent. Are there sufficient votes in the Senate now for ratification? Probably not. Might some Senators object? Probably. But it’s President Obama’s decision, and sending the treaty to the Senate would be a step forward.
These three opportunities all have two important things in common: First, President Obama has the power to act on all of these. Second, all three steps would help move the United States in direction of ensuring the rights and well-being of children. It’s time for action.
Monday, July 18, 2016
The connection between domestic violence and mass public killings has not been overlooked. The New York Times published an article on the topic which opened the conversation. While the article could be read to say that the link is casual and not correlative, the connection is supported by FBI data that 57% of mass killings involved a current or former intimate partner or other family member.
Nashville saw a near elimination of domestic violence murders, when, under the leadership of Officer Mark Wynn, every domestic violence call was addressed through a SWAT team response. From the bottom up, our culture needs to shift its focus to take domestic violence as seriously Nashville did. But that is not our culture. For example, not every state requires the surrender of firearms when a restraining order enters against a defendant. Yet federal law makes it a crime for someone subject to a restraining order to be in possession of firearms. When federal gun laws go unenforced, the state is empowering violent men to do further harm. Violence prevention is not a valued path in the U.S.
The failure of civil society to aggressively and effectively address intimate partner violence does, not coincidentally, lead to broader societal violence. Failure to curb gender violence empowers those who are violent. Violent men often hate women, gays, those of different races and others who do not match their limited sex and identity characteristics. Confusion over what it means to be a "man" is a common thread for those who harm both women and those who are gender different. Think Orlando. Religion can be the disguise these men use to execute their hate. Think ISIS and its culture of sexual violence.
As a culture we do very little to intervene when we see concerning behaviors developing in our young men. Ending violence is directly related to how we raise our boys. Traumatized boys are at risk of becoming violent men. Traumatized men who are not given the medical, psycho-therapeutic and other supports they need become dangerous to themselves and many others. Think police killings. We need to rethink our notions of privacy when it comes to children. What is now considered intrusive will later be fundamental as preventative.
What if we organized the restorative and therapeutic equivalent of a SWAT team? Imagine how effective intervention might be if children were diverted from thoughts and conditions that lead to violence by a team of loving, skilled professionals and community members focused only on providing the specific needs of an at-risk child and the child's caregivers. This may sound Utopian, but until we alter our present system of crisis only intervention for children, we should expect violence to continue in more and more dangerous forms.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Even amidst the barbeques, beach trips, and sales during 4th of July weekend, most Americans are quick to declare proudly that July 4th is about our independence, our freedom. However we choose to celebrate/observe the holiday, I think we ought to spend some time asking, independent or free to do what, to be what.
To be clear, though history matters, I am not suggesting we ask what the signatories to the Declaration of Independence wanted, because we know that they permitted, and in some cases embraced, certain ideas we now reject (read: slavery, no voting rights for women, etc.). Independence means we can choose what type of society we want to create.
My wish? I want to live in and contribute to a society that elevates every child and is committed to protecting and ensuring the rights and well-being of all children. On that front, we have a long way to go, as evidenced by the newly-released State of the World's Children report, published by UNICEF. The annual report has sobering news for those who care about children around the globe. And it shows that the United States has work to do as well. Sure, the United States is performing better than many other countries, but the comparative analysis is not the full picture (after all, what parent of a sick child would willingly accept substandard health care for their child, simply because the provider said, well, in Somalia, some kids have no access to care at all). That the U.S. does better than other poorer countries is not anything to celebrate.
We shouldn’t use comparisons to make ourselves comfortable. Instead, we should see them as an indication of what’s possible. So, for example, with respect to infant and child (under-5) mortality, 43 countries with lower rates than the United States show that progress is possible. The U.S. is tied for 44th with Malaysia, Serbia Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates. And our progress has slowed: in 1990, Cuba’s infant mortality rate was higher than the U.S. rate; they have improved and now do better than the United States.
Each year, the State of the World’s Children report centers around a theme issue; this year, it was inequity. The United States again stood out, for the wrong reasons. UNICEF reports:
- In some rich countries, children from different backgrounds face starkly unequal prospects. For babies born [in the U.S.], the odds of survival are closely linked to ethnicity: In 2013, infants born to African American parents were more than twice as likely to die as those born to white Americans.
- [D]isparities are reflected dramatically at the state level. The infant mortality rate of the state of Mississippi in 2013, for example, was double that of the state of Massachusetts.
And infant mortality is just the beginning. A child’s survival does not guarantee it will have the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. The Declaration of Independence famously asserts that “all men are created equal.” It seems hard to believe that they intended this literally—equal only at the moment of birth, but thereafter we should be okay with significant inequity in survival rates, access to health care and education.
Of course, children are not the only area where human rights work remains. But success in ensuring children’s rights and well-being is foundational to creating a society where young people can realize their full potential and grow into adults who are empowered to realize their rights and contribute to their communities.
We’re not there yet. But as it’s been 240 years since the Declaration of Independence, it might be time to move a little faster.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
For many, the arrival of summer conjures up memories of childhood adventures (or, for parents, images of their children playing and exploring). Play and leisure are not typically associated with human rights, but they are part of human rights law and important to children’s growth and well-being.
In fact, the “right to play” is intertwined with other important rights, as Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
‘1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
- 2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.’
Play, rest, leisure, and participation in family and community cultural life are all connected. This idea is not new to human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states in Article 24 that: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” In other words, a similar concept was recognized in the foundational document of the human rights movement. Though the drafters of the Universal Declaration and the early international human rights instruments tended to have adults in mind, children are people too. The Universal Declaration applies to children fundamentally because human rights do not depend on governments granting rights; individuals have rights because they are human beings.
While rest and leisure are important in the labor rights context for adults, opportunities for leisure and play are even more critical for children. As Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg explains in an article in Pediatrics:
‘Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. … Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills…. Play is integral to the academic environment…. It has been shown to help children adjust to the school setting and even to enhance children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.’
In short, play contributes in a multitude of ways to the healthy development of the child and can improve a child’s capacity to realize his or her right to education.
Evidence of the importance of play and the rights to rest, leisure and play reinforce two important themes. First, all rights matter: the fulfillment of every right can contribute to the development and well-being of children. Second, there are many ways to support and help realize human rights for all: to create safe environments for children to play and explore their world is to advance human rights.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
The answer is: not yet.
SCOTUS is entertaining a cert petition that requests that the court address whether, when civil counsel is appointed, the party is entitled to effective assistance of counsel. While your first response may be "Of course!" the answer may not be obvious in some jurisdictions, as reported on SCOTUSBlog. While the Tennessee case in question is specific to termination of parental rights, if the US Supreme Court accepts the case for hearing, the court's decision could have a wide ranging impact on the quality demanded of court appointed lawyers in a range of civil cases. As noted in yesterday's post, cases that address parental rights are those (at this juncture) that most easily are identified as triggering the right to counsel.
The case is Vanessa G. v. Tennessee Department of Children's Services. The statute in question is Tenn. Code Ann. Section 37-1-126(a)(2)(B)(ii) which states in part "a parent is entitled to representation by legal counsel at all stages of any proceeding under this part in proceedings involving termination of parental rights[.]" The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed that parents are entitled to appointment of counsel in termination cases, but noted that nothing in SCOTUS' 1981 Lassister decision mandates that counsel be effective. In so ruling the court also rejected the notion that the criminal standard of "ineffective assistance of counsel" must or need be imported to civil matters.
With the concept of a civil right to counsel in matters involving fundamental human rights becoming more recognized, the Vanessa G. case, if accepted, could act as a guide to states as they struggle with redefining which civil cases demand the appointment of counsel and the level of skill litigants may expect when counsel is appointed. We know what the answer would be in Massachusetts, which has already held that counsel must be competent. But this may be the time for clarity on the national level.