Why standing up for children is a policy priority

Why standing up for children is a policy priority
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Our children are being left behind.                                      .

Mortality rates are rising from preventable injury. Children are dying in the custody of the state. Some are suffering and dying from vaccine preventable diseases. Some are trapped in detention centers and psychiatric hospitals due to state failures to find less restrictive settings, hindering their development at critical periods in their lives.

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As the country emerges from the longest government shutdown in history — and possibly braces for another — policy makers set agendas to define the year ahead. While more candidates throw their hats into the 2020 ring, children’s issues are not top priority.

It is unlikely that in the ongoing discussions about the need for national security and a wall that will surely dominate the State of the Union Address, that these critical issues facing the health and futures of the youngest generation of Americans will receive an utterance. 

Children lack the voice and political capital to make their issues heard. I know this as a pediatrician, attorney and mother.

Policies and institutions are collectively failing our children’s mental, physical, and developmental health. To be sure, there are reports of the many issues facing children, but the lack of coordinated attention to the many ways in which the system is failing hinders momentum for change.

The need for comprehensive efforts to address children’s issues is not new. For years, attention to children’s health needs resulted in improvements in several health indicators, although opportunities still remained to improve the health of children in this country to levels comparable to other developed countries. 

The recent reports of failure across multiple domains of children’s health is particularly alarming because it runs against the need for sustained improvement, instead reflecting a reversal of previous success. As a country, we must restore forward progress.

While advocates including social workers, psychologists, social justice activists, immigrant rights lawyers, health policy advocates and nonprofit founders work to address the myriad individual issues that challenge our children’s future, it is not enough to address the collective burdens they face.  

To truly change the course, children need to be part of the national agenda in a proactive rather than reactive way. International child human rights frameworks provide a strong basis for prioritizing children’s rights at a national level. Following the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of the Child established the State’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of children. It is a responsibility that has not been fully met.

International efforts to uphold the promises of the Convention have been successful in countries with fewer resources than the United States. But, these successes are notably linked to “sustained political will by governments and politicians” and are bolstered further by the involvement of women in politics.

For children’s voices to be heard, policy makers need shared intention and commitment to engage our communities and to recreate policies that will reestablish their village. Media needs to more conscientiously make their needs known. Advocates who will rise to the highest levels of government can choose to commit to changing the narrative that children’s needs are a priority. 

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As a critical mass of policymakers are entering Congress and embracing their roles as parents, including Reps. Rashid Tlaib (D-Mich.) Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Democrats, scientists slam Trump administration actions on scientific boards House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities MORE (D-N.J.), and Cindy AxneCindy AxneGOP scores procedural win by securing more funding to enforce Iran sanctions Iowa Democrat calls foul on White House over Trump ethanol tour invite House Democrats pull legislation that would give lawmakers raise MORE (D-Iowa), many are optimistic that the time for change is now.

It is critical that fierce advocates for policies address public health crises related to preventable injury and disease and funding to implement sensible prevention policies. Advocates need to  encourage research into the causes of rising child mortality and new strategies to address the findings of such research. Advocates need to unwaveringly hold the State accountable for its responsibility to protect the well-being of children.

As a pediatrician myself, I know those in this field are uniquely positioned and many are willing to be policy partners. In the years I’ve spent caring for critically ill children, I’ve come to understand the urgency of time in the life of a young child. As a mother, the urgency echoes in my heart.

It is why I stay up at night thinking about the two-year old living in a detention facility for a year who will have suffered from disturbed attachment for half of their life during the critical early three years when secure attachment develops.

I hear their sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes uplifting stories, not only of injuries and illness, survival and death, but of the impact of illness on the family, the impact of poverty on health, and of the impact of parents’ physical and mental health on their children.

It is possible to change the narrative, to choose to make children a priority, to ask the question of whether a policy change will be good for children and families. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

The time is now to put children on the national agenda. As policymakers choose their issues and candidates build their agendas, I hope that is the case.

Erin Paquette is a pediatric critical care doctor, lawyer and ethicist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor at NU’s Pritzker School of Law. She is a Pediatric Critical Care and Trauma Scientist Development Program Scholar and Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.