These are Children and Families

Posted on: October 21st, 2015

Katherine Kaufka Walts


Last summer, the US experienced an unprecedented surge of migrant children, over 60,000 arrived mostly from Central America’s most dangerous communities, seeking sanctuary and protection in the United States. Our Center had several media outlets pounding at our door. Some of the reporters asked about the conditions of the home country, and where the children were coming from. More than one reporter, however, asked the question, “Why should we care about these people?” coupled with, “Aren’t they all criminals coming to take our jobs?”

These latter questions shocked me – these are children and families, I thought, not “these people.” We have all seen the images on our screens of youth with backpacks, bottles of water, mothers holding babies, and adolescent brothers and sisters providing comfort to younger siblings. Yet, these images were not powerful enough to persuade those who were more skeptical, perhaps less-informed, about the intentions of the children and families swelling at our southern border. The images were certainly not powerful enough to remind many that children are human beings.

These experiences with the media, as well as the introduction of several bills undermining the rights of undocumented children last summer, motivated the Center for the Human Rights of Children into action. We initiated a “Rapid-Response Research Team” of faculty and students at Loyola, comprised of child development, child trafficking, family law, social work, and child welfare experts. We combined our knowledge in several fields, systems, and disciplines to draft a letter encouraging the White House and ranking members of Congress to do one thing – protect the rights of children, including undocumented children.

Science and research demonstrate that children are developmentally and psychologically different from adults. Their brains and bodies are not fully formed. Children are not “adults in miniature,” but uniquely vulnerable to their age and developmental capacity. Just over twenty five years ago, the UN passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) the most widely ratified human rights instrument in human history. The CRC changed the way children are viewed and treated – not as property of their parents, as passive objects of charity, but as rights holders in need of special protections due to their age and vulnerability. While the US is one of the only countries in the world that has not ratified the CRC, it has adopted several principles of the CRC recognizing that children require special protections.

One-hundred years ago, the United States was the first country to create a separate court system for juveniles, recognizing that mixing children and adults in courtroom and adjudicatory systems was against a child’s best interest. Federal law dictates the use of child-centered practices in the interviewing of suspected victims of child abuse, and to reduce trauma to children caused by their contact with justice systems. Through practice and research, we know that law enforcement agents are often not trained to interview a child about abuse or crimes, hence the creation of multidisciplinary Child Advocacy Centers across the Country. Child welfare and protection systems in every state appoint legal advocates to represent the best interest of children who are abused, abandoned, neglected or dependent on the state.

Both research and anecdotal stories from children and families coming from Central America indicate that the majority of these children are fleeing horrific conditions of extreme violence, deprivation, and exploitation, not including their traumatic journeys here, and are eligible for international protection and relief. Yet, we continue to ask untrained border agents to screen undocumented children. Undocumented children, some as young as toddlers, continue to appear in US immigration courtrooms without attorneys, navigating adversarial proceedings alone before judges. Children and families continue to be detained, violating international and domestic laws.

The surge of children and families coming to the US from Central America, along with the most recent crisis in Europe, with refugees coming from the Middle East and North Africa, demonstrate that this is a critical time in history for us to reflect on our values, and our social justice mission, and to employ our best thinking, research, and expertise to advance the dignity and human rights of all people.

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