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Why Paris Hilton and I were at the Capitol yesterday

| October 21, 2021 |

You may have heard that Paris Hilton made a visit to Congress yesterday. Social media certainly stood up and paid attention when they heard that the “socialite and former reality TV star” would be visiting — but I hope we all paid attention to why.

As a former lawyer for court-involved kids, I was trained to persuade people with power to prioritize the experiences and well-being of my child clients. In a political environment that is actively ignoring the multifaceted needs of children, I was proud to join Representatives Ro Khanna, Rosa DeLauro, Adam Schiff, and Senator Jeff Merkley. And I applaud them for choosing to prioritize the humanity and the well-being of all our children by supporting the Accountability for Congress Care Act. So long as structural accountability is lacking, institutional abuse will continue to hurt children in congregate care settings. 

I was also proud to stand alongside fellow advocates from the National Disability Rights Network, Think of Us, and Breaking Code Silence as well survivors of abuse at congregate care facilities — including Paris Hilton.

In a Washington Post OpEd earlier this week, Paris detailed her harrowing experiences of abuse at these facilities when she was just a teen and declared that “every child placed in these facilities should have a right to a safe, humane environment, free from threats and practices of solitary confinement, and physical or chemical restraint at the whim of staff. Had such rights existed and been enforced, I and countless other survivors could have been spared the abuse and trauma that have haunted us into adulthood.

Institutional abuse is an unacceptable collateral consequence of congregate care. Ending institutional abuse requires us to stop allocating different levels of protection to children based upon the systems that bring them to congregate care and start seeing all children as our children. Every child deserves protection for institutional abuse regardless of whether the child was dropped off via private transport, a foster care case manager, or a juvenile court worker.

That being said, there is an additional moral tragedy that occurs when children in the juvenile justice system who have been deemed at serious risk of harming themselves or their communities then go on to become victims of institutional abuse in congregate care. Too many places that are meant to keep our children safe are actually pulling them deeper into the experience of trauma and violence.

Far too often the abuses that justice-system involved youth experience in congregate care are shrugged off and paired with statements like “they have to learn their lesson” or “it’s for their own good.” The lessons these young people — who lest we forget are endowed with every bit of beauty and brokenness as non-justice-involved youth -— are learning is that people are expendable and meant to be controlled by any means necessary and that abuse is an acceptable tool.

For any child who is reading this, I need you to know that these are lies.

The Accountability for Congregate Care Act is the right first step for Congress to take so that our government can institutionalize more protective reforms for children rather than institutionalizing the children our government is trying to protect.

Check out the full press conference featuring all of the speakers below:

Colin Powell: a National Champion for Our Children

| October 19, 2021 |

Photo by Chris Weeks/Getty Images for The Concordance Academy Of Leadership

We were deeply saddened to learn that Colin Powell has passed away at the age of 84. Many people will focus on what General Powell accomplished as a military leader and as Secretary of State. 

But I hope that people will also never forget that Colin Powell was a true Champion for Children. In 1997, Gen. Powell co-chaired President Clinton’s 1997 “President’s Summit for America’s Future” in Philadelphia, which included Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. In response to that gathering, he created America’s Promise Alliance which, he said, “would be focused on five things that every child in America should have.”

At a 2012 discussion with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gen. Powell described the five promises to which the organization would commit. They were: 

  • First, every child in America should have responsible caring adults in their lives. 
  • Second, children need safe places in which to learn and grow. 
  • Third, all children deserve a healthy start in life. 
  • Fourth, we must give our children a quality educational experience. 
  • Fifth, our young people must have an opportunity to serve. 

America’s Promise Alliance has been committed to helping mobilize those in communities across the country to deliver services and educational supports. In 2005, Alma Powell recognized that more was needed and agreed to help establish First Focus on Children to serve as a policy and advocacy partner. Thus, Colin and Alma Powell played an instrumental role in our creation and in all that we have accomplished. 

We are grateful to Gen. Powell and his wife for their commitment to improving the lives of our nation’s children. He will always be known to us as one of America’s leading Champions for Children. 

Thank you, General Powell. 

Our deepest condolences to Alma Powell and their children and family. 

Congress won’t cut kids out — if we do this…

| October 15, 2021 |

Right now, Congress has the opportunity to cut child poverty, ensure more kids have access to health care, and save our struggling child care system. Some Senators have openly called for dramatic cuts — stalling efforts to improve the lives of children.

But, I’m hopeful that we can fight these cuts. Why? We’ve been here before. Let me tell you a quick story about what happened last time and how we saved kids from being cut out…

Back in 2009, Congress found itself in the precarious position of making cuts to a bill that would help millions of Americans but needed help getting across the finish line. Sound familiar? In this case, it was the Obama-era American Recovery & Reinvestment Act — a stimulus bill that would help the nation rebound after a terrible recession with investments in all aspects of American life (including children’s health, education, child care, etc). Sound really familiar? But, when the bill got to the Senate, it was cut by $100 billion — and the worst part, over 40% of the cuts would impact children — 4-0%!

But, the children’s community stepped up. Champions for Children stepped up. We asked Senators why kids were getting shortchanged and why the future leaders of our country were being cut out of our recovery effort. And, an amazing thing happened…

They backed off and the kids’ cuts were scrapped. 

This bill would put us on a pathway to ending child poverty through investments like the child tax credit. It would finally prioritize children’s health by funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program the same way we do every other healthcare program. It would reverse the dramatic spikes in food insecurity seen during the pandemic. It would save a struggling child care system and give our economy the crucial boost it needs. It would also prevent youth homelessness, invest in school infrastructure, and much more.

Simply put —  the bill would prioritize kids in a way we tragically haven’t before. But, all of this could be slashed, if we don’t act now.

We’ve been here before. We can do it again. Tell your Members of Congress to prioritize children in the reconciliation bill before it’s too late.

74 million children are counting on you — Congress won’t step up unless they hear from all of us. Be a voice for kids.

Statement: In recognition of Children’s Environmental Health Day

| October 14, 2021 |

Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus on Children, made the following statement in honor of the 6th annual Children’s Environmental Health Day:

“All children deserve to grow and thrive in a healthy environment. Unfortunately, that is not the case for billions of children worldwide. Children’s Environmental Health Day is a day to raise visibility on important children’s environmental health issues and how we can make the world a better place for the most vulnerable among us – our children.”

WATCH: Infectious disease expert says new malaria vaccine could save 25,000 kids’ lives

| October 13, 2021 |

On October 6, 2021, World Health Organization (WHO) announced the endorsement of the first malaria vaccine for children. In response to the announcement, First Focus on Children President Bruce Lesley issued the following statement:

“We celebrate the historic announcement of a malaria vaccine for young children. The malaria vaccine has the potential to save thousands of children’s lives every year and allow them opportunities to reach their full potential. The malaria vaccine illustrates how funding decisions and collaboration can benefit children and youth around the globe.”

This week, I had the honor to speak with malaria and global child health expert, Miriam K. Laufer, MD about the new malaria vaccine. Our wide-ranging conversation included:  why the malaria vaccine is a breakthrough in public health, how the vaccine will reduce inequities in malaria prevention, who will benefit from the vaccine, and why further research is needed for school-age children impacted by malaria. Interestingly, Dr. Laufer also thoroughly explained why it seemed to take so much longer to develop a malaria vaccine compared to the COVID-19 vaccines.

We agree with Dr. Laufer — the malaria vaccine helps protect children and gives them a chance for a better future—and all children are our future.

For more information on Dr. Laufer’s work and research:

Climate Displacement is a Kids Issue

| October 13, 2021 |

File: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, natural disasters and extreme weather events have been occurring at alarming rates. This past summer was particularly worrisome in the U.S. – nearly one-third of Americans experienced a weather disaster during the summer months, and over 60 percent experienced a multi-day heatwave.  In California, wildfires ravaged the state, burning millions of acres. The Pacific Northwest saw record-breaking heat that killed hundreds. On the other side of the country, Hurricane Ida brought winds and flooding, destroying homes.

The US is not alone in experiencing these natural disasters. Around the world, extreme weather from hurricanes and floods to droughts are impacting all regions of the world, all while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. We know that climate change is exacerbating these extreme weather events. In a recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that some of the impacts of climate change and humans’ role in it are irreversible. It is therefore not surprising that in response to the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly devastating natural disasters, people will be forced to leave their homes. And who will be most impacted? Children. 

Climate change could spark the migration of 216 million people by 2050 if the problems it causes go unaddressed. The United States’ neighbors are already facing danger and food insecurity due to climate change, forcing them to flee. Climate displacement carries serious risks, especially for children, who will suffer impacts to their health and nutrition that can last a lifetime. They can also become vulnerable to trafficking and sexual abuse, and lose access to education. Unfortunately, there is no framework of protection for climate displaced people, which will increasingly include children as they make up half of the world’s forcibly displaced people. First Focus Campaign for Children signed a letter calling for the government to create climate displacement protections that will ultimately protect millions of children.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer ignore children when we talk about climate change. It is inherently a kids’ issue, and we can’t wait until it’s too late to consider the impact it will have on them. First Focus on Children has called on the government to specifically consider children in its climate change policy efforts, which include: 

⚫. Providing protections for climate-displaced people.

⚫. Investing in programs that prevent climate change and subsequent health outcomes, including through U.S. foreign assistance, such as adapting water, sanitation, hygiene, health, and education systems for children so they can better adapt to climate change

⚫. Promote environmental justice for marginalized communities, including internationally,

⚫. Include children and youth in key climate-related convenings and decision-making. Kids are already speaking out and are angry about government inaction regarding climate change. As these issues affect their present and their future, the urgency of their voices should be heard in all future climate-related decision-making.
For more information on how to improve the environmental health of children, please refer to our Children’s Agenda: Promises We Must Make to Our Children.

Congress has a chance to get child care right. They need to take it.

| October 6, 2021 |

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Once our children celebrate their 5th birthday, they are welcomed into a public school system that can provide valuable benefits to them and their families.

But children younger than 5 — who have at least as many needs — get no such assurance of care and education. They are left largely without a public policy solution that meets their developmental demands, with lower-income children and children of color hit hardest. The United States invests fewer public dollars in early childhood education and care relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than almost all other developed nations, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, ranking 35th out of 37 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Yet each of us, whether we have children or not, has a stake in the success of child care in this country. Combining high-quality, access, affordability, and a well-supported workforce will allow our early learning system to provide the care, education, and economic stability the nation needs for the success of our children and our national economy.

Congress currently has an opportunity to meet this challenge – its first opportunity in 50 years. We must not lose this chance. Strong investments in early learning must remain in the reconciliation package currently moving on Capitol Hill.

Income and Access

Our current child care system is out of reach for many American families and strains the resources even of those who can manage to pay for it.

Families across the income spectrum had low access to low-priced care, according to a 2021 study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and families with infants and toddlers had particularly low access. Free infant and toddler care also was generally unavailable, while families with preschool-aged children, particularly low-income families, had higher, but still low, access to free child care.

The infant and toddler stage is a critical time in children’s lives and lack of early childhood opportunities can impact their long-term development. Lack of access continues into the pre-K years with more than 3 million 3- and 4-year-olds still not in pre-K and children from the highest income group continuing to be more likely to attend preschool than children from lower-income groups.

Congress funds the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) which offers states grants to allocate subsidies for child care to low-income families. Yet in many states, the income cut-off for eligibility leaves many low- to moderate-income families outside the subsidy system. In addition, HHS estimates that only 15% of all children eligible for subsidies under federal rules actually received CCDF assistance. States have also continued to under-invest in pre-K. In 2020, only five states spent enough to guarantee high-quality, full-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-old children with the majority of the country still not providing universal access, and six states providing no state funding at all for early childhood programs.

Benefits of Early Childhood Education

Research continues to reinforce that early access to child care and pre-K creates positive, on-time, post-secondary educational outcomes for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that early childhood education improves children’s cognitive development, emotional development, and academic achievement. These early development and academic improvements can have a positive effect on success and career outcomes much later in life.

Opportunity for Change

President Biden has made universal child care and pre-K a cornerstone of his “Build Back Better” agenda and Congress is currently working to include these provisions in a large reconciliation spending package. The president’s proposal would include $450 billion in new early learning funding, including for child care in states to support parents, child care providers, and child care workers; funding for physical child care infrastructure; and new universal pre-K partnerships with states to expand early learning programs. These federal investments provide a clear pathway for many children to reach their full potential and demonstrate that the United States has a commitment to the development and well-being of children.

President Biden’s child care plan proposes funds to states to limit most families’ out-of-pocket child care expenses to 7% of their income (the level that the Administration on Children and Families has deemed affordable). For families that meet or are below the state median income, the plan would fully cover the cost of child care through 2024. The plan requires that states must accommodate low-income infants and toddlers, infants and toddlers in underserved areas, infants and toddlers with disabilities, and dual-language learners. The plan also includes state infrastructure grants that improve child care safety and ensure attention to quality. These grants aim to make sure that every child care facility in the United States meets or surpasses state health and safety standards.

President Biden’s universal pre-K plan similarly incentivizes states to use federal funds to implement federally approved, universal pre-K programs that give parents choices in the setting that works best for their children and families. Those settings can include public schools, child care providers of all kinds, and Head Start programs. For the Fiscal Years 2022, 2023 and 2024, the plan would fund 100% of the program’s costs. Following 2024, the funds would depreciate by 10% annually until the program is up for renewal in 2028. To receive these federal funds, states will have to ensure that they have a thorough proposal that tracks quality improvement, provides outreach to families with special attention to underserved populations, supports the careers and educational aspirations of staff, and provides transportation for students.

These federal requirements will allow states to create programs that best support their children and families and will provide the first opportunity for many underserved children to attend an early learning program. The requirements also take into special consideration the needs of children who are experiencing homelessness and children with disabilities, two key groups of children often failed by the early childhood education system.

These provisions lay a strong foundation for universal access to early learning, and they are critical for children’s development and well-being, for families to have the ability to afford high-quality care and to work or attend school, for early learning professionals to earn a living wage and have opportunities for professional development, for employers and our economy to have a stable workforce, and for equity in our country. Strong investments in early learning must remain in the reconciliation package. In the coming weeks, the debate will continue about whether these programs will make it to the president’s desk. The last major child care bill passed Congress with bipartisan support 50 years ago. President Nixon ultimately vetoed that measure. Our children cannot afford to wait another 50 years.

All you need to know about child poverty in one simple chart

| September 16, 2021 |

On Tuesday, U.S. Census Bureau released their annual report on income, earnings, income inequality, and poverty in the United States, and, as usual, it paints a very grim picture for our nation’s children. Specifically, it is a grim picture because, once again, children represent the age group with the highest rate of poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world. 

But, if you were looking for good news, just take a look at the chart below — or even just the right side of that chart — and you’ll see all you need to know about child poverty in America. 

During a global pandemic and economic crisis — the number of children living in poverty actually went down.

How can that be?

To put it simply, Congress stepped up and invested in things that help children. This included two rounds of stimulus payments and an increase in emergency unemployment benefits and food assistance that helped keep kids housed, fed, safe, and healthy when the world around them was chaotic.

If we hadn’t done this — the results would have been disastrous. The dotted line in the chart shows us this. With this benefit, 3.3 million fewer children were living below the poverty line in 2020.

Poverty — particularly child poverty — is complicated. The latest census report is nearly 100 pages and that doesn’t even include all of their data. Child poverty is not something that we can snap our fingers and eradicate tomorrow — but the good news is, and the chart shows this — we know what works to put us on that path. Two years ago, a landmark study from the National Academy of Sciences gave us the playbook — and Congress has started to come around to this reality. First, during a moment of crisis lawmakers passed stimulus payments and invested in programs like the Child Tax Credit — and, now that we have data that proves their outsized impact, Congress has an opportunity to make these common-sense expansions permanent.

Imagine what this chart could look like after a full year of monthly expanded child tax credit payments like we’ll have in 2021 — an investment that Congress made this year and that is not included in this chart. That investment has the potential of cutting child poverty in half — but is only authorized through the end of this year.

Imagine if that didn’t expire. Imagine if we kept investing in kids the way we have recently.

Imagine if we could simply wipe away that dotted line.

Congress has that opportunity right now, all they have to do is follow the numbers and one simple chart.

70 Child Advocacy Organizations Call on Texas Governor to Protect Migrant Children

| August 30, 2021 |

As child advocacy organizations, our north star is the safety and well-being of children. We believe that every child should be cared for in a way that preserves their health, safety, and dignity — no matter who they are or where they come from. And when lawmakers promote policies that threaten to harm children, we will speak up.

This is why we penned a letter — with 70 organizations, 24 from Texas — to Texas Governor Greg Abbott asking him to withdraw his May 31 executive order that would remove licenses from children’s shelters that serve unaccompanied children.

When unaccompanied children arrive at our border, it’s because the homes they fled are impoverished or unsafe. Our country’s laws and stated values dictate that these children be cared for just like any other child who is separated from family — in small, state-licensed settings — while our government facilitates their reunification with family and adjustment to their new life. State licensing is an important part of that care. Licensing ensures that children are cared for in safe environments, by the right professionals, and with access to services that support their health and well-being.

Texas has approximately half of the federal government’s licensed placements for unaccompanied children. Gov. Abbott’s order threatens to disrupt children’s care, put children in harm’s way, and deny children the care any child — in any state — should have. Furthermore, the state’s interim regulation to exempt shelters that serve unaccompanied children from licensing removes these facilities from state monitoring and oversight, which is important for reinforcing children’s proper care.

We all know that protecting children and the people who care for them is a deeply held value in Texas and the nation. The Governor’s order goes against those values. Instead of doing more to address the trauma that these children have experienced, his order undermines the very systems that we have put in place to care for them. Harm to children should never be tolerated and our organizations will always speak up for any child in harm’s way.

Patrick Bresette is Texas Executive Director for the Children’s Defense Fund. Miriam Abaya is the Senior Director for Immigration and Children’s Rights at First Focus on Children.

What’s next for the largest unvaxxed population (kids)?

| August 25, 2021 |

Like many of you, we have been watching in dismay as children’s health is politicized by adults. Just as kids begin to head back to school, increasing numbers of them are contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized, and they need more protection than ever

We have called on the Biden Administration to create a plan tailored to children that will ensure an equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when they become eligible, and in the meantime, we call on all players (parents, school leaders, and public health officials) to keep children as safe as possible.

Children are the largest unvaccinated population in the country right now. Many of them go to schools in old buildings with outdated ventilation systems. Others will be in classrooms that simply don’t make social distancing possible. Some live in states that are attempting to prevent them from wearing masks. All of these things make them incredibly vulnerable. But, adults can take steps to mitigate their harm — and it’s on all of us to ensure they do.

What have we called for and why?

Back in April, we called for the federal government to roll out a vaccination plan uniquely tailored to children and their specific needs. We recognized that vaccines would not be readily available for all kids for some time, but the preparation necessary to protect children from this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic could absolutely begin immediately. We called for plans to address massive racial inequities in vaccine distribution, for a public education campaign that took advantage of trusted community voices, and a distribution plan that met kids and families where they were.

Last week, we thanked the Biden administration for the work they’ve done to date to promote youth vaccination, and suggested additional ways for them to prepare for when more kids are eligible for vaccines and to reach families who may need more information before their child is vaccinated. This should include using all available federal resources and existing programs for sharing information and reaching families, holding listening sessions for caregivers to learn about their concerns and effective ways to address them, and have an explicit goal of eliminating racial and other disparities in children’s vaccinations. All of this work adds up to protecting children and promoting equity in their health, which are goals we should all have. 

What does President Biden’s recent memo to the Secretary of Education mean for kids?

On August 18th, President Biden released the “Memorandum on Ensuring a Safe Return to In-Person School for the Nation’s Children” — which directed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona “to assess all available tools” to ensure that students can return to school this fall “without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities” and that Governors are “not standing in the way of local leaders” who are “taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school.”

Here, President Biden offers his most-firm-to-date stance, directing Secretary Cardona to ensure that local leaders are doing everything in their power to — as First Focus President Bruce Lesley recently advocated — “implement the array of public health measures to protect children from COVID and keep schools from having to resort to lockdowns and quarantines, which everybody should agree is something we should avoid as best as possible.”

This memo also makes clear that cost is not an issue. When it comes to the safety and health of children at school, the administration will use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “reimburse States, including their school districts, at 100 percent Federal cost share to support the safe reopening and operation of school facilities and to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.” Schools, as well as local education agencies, local governments, and states — must do everything within their power to ensure the health of students as they return to school.

Can kids get vaccinated?

The current state of play for kids and the COVID-19 vaccine is mixed. Teenagers and adults ages 16 and over are eligible for the now fully-approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Children ages 12 to15 are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). People ages 18 and over are eligible for the Moderna vaccine, and Moderna has applied for approval of its vaccine in children ages 12-17. And both companies are running pediatric clinical trials now to test their vaccines on children under the age of 12.

The bottom line is that currently, children under the age of 12 are not eligible for a vaccine, and that leaves adult vaccination as one of our best available tools to protect children and their health.

What’s next?

Of course, it’s not a simple situation. The virus is evolving and so is the playbook for how to deal with it. But, that doesn’t mean we just throw our hands up and pretend it isn’t there. The only simple solution we have is to implore local, state, and federal leaders to all ask one key question when developing policies that affect our kids — is this in the best interest of children? If you’re against masks — what are you doing instead to keep kids safe? If you’re demanding that schools reopen fully — what have you done to ensure the school is safe for all kids? If you’re unsure about the vaccine — what are you doing to get trusted information about it to increase your knowledge?

Our kids are watching us. They are depending on us. Let’s make sure we don’t let them down.