A Child's Rights

As the Convention on the Rights of the Child Celebrates 20 years
as international law, advocates call for U.S. ratification

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The tragedies inflicted upon Mary Ellen Wilson more than a century ago jump-started an ever-important evolution in child welfare, bringing to light the hidden horrors children suffered behind closed doors. It was 1874 when little Mary Ellen was finally rescued from her brutal home environment, a large feat given that not a single law existed to protect children from abusive and neglectful parents at the time; laws protecting animals from mistreatment, however, already existed.

Since then, the United States--and the world--has come a long way in working to protect children from harm, to provide them with basic rights, and to present opportunities for optimistic futures. But, according to some child welfare experts, not far enough.

The Rights of the Child

In 1924, the League of Nations (now the United Nations) took a significant step in adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Reaffirmed in 1934, this document addressed a child's right to "survival, nutrition, shelter, health care, humanitarian relief, protection from exploitation, and the right to grow up in an environment that fosters development" but was never legally binding. Even provisions added in 1959 and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly regarding a child's right to an identity, family, education, and freedom from discrimination were merely statements of goodwill.

Two decades later in 1979--the year the United Nations proclaimed the International Year of the Child--governmental and nongovernmental representatives from around the globe, including the United States, began drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to legally protect children's rights and welfare. According to Linda Spears, Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs at CWLA, the United States was heavily engaged in this process, wanting to strengthen the lives of children, to shield them from harm, and to provide opportunities for their futures. Ten years later, the United Nations adopted the CRC and, in 1990, it became international law after ratification by 20 countries.

As the United Nations celebrates the CRC's 20-year anniversary this year, there remain just two countries that have yet to ratify the treaty: Somalia, which has committed to doing so after building a central functioning government, and the United States. Though Madeleine Albright signed the treaty during President Clinton's term in office, the CRC never made it to the Senate for necessary approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It's not binding at all in the United States," Spears says. "The United States is a leader in the world; if we don't ratify, we are not assuming our responsibilities."

With the Obama Administration in office, the CRC again waits to be heard, along with several other treaties. Historically, Spears says, the Senate hears only one treaty at a time. She expects the CRC has one or two more years until it reaches the floor. Until then, CWLA, its member agencies, and like-minded organizations are collaborating to educate the public and Congress about the treaty and the need for U.S. ratification.

Why Ratify?

As a world leader, the United States has a responsibility to dedicate itself to protect children in its own nation as well as those abroad. "We have no credibility elsewhere if we don't commit to our own kids," Spears says.

On last year's anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, panelists presented a briefing to encourage the U.S. Senate to accept the Convention. Focusing on the impact the Convention has on children's health issues, representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law, and CWLA discussed the Convention's recommendations on preserving the well-being of children regardless of national borders. Above, Meg Gardinier, chairman of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, introduces the panelists, including Linda Spears, Howard Davidson, and Jennifer Kasper.

Marty Scherr, Vice Chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC, illustrates Spears' point, referring to the May 2002 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children, a turning point in the push for ratification. During the Child Rights Caucus, he recalls, nearly 40 nongovernmental not-for-profit leaders discussed critical issues affecting children, many integrated in the CRC. When an American expert in children's rights and welfare tried to join a discussion about the CRC, he was immediately silenced by representatives of other countries. "What right do Americans have to influence a document intended to influence how the CRC would be implemented if the United States hadn't even ratified it?" Scherr relays. It was then that he, along with a core steering committee, collaborated and, during a CWLA International Advisory Committee meeting in Toronto, committed to build a campaign to influence U.S. ratification.

Beyond international credibility, Spears explains that the CRC provides the United States a means of focusing on core issues related to the health, safety, well-being, and futures of children. For example, she says, "We know kids in the inner city, kids in poverty, kids in foster care ... they don't have high graduation rates. What can we do to increase the graduation rates among those populations? What can we do to reduce infant mortality? What can we do to lower rates of child abuse?" She believes that ratification would signal a strong commitment on behalf of the United States to address these and similar issues affecting the welfare of children.

Additionally, Spears points to the effect of social service budget cuts nationwide: while thousands of children enjoy better outcomes through gains in services across the country, this progress continues to be threatened as the downturn in the economy forces programs to close. "Ratification of the CRC might help us with this," she hopes. "It says that our kids are important enough to pay attention to, even when times are tough. It holds us accountable to ourselves."

The Campaign

Since the inception of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC, gradual momentum has encouraged advocates to push forward. A turning point, Scherr says, was when child welfare experts, lawyers, state department representatives, CRC opposition, and an original writer of the document gathered in Washington, DC, in early 2003 to delve into the CRC to understand its meaning, purpose, and potential impact if ratified in the United States.

Three years later, the campaign committee hosted another symposium, this time at American University. They expected 150 attendees; instead, more than 300 arrived, representing populations from parents who home-school their children to AARP members. Then in 2007, another group gathered at Georgetown University Law School to dissect the CRC, interpret its articles, and engage in scholarly discussions on implementation.

Last June, nearly 200 child advocates from a myriad of state and national organizations--religious-based organizations, CWLA and its member agencies, The Children's Defense Fund, and more--gathered again at Georgetown University Law School to discuss progress since the CRC's ratification 20 years ago, to review academic literature published on the CRC, and to discuss and organize future events and communication to push for U.S. ratification. "The CRC is a whole hierarchy of how we deal with children," Scherr says. The papers presented at the conference will appear in a special issue of Child Welfare journal next fall.

Additionally, national briefing days have occurred throughout the country over the past few years in late November, coinciding with the CRC's anniversary and International Children's Day. The briefings allow local organizations to pull communities together and attract the attention of the media and Congress. This year, nearly 10 activities were held to rally public support.

Spears adds that more will be done throughout the next year to inform communities about what the CRC is, what it does, and what it doesn't do. Already, as CWLA is on the advisory board of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC, the organization has been working on activities in select regions of the country, expected to expand over the next several months. In honor of the CRC's 20th anniversary, colleges are hosting forums for students to advocate for ratification, and CWLA has held awareness activities in Chicago and Florida.

"When we're ready to move forward," Spears says, "we're going to aggressively work to influence votes for the CRC." Advocates intend to concentrate on one area of the document at a time, focusing on points such as health provisions, safety, the prevention of child abuse, and opportunities for young people. "We expect community events, e-communication, and a targeted political strategy," Spears says. "We need to determine who's key in the Senate to approve this. We'll organize in Washington, DC, and in our home communities to answer people's concerns and provide good information."

This year, the National Association for the Education of Young Children will host a conference for nearly 30,000 people; the campaign joins this conference through a CRC event, and the president/CEO of the association plans to incorporate the CRC into the keynote address. "It's our hope to raise consciousness in the country," Scherr says. In addition to community events, he points to the need for more congressional briefings; already more than 70 have occurred, and he anticipates more over the next year. Sixty-seven Senate votes are necessary for ratification. Yet Scherr emphasizes that grassroots efforts are just as important. "When you tell a Senate office that people are interested, you need to back it locally," he says.

Celebrating 20 Years

Even while the United States has yet to ratify, Spears believes the 20th anniversary of the treaty's creation is incredibly significant, despite the progress yet to be made. "We've seen things move in a positive direction in the world," she says. "We're on board for the next 20 years to get it right."

Opponents of ratification often argue the CRC isn't needed because children in the United States "are doing so well," Spears says. Though she admits that, when all factors are taken into consideration, youth in the United States are in the top 20 nations of the world, they still aren't doing as well as they could be. "Child welfare may function better than ever before, but it's not as good as it could be," Spears elaborates. "The CRC would give us more strength and impetus to push for the changes needed for vulnerable kids."

Facing the Opposition

As the campaign for ratification continues, meaningful debate will ensue, particularly as it becomes more public. "I hope for more dialogue," Spears says. Scherr agrees. Parties opposing CRC ratification have attended conferences hosted by the campaign, and he believes it's important to engage them in educational dialogue.

Some opposing parties are concerned about government intervention in the home. They see the CRC as a government tool to protect the child's rights rather than a parental tool that embraces the rights of the entire family. Others view the CRC as a document regulating how parents may discipline their children, or one that allows children's opinions to supersede those of their parents. "They're false arguments," Spears says. "Embedded in the Constitution and the CRC is that parents are the first and best resource for their kids." Article 5 of the treaty ensures families have the wherewithal to take care of their own children and encourages countries to have in place mechanisms that support the family. Only in cases where the family cannot or will not take care of the child does the government have reason to step in, explains Scherr, complementing laws in place today.

Scherr believes a great deal of opposition is ideological, opposed on the grounds that the United States shouldn't be beholden to other countries. Generally, he adds, the same people oppose United States involvement in the United Nations and view international treaties as vehicles for other countries to influence and interfere with how Americans raise their children. "There's nothing in the CRC that supports that," Scherr counters.

Fueling the opposition is the idea that many countries that have ratified the CRC aren't following it. "There's so much good, so much progress for kids that has happened because of the CRC," Scherr says. For example, through the CRC, India and Uganda have enacted compulsory education laws that affect more than 100 million children--significant progress." The United States shouldn't be looking at countries doing worse than us as an example," Scherr says. "There are countries doing better; they ought to be our models. We need to compare ourselves to them so we can be the best."

Looking Ahead

Spears and Scherr look forward to the months ahead, striving to both educate and influence. With positive implications on the horizon if U.S. ratification of the CRC occurs, they encourage CWLA member agencies, like-minded organizations, and child and family advocates to join the campaign for ratification, to host community activities, to advocate at the legislature, and to pull together for the nation's--and the world's--children. For more information on the CRC, the campaign, or to get involved, visit www.cwla.org/advocacy/ crc.htm or www.childrightscampaign.org.

Heather Morgan is an accredited public relations professional based in Orlando, Florida.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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