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.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
There are multiple studies revealing that a vast majority of millennial men believe that equality in domestic tasks should be the norm. But those same studies reveal that the reality of millennial lives, particularly those who are parents, do not engage in equal child care or housekeeping. Those who study this phenomenon say that millennial men revert to "traditional" roles once they become fathers. Perhaps millennial mothers might view this as a reversion to oppression, not tradition.
Fathers who take time to care for, and bond with, their new children are more likely to understand their shared parenting responsibilities in a way that other fathers can not. Researchers conclude that a major barrier to active paternal parenting is the lack of sufficient leave policies with most businesses.
The most serious barrier to co-parenting, however, is not the lack of workplace policies. Even in companies that permit parental leave for both parents, fathers in heterosexual relationships more often refuse to take advantage of the leave. Why? Because their managers are not taking parenting leave. In order to engage millennial fathers in child care, they must be relieved of their fear of being adversely judged by other men in the workplace. This can most effectively happen when male senior employees take advantage of parental leave policies or encourage other men to do so.
Males in our culture are burdened with constant judging by other males on whether or not they are "real men". A shift to a culture that permits males to be themselves is not difficult to attain. Older, accomplished men can create change quickly simply by encouraging millennial men to make room for family.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
I recently returned from the Global Summit on Childhood in San Jose, Costa Rica, where hundreds of educators had gathered to explore innovative ways to foster child development and learning. Home to the UN-mandated University for Peace and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica—which also abolished its armed forces constitutionally in 1949—was a fitting location to reflect on and exchange creative ideas about educating young people. And it provided numerous reminders of the importance of human rights education.
Though it often receives less public attention than human rights litigation and policy initiatives, human rights education has been a part of international human rights law since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26(2) of the Universal Declaration reads: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
Subsequent human rights treaties—from the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child—all mandate and reinforce the importance of education aimed at strengthening respect for human rights, tolerance, and peace.
Human rights education, however, means more than educating about human rights. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, adopted in 2011, establishes that human rights education encompasses three critical concepts:
(a) Education about human rights, which includes providing knowledge and understanding of human rights norms and principles, the values that underpin them and the mechanisms for their protection;
(b) Education through human rights, which includes learning and teaching in a way that respects the rights of both educators and learners;
(c) Education for human rights, which includes empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others
In short, creating rights-respecting learning environments and educating individuals in ways that empower them as human rights actors are as important as transmitting knowledge of human rights norms.
It is critical that human rights education receive greater attention and be incorporated more broadly in school curricula in the United States and elsewhere. Research on human rights education demonstrates its capacity to produce numerous positive outcomes for children and adolescents, including an improved sense of self-worth, increased empathy, and a reduction in bullying and harmful behaviors in classrooms. In the end, if people are not taught about their rights and the rights of others, how will they be able to realize their own rights or effectively advocate for others?
For additional resources on human rights education, click here.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
When I arrived in North Carolina over a decade ago to teach and practice law, it was a bit of a culture shock for someone who had rarely been south of the Mason-Dixon line. In juvenile delinquency court, judges would tell tales from their own childhoods that sounded almost too clichéd to be true: mamas beating their misbehaving children with a switch that the child had to cut himself, schools located miles from home when the only option was to walk and teachers paddling students as a regular component of classroom discipline.
Because I practice in counties where the local school boards do not allow corporal punishment, I have not encountered it firsthand, but a recent report by NC Child, a nonprofit advocacy group, reminded me that there are about 15 districts (out of the state’s 115) where teachers and administrators are permitted to hit students.
The state’s laws on corporal punishment allow “reasonable force” to be used, which is defined as that which does not cause an injury requiring medical attention beyond simple first aid. This means that schools are the only place in North Carolina where an adult can strike an unrelated child and not be criminally prosecuted for assault.
Parents may opt out of the use of physical discipline on their child only by completing a form at the beginning of the school year. Otherwise, it is assumed they agree. When parents have opted out, the student may instead be suspended for offenses that would otherwise not require suspension if corporal punishment could be used.
Read more here.
According to an annual report issued this month by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, in 2014-15 there were 147 uses of corporal punishment, a 20.5 percent increase from the 122 reported in 2013-14; 108 students received it once, while 16 received it two or more times. The majority were boys, over 60 percent were in kindergarten through fourth grade and 25 percent in grades 10-12.
Particularly troubling is that more than half were Native American, even though these children make up less than 1 percent of the state’s 1.4 million public school students. All the instances occurred in four counties, with 60 percent taking place in Robeson County, the home of the Lumbee Tribe, and 32 percent in Graham County near the Cherokee Indian reservation; 10 percent of the students were identified as disabled.
Equally concerning are the reasons cited by schools for paddling children. More than 50 percent were for “disruptive behavior,” a catch-all category that can mean almost anything; 10 percent were for leaving school grounds, and nearly 8 percent for cell phone use. Other reasons include “insubordination” and “inappropriate language.”
NC Child reports that there is no evidence that the use of corporal punishment in schools is associated with improved academic outcomes. This is backed up by decades of social science theory and research suggesting that the deliberate infliction of pain upon the body of a student is associated with increased aggressive and delinquent behavior, broken relationships between students and schools, and increased psychological and emotional problems, both in the short- and the long-term.
North Carolina is one of 19 states in which corporal punishment in schools is legal, a list that includes all of the Southern states plus several in the West. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 167,000 students received physical punishment in the 2011-12 academic year, with the majority of paddling occurring in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. The data reflect that a disproportionate number of the students receiving corporal punishment across the U.S. are African-American.
As for reform, 31 states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment in schools, along with many large urban school districts in states where paddling is still condoned, including Atlanta, Houston and Memphis. While Ohio and New Mexico abolished the practice several years ago, legislative attempts in Texas and Louisiana have failed.
A variety of professional groups have advocated against the use of paddling in schools. On the national level, they include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association. In my state of North Carolina, the State Board of Education, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina PTA and virtually all other child advocacy groups and professional organizations are formally opposed to the practice.
It is time for North Carolina--and the remaining 18 states where corporal punishment in schools remains legal--to prohibit teachers and administrators from hitting students. It is a degrading practice that violates students’ physical integrity and human dignity.
A version of this essay was originally published by the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Sometimes it takes a tragic and heartrending story of a single human being to move broad public policy. In the instance of the solitary confinement of youth, the catalyst was the case of Kalief Browder. An African-American 16-year-old, Browder was wrongly charged with theft of a backpack in May 2010 and held for three years at Rikers Island after a judge set his bail at $3,000, an amount the teenager’s family could not post.
Browder was then confined with hundreds of other 16- to 18-year-olds in a section of Rikers where brutal attacks by guards and fights among inmates were common. He was targeted by gangs, beaten by officers and told that if he reported the incidents to medical staff he would be sent to solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, Browder’s criminal charges were caught up in the extreme backlog of the Bronx court system. Because he repeatedly refused to plead guilty, his case was set for trial. Yet, delays caused by court congestion kept pushing back the trial date.
Not long after arriving at Rikers, Browder was placed in solitary for two weeks following a scuffle with an inmate. Six months later, another fight led to his second trip to solitary, where he remained for about 10 months. Even in isolation the threat of violence is a reality, however, and a tense exchange of words triggered an attack on Browder by a guard.
As the months turned into years, Browder became depressed and lost weight. After he tried to hang himself with a bed sheet, he was returned to solitary.
Browder’s case was ultimately dismissed in May 2013 after 31 court dates and three years at Rikers, the majority of which he spent in isolation. The alleged victim had left the U.S. and the prosecutor acknowledged that they were “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.”
Although Browder made some strides after his release, including earning his GED, finding a part-time job and starting classes at Bronx Community College, the damage of incarceration and isolation had already been done. His mental health rapidly deteriorated, and on June 6, 2015, he committed suicide at his parents’ home in the Bronx. He was 22 years old.
In January, President Barack Obama invoked Kalief Browder, his time in isolation and his suicide in an op-ed in the Washington Post announcing a ban on the solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system, among other critical reforms that would affect the 10,000 adult inmates serving time in isolation.
After relating the facts of Browder’s life, the president wrote, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for fewer than 100 juvenile inmates, with only a handful placed in “restrictive housing,” the president’s executive action reflects a broader recognition of the need to treat adolescents and young adults differently than adults based on their cognitive and psychological capacities. It also is likely to trigger reforms on the state level of solitary confinement policies for both youth and adult inmates, including those with mental illnesses. The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that more than 57,000 juvenile offenders are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the U.S., with many held in solitary confinement.
At the vast majority of juvenile detention centers, often the only hope for young people held in prolonged isolation lies with lawyers or youth workers willing to expose the practice, report it to the appropriate parties and advocate for its ban.
Advocates working with incarcerated young people should regularly ask them about the conditions of confinement and specifically question them about isolation practices: whether solitary confinement is used, under what circumstances, its duration, whether there is any debriefing following its use and whether alternative strategies are ever utilized.
Unfortunately, Kalief Browder, like many low-income youth, did not receive rigorous legal representation. He was appointed a lawyer who never made the trip to Rikers to visit him and rarely, if ever, spoke with him between court dates.
Advocates working with incarcerated youth who suspect the excessive use of isolation should immediately bring the situation to a judge’s attention at a hearing reviewing the conditions of confinement. If these types of hearing are not mandated in the client’s jurisdiction, they should speak to a lawyer about filing a motion for review of the conditions of confinement. They should also speak with the administrator or the licensing or regulatory agency for the facility holding the juvenile.
Unfortunately, prisoners’ legal services have become increasingly limited as legal aid budgets are cut and offices are forced to discontinue these programs. Because of this gap, every correctional facility should have an inmate-grievance system with counselors who address both routine and emergency complaints. Every facility should also have the equivalent of an institutional ombudsperson available for adolescent inmates to raise claims or express concerns related to their conditions of confinement.
Kalief Browder’s short life continues to have meaning. As President Obama wrote in his Washington Post op-ed, “Today, [solitary confinement] is increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”
Editors' Note: This essay was originally published by Youth Today.