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Why Medicaid Matters: Adopting a Child With Special Health Care Needs

| April 25, 2018 |

In a continuing series on the personal impact that recent legislative and administrative proposals to restructure or severely reduce Medicaid health care will have upon vulnerable children and families, this segment focuses on Medicaid for children with special health care needs who are adopted. As described in an earlier blog, Medicaid serves a critical need for many children with special health care needs, regardless of parental income. Children in foster care or adoptive families may have additional challenges in accessing the health care they need.

It is difficult to quantify the number of children waiting for adoption who have special health care needs. There is no consistent definition of “special needs” across states or the federal government. It has been estimated that on any given day, nearly half a million children are in foster care and at least one-third of those children have special needs. Some advocates and organizations argue, however, that all children in foster care have special needs due to the very factors that led to foster care itself.

Irrespective of the definition one uses, it takes a very special family to adopt a child with special health care needs. There are hundreds of thousands throughout the country. This is the story of one such family. It is a story of courage and perseverance. It is the story of a beautiful child who found a permanent and loving family.

It is also an instructive account of the critical importance of federal and state programs in assisting parents and families to adopt children with special health care needs; most significantly, the Medicaid program (a federal-state partnership, states guaranteed a minimum of 50% matching federal funds) and the Title IV-E Foster Care Program (states can claim limited federal funding for eligible expenses). When a child is adopted from foster care and eligible for Title IV-E, that eligibility provides adoption assistance as well as Medicaid coverage, regardless of family income, for that child until the age of 18, or in some cases, 21. This Medicaid coverage goes with the child to any state. Without Title IV-E eligibility, a child with special health care needs may or may not qualify for Medicaid, or a Medicaid waiver in a given state, such as the Katie Beckett waiver; he or she will not be considered a beneficiary who is guaranteed Medicaid health coverage in any state.

That difference is key to this story about the Carrigg family, a military family, covered under Tricare, and subject, as most military families, to frequent moves to different states. The availability of Medicaid coverage to any adopting family who might need, or simply want, to move to another state for employment or other reasons, is a key factor in the ability to financially afford the necessary care involved in adopting a child with special health care needs.

These costs can be enormous and ongoing. It is a critical issue we must address in making it easier, not harder, for parents to adopt children with special health care needs. As stated by Austin Carrigg, mother to two biological teenaged sons and her 5-year-old daughter Melanie who is adopted, she has a “heartfelt concern that many children are not adopted because of the cost of their medical needs.”

There is good reason for her concern. The Carrigg family’s experience also demonstrates what can be shockingly prevalent in our health care system, regardless of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act – namely, ongoing health care discrimination against children and adults with disabilities.


MM: How did you learn about Melanie?

AC: We had been waiting to adopt a special needs child for 5 years. Melanie’s birth parents decided that they could not care for Melanie. They chose us after considering other potential families. We had several conversations about Melanie and her needs during that time. While Melanie was not in foster care, her birth parents did not feel they could parent her and she subsequently could not remain in their home, leaving adoption as the only option available.


MM: What was it like when you first brought Melanie home?

AC: I flew to Hawaii in early November 2012 to pick her up and fell in love with her from the first moment I held her in my arms. I had promised my son I would be back in time for his 10th birthday and we were.

Bringing Melanie home was wonderful and scary all at the same time as there were a lot of unexpected challenges. Her little stomach was as big around as she was tall so I made an appointment with the pediatrician for the day after we arrived home. Melanie has Down syndrome, a congenital heart defect (Complete AV canal), as well as Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD). This is a genetic metabolic disease that makes it difficult for her to store glycogen, similar to diabetes, causing low blood sugar and other symptoms. Melanie must eat frequently, foods high in protein and carbohydrates, while avoiding sugar. GSD can cause other complications, including an impact on her heart.

The pediatrician referred us to a cardiologist and we learned to our shock that three of Melanie’s ribs were broken. When he told us I remember sitting there, sobbing, trying to figure out how anyone could hurt my beautiful baby, and feeling helpless that I was not there to protect her. Melanie had to be admitted to the hospital so that an immediate investigation of her injuries, including the possibility of shaken baby syndrome. Finally, it was determined that she had likely gone into cardiac arrest at birth and during her resuscitation, hospital personnel had inadvertently broken three of her ribs, and had not properly documented it.

MM: Were you all able to begin adjusting to life at home at this point?

AC: It was Thanksgiving when we got Melanie back home. Almost immediately we received an urgent call from the hospital to bring her back – blood analysis had revealed her potassium levels were dangerously high and she was in severe congestive heart failure. She needed immediate open-heart surgery to repair her heart chambers and valves. While most surgeons want to wait until a child is at least six months old, and have had time to grow. Melanie could not wait. Her life was at risk.

But surgery is not cheap. As we met with the hospital’s finance department, they explained that we needed to put down a ten percent deposit before they could proceed —$100,000. We were inundated with forms outlining expected costs. Ultimately, the cost of saving my daughter’s life was one million dollars, and time was not on our side. We could not enroll her in TRICARE quickly enough — her life was literally at stake.

Then someone suggested we explore Medicaid as an option. She was hospitalized and as she was not officially adopted, she was considered, for legal purposes, to be a child with special needs and an orphan; she was thus eligible for Medicaid, and we immediately enrolled her.

Just 12 hours after discharge from this surgery, Melanie aspirated formula and was again hospitalized, this time with severe pneumonia. She spent Christmas and New Year’s in the hospital fighting for her life once again. Without her Medicaid coverage, her bills would have been astronomical. We had not had an opportunity to even begin her formal adoption when these crises occurred. She was finally discharged with oxygen to help her breathe and a G-tube (gastrostomy tube) to ensure there would be no danger of another aspiration.


MM: How did your lives go following Melanie’s heart surgery and subsequent hospitalization?

AC: My husband received orders that we were moving across the country while she was in the hospital and we were told to move despite the fact her medical team did not want her moved. The Army told us move with her or give her back; they didn’t care which but they would not stop the move. Clearly, we were never “returning” her, she is our daughter and we would give our lives for her. The move was grueling. I spent 5 days on Amtrak with her and her big brother because neither could be approved to fly for fear of a medical emergency mid-flight. We arrived in a new state and began formal adoption proceedings for Melanie; she was 5 months old at this time, still recovering but doing well. This required new home studies and extensive documentation. We had been foster parents before, so we knew the process. We applied for Title IV-E adoption assistance and were denied. The state told us that since Melanie had not been in foster care, she would not qualify for Title IV-E.


We discussed how Austin and her husband, Joshua, handled the news and decided to appeal this finding.

AC: Melanie needed Medicaid health coverage so that she could access all the care she needed. We were so in debt from all the expenses, and down to one family income since Melanie needed my care full time. While Tricare was our primary insurer, we were learning there were several costs, including Melanie’s very expensive and critical treatment for GSD, that Tricare did not cover. Those alone can be more than $1,000/month. Melanie had not officially been in foster care, but there were no other options for her with her birth parents. We were simply able to adopt her before she was sent to foster care, which was the best possible option for her at six weeks. We decided to appeal the decision denying her Title IV-E coverage, based on the federal guidelines, that do not explicitly require that a child be in foster care, but meet one of three special needs requirements; Melanie did meet one of those requirements – she could not be returned to the birth parent’s home.

It seems to be a common misconception that a special needs child must be adopted from foster care to qualify for Title IV-E adoption assistance and benefits. It took us nearly two and a half years, but we proved the guidelines do not require that under certain circumstances. We finally were able to adopt Melanie on my youngest son’s 10th birthday, just like we had originally brought her home on their big brother’s 10th birthday in November 2012. When we formally adopted her, we told him, “Today you get to keep your baby sister forever.”

Austin discussed the multiple challenges they faced with Melanie throughout this period of time. One in particular stands out.

AC: Melanie has Down’s Syndrome and is Deaf. Having Down’s Syndrome and being hard of hearing is common – being completely Deaf is not. I researched cochlear implants and believed it would be entirely possible for Melanie to have some hearing. She had surgery for an implant, and it was successful. Melanie made progress faster than her same-aged Deaf implanted peers. We met with the surgeon to discuss a second implant but were told that due to Melanie’s disabilities, “it wasn’t worth spending $60,000 on a device that they could give a typical child.”

This was shocking but in our experience, and that of many other parents, backed by research as well, it is not uncommon. Thankfully there are many more doctors who do not share this attitude, and at 4 she finally received her 2nd cochlear implant. Looking back on it now, I wish someone had sat us down and said “being Deaf is okay, she will gain more than she loses.” I wish they would have told me that she’d hate the implants and prefer to use ASL. But like any other parent you learn as you go, following your child’s lead.


MM: This article conveys just a very minor snapshot of all you and your husband have had to do to ensure Melanie’s care during the last 5 years. What lead you to adoption and how has it changed you as parents, as a family?

AC: We wanted a third child but we learned we were at risk of passing along a life-threatening genetic condition – that’s why we chose to adopt. When five years had passed and it didn’t seem to be in the cards, we accepted it. We were happy just being parents to our sons and decided to focus on them and furthering our careers. Then Melanie came along, and we realized how much we were missing. She has made us all better people. When your child may die, you realize what is really important in life. We hold our kids closer. Family is our number one priority. Careers don’t matter. I know my boys are going to be amazing men. The care and compassion Melanie has created in them is unbelievable. They fight often over which one of them Melanie will live with when we are gone, and who will protect her from the injustices she faces in her life.

My husband is amazing and I couldn’t do all I do without his help. We are 100% partners in everything. I know that many times having a child like Melanie tears marriages and families apart, but she has done the opposite for us. She’s brought us closer. We work together almost seamlessly when she needs us the most. A life- threatening situation pulls every member of this family into a team that works flawlessly together.

Melanie is the best thing that has ever happened to our family. Not because we don’t love our boys, but because she has changed us so fundamentally.

One of my sons has autism – our pediatrician said he has never seen a child with autism respond to another child the way he does with Melanie. It has taught him compassion in a way I don’t think anything else would have. I think for the first time in his life, someone was counting on him, not the other way around. He is proud of what he does for her, she depends on him and this has created greater meaning for him than anyone else in the family.


Today Melanie is a thriving, joyful and engaging 5-year-old who attends school, has friends, plays with her brothers, and generally speaking, lives a “normal” and very full life.

MM: Why do you advocate for changes in policy to help children like Melanie have the care they need, and also for parents like you to give children with special health care needs a permanent home?

AC: Melanie has made us so happy. She has given us so much, far more than anything we have had to “give up.” And to know there are so many children just like her, looking for families. And to know that those families do not adopt because they just can’t afford it is heartbreaking.

Some families decide to foster a special needs child. Not all are going to adopt – you actually have a greater guarantee of care as a foster parent. If a child remains a foster child, they have Medicaid and a foster care payment. If you adopt, you don’t have that same guarantee. That is not right.

The efforts to cut Medicaid are heartbreaking. The incentive to people to adopt is lessened.

I believe it should be straightforward and automatic – with none of the bureaucratic hurdles we had to jump through. Why would anyone think it is cheaper or better to pay a child welfare agency to make ongoing visits, etc., to a foster care family when that family may want to adopt but cannot afford the medical bills? We are still paying for the same health care for that child if they remain in foster care, except they get permanency and a sense of belonging in adoption.

If a child has special health care needs and their birth family cannot care for them, he or she should qualify for federal adoption assistance and Medicaid. Too many parents are fostering instead of adopting. Too many children are denied the permanence of a family for the very reasons we fought – and prevailed.

It’s Time to End Child Poverty —Here’s How

| April 18, 2018 |

A new report out of Washington University in St. Louis has found that the cost of child poverty to the U.S. economy was a whopping $1.3 trillion in 2015, which amounts to 5.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

This is because child poverty in the U.S. remains high, with over 13 million children living below the poverty line. When children experience poverty, even for a short time, it can result in negative effects for their physical and mental health, nutrition, and educational attainment and achievement. All of these consequences are costly to our society, resulting in a loss of economic productivity and increased expenditures in our healthcare and criminal justice systems.

Yet recently we have seen harmful actions and proposals from Congress and the Administration that would further increase child poverty through weakening public assistance programs by imposing cuts, employment documentation requirements, irrational time limits, and other unnecessary government bureaucratic barriers.

Counter to these proposed harmful initiatives, members of the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group drafted Our Kids, Our Future: Solutions to Child Poverty in the U.S., a compendium of more than 20 papers that provide recommendations to significantly reduce child poverty and improve child well-being.

Together, the policy briefs included in Our Kids, Our Future demonstrate that, in order to make significant progress in reducing child poverty and addressing racial and ethnic disparities, we need a national commitment that involves coordination between federal, state, and local levels of government.

Papers in the compendium include recommendations on increasing access to affordable and quality child care and early childhood education, reducing the effect of poverty on student achievement and attainment, addressing the increase in child welfare cases due to the opioid crisis, increasing families’ access to housing assistance, retooling the federal homeless assistance system, creating a universal paid family leave program, reducing the gender wage gap, addressing unique barriers faced by children of immigrants, supporting family asset building, meeting the needs of low-income children with special healthcare needs, and more.

Our Kids, Our Future was released last week through a Congressional briefing sponsored by Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM-3).

In his remarks, Congressman Luján stated “Poverty is the greatest threat to our kids…Congress must do more, because child poverty should not be a partisan issue!”

Congressman Ben Ray Luján speaks as the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group premieres the release of Our Kids, Our Future: Solutions to Child Poverty in the U.S. at a Congressional briefing on April 18, 2018

The U.S. Child Poverty Action Group couldn’t agree more. We know that reducing child poverty is not only the right thing to do, but it is costing our country $1.3 trillion a year.

Child poverty reduction is also necessary for a strong economic future. Solutions to child poverty are tied to economic gains that result in a strong and educated workforce, which benefit businesses, communities and, of course, children and families.

The U.S. Child Poverty Action Group is a coalition of child-focused organizations dedicated to reducing child poverty in the U.S. More information can be found at www.childpovertyusa.org. Follow us on Twitter at @CPAG_USA.

The Serious Danger of Administrative Attacks Upon Medicaid

| April 17, 2018 |

While 2017 saw multiple legislative assaults upon the Affordable Care Act, and long-standing health care for highly vulnerable people through the Medicaid Program, these efforts were stopped by Congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans who crossed party lines. These leaders prevented the legislative dismantling of Medicaid– through draconian cuts, block grants or other funding and structural changes, preserving the nation’s health care and coverage program for low income children and families, children and adults with disabilities, pregnant women, and seniors, among others.

Public opposition to these efforts from governors, state officials, advocates and families was fierce, perhaps unprecedented, and only intensified as the year went on.

As public support for not repealing the ACA, and in favor of universal health care coverage, has grown during recent years, Congressional Republicans, deeply divided over health care themselves, continued the assault. Following earlier unsuccessful attempts in 2017 to “repeal and replace” the ACA, a dramatic thumbs down vote in July from Senator John McCain, on the so-called “skinny bill,” sank another “repeal and replace” bill that was also opposed by insurers, the Congressional Budget Office, and other experts.

One final push in September – the Graham-Cassidy bill, resulted in another botched attempt – the fourth legislative failure to repeal the ACA since the previous summer.

All these legislative attempts were highly publicized, politicized and garnered strong protests from diverse public and private fronts. The renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a program with nearly-unanimous and bipartisan support in Congress, carried over into 2018 in a months-long and highly public battle, when it was finally renewed for 10 years in February.

The year 2017 was a bad year for kids. Some policy experts considered it one of the worst in decades. Health care and children’s advocates, along with many others, held the legislative line. They breathed a small sigh of relief when the 2017 legislative year adjourned. Not for long, and other developments had been occurring elsewhere.

Enter 2018 – a critical year for Congress with an upcoming mid-term election that may dramatically change the balance of power; and legislators now leery of alienating constituents who deeply value their health care. In recent months, dangerously quiet administrative attacks upon health care and coverage for vulnerable people have proliferated. Often flying under the radar, these attempts prove more difficult to garner public comment and opposition since the process is so very different – and far less public – than the legislative process.

So, if you can’t legislate it, regulate it. Votes from the peoples’ representatives are not required.

In January 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a guidance letter to state Medicaid directors, encouraging them to submit state waivers focused on “work requirements” for state Medicaid programs. These waivers would require certain people to be employed in order to receive health care.

Medicaid waivers involve changes or “exemptions” from Medicaid requirements. These changes could involve programs, populations served, benefits, cost sharing, or any number of variables. States have traditionally used waivers to add or change the way services are delivered for special populations such as children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, people with disabilities, people with mental health or substance use needs, people who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare (“dual eligibles”), etc.

There is latitude for states to develop and utilize waivers that may assist them in more effectively serving and tailoring their programs to the needs of low-income and other vulnerable individuals, particularly children. Such waivers must be approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), pursuant to one of several waiver provisions.

The “work requirements” waivers fall under the authority of Section 1115 of the Medicaid statute. Section 1115 waivers are defined as “research and demonstration projects” to promote the objectives of the Medicaid program, and pilot ways to increase access to care, with evaluation requirements.

A plethora of blogs and articles have detailed the many facts and studies that show the purported rationale for work requirements in Medicaid – e.g., “encouraging people to work”—will not, in reality, work. This approach will not help people find work, and will decrease access to health care for highly vulnerable people. This is very bad policy for children. The negative impacts upon children and parents in low income families, children with disabilities, children of parents with disabilities, behavioral health, or substance use needs, will likely be enormous. The impact upon people with disabilities will be devastating. As one commentator stated, “Requiring Medicaid recipients to find employment is a cruel solution to a nonexistent problem.”

Despite purported “protections” for certain vulnerable groups, these waivers will have a disastrous effect on people’s ability to get and remain covered under Medicaid, due to bureaucratic and programmatic hurdles that are immense, poorly understood, and have not worked in other programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Along with punitive requirements that don’t work, there are no supports or funding to help vulnerable people actually meet these requirements. This is a pending catastrophe for parents and children.

What these waivers will accomplish is the systematic removal of Medicaid recipients, including children, from severely stressed state budgets. That means eligible people, including parents and children, will lose their health care and get sick or sicker, endanger public health, and return to emergency rooms, all of which were among the most significant and highly expensive problems addressed with the Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion.

These waivers are being approved when children’s uninsured rate, thanks to the ACA and CHIP, is at an all-time low of 4.5 percent. It makes no sense. Children’s health coverage has been demonstrated to increase when their parents’ coverage does. Moreover, the human cost of losing critical health care is unfathomable in its repercussions upon the health, dignity, well-being, mental health, employment, housing, and untold number of factors for children and families.

Even from a purely financial savings standpoint, it is arguable that savings from fewer Medicaid recipients will be lower than the administrative costs required to actually implement these multi-layered requirements. We don’t know for sure, because states, in their rush to an ideologically driven policy, haven’t figured that part out yet. As stated by Jeff Myers, CEO of Medicaid Health Plans of America, “Rolling out new eligibility determination criteria will be administratively complex. For example, new information needs to be collected and tracked via new systems that need to be tested and installed, along with incurring new personnel costs to run them. The overall cost of this undertaking should be carefully considered by states before jumping on the bandwagon.”

It can be argued that this is not about increasing access to work or “independence.” It is about highly conservative political ideology and flies in the face of years of rational and proven progress toward what the vast majority of the country wants – greater, not lesser, health care coverage.

In early March, Arkansas became the third state, following Kentucky and Indiana, to receive HHS approval of it work requirements waiver, eliminating 60,000 Medicaid recipients according to state estimates. It joins Kentucky, where the uninsured rate fell from 16.3% to 7.2% following its Medicaid expansion (one of the largest reductions in the country), and Indiana, which has already lost an estimated 60,000 recipients due to its state plan for Medicaid expansion. Several more states have submitted or are considering applications.

Aside from the fact that “work requirements” waivers will not work, there is another equally, if not more, fundamental question. Are they legal? Questions abound as to whether work requirements are contrary to the very intent and objectives of the Medicaid program. A federal lawsuit challenging the Kentucky waiver is supported by a group of more than 40 legal health scholars whose friend-of-the-court brief contends the waiver approved by HHS violates the intent of Medicaid, stating in part, “This so-called ‘demonstration’ waiver, ‘destroys, not improves, Kentucky’s substantial health care achievements and defeats, rather than promotes, Medicaid’s purpose.’”

A new analysis estimates that work requirements waivers could impact 1.7 million Medicaid recipients in 10 states – about half of the recipients in those states.

All this unfolds in the wake of another ideologically driven development – the passage and signing of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” Public Law 115-97, a bad policy for kids in multiple ways, and increasing the U.S. deficit to more than $1.5 trillion.

In an April 9 update, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that figure is now actually $1.9 trillion. Outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan cites the dramatic increase in the deficit as a somewhat gaslighting rationale for further cuts to the nation’s assistance to the poor, particularly Medicaid.

On April 10, the Administration issued a very quiet, broad, and devastating Executive Order that could eviscerate the very purpose, intent, and positive benefits of an array of public assistance programs. The order, with the mind-bending title of “Reducing Poverty in America,” calls for greater barriers for recipients to gain access to Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and low-income housing subsidies.

Once again, if you can’t legislate it, regulate it. Or order it. With Republicans realizing they do not have the public support to legislate changes to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, or other public assistance programs, they are handing the baton to the president. Acknowledging this reality and the president’s order, Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) noted, “I think it’s very tough to get this thing through the Senate when it requires 60 votes. I certainly don’t have any problem with the president taking initiative.”

We are in the midst of an unprecedented, alarmingly quiet, assault on principles that form the foundation of our democracy – health care and assistance to the most vulnerable among us. It’s not 2017 anymore. It’s 2018, with a mid-term election that may be the most consequential ever. We do not have highly publicized rallies and legislative battles. We have a polarized administration determined to quietly accomplish on its own what Congress has not been able to publicly accomplish legislatively. The need to be involved, to educate others, and to work against the dangerous consequences of these actions is greater than ever.


The House Farm Bill Draft Would Make It Harder for Families to Put Food on the Table

| April 13, 2018 |

Yesterday, the House Agriculture committee introduced its draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. This major legislation authorizes the nation’s largest federal food assistance program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity for low-income individuals, especially the 19.2 million children who represent nearly half of total SNAP participants. Unfortunately, this Farm Bill is the result of a partisan policy process, and many of its SNAP proposals miss the mark, with dangerous implications for children. They include:

Weakens Categorical Eligibility

Categorical eligibility makes it easier for households in need to receive automatic SNAP eligibility without going through cumbersome asset tests. Federal law requires states to confer “traditional” categorical eligibility, meaning households automatically qualify for SNAP if they receive cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or a state assistance fund. However, states also have the option to extend “narrow categorical eligibility,” so that households receiving non-cash benefits through TANF are also automatically eligible. However, this Farm Bill draft would limit the type of non-cash benefits that confer categorical eligibility to “substantial services.” Considering the various categories of state TANF programming, this would no doubt reduce the number of households who can access SNAP more easily through categorical eligibility.

More significantly, this draft would also force states to essentially eliminate the option for Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, which allows states to essentially waive asset testing so long as a family’s income is up to 200 percent Federal Poverty Line. Even though many states currently employ a more generous threshold for Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, the language in the bill would only allow states to employ this option for families earning up to 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Line (unless they have an elderly member). As a result of these changes, states will almost certainly have to implement expensive and time-consuming asset testing for low-income families who would be categorically eligible under current law.

At a practical level, this means that liquid and illiquid assets like savings accounts and vehicles—which are critical for families to achieve economic mobility—could count against a household’s eligibility for food assistance. While the farm bill draft seeks to make some of these requirements more generous (for instance, allowing the exclusion of up to $7,000 in assets, rather than the current $2,000), it represents a major step backwards for states that had waived altogether these counterintuitive and costly restrictions. Similarly, the draft would no longer allow states to increase the SNAP benefit amount going to low-income families who receive heating and energy assistance if they don’t have an elderly member.

These changes will ultimately make it more cumbersome for families to apply for SNAP benefits, and exacerbate the threat of a “benefit cliff” wherein low-income families lose their food assistance if their earnings increase slightly.

Harsher work requirements, including on families with children:

Currently, so-called “Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents” who are aged 18-49 must work at least part time, and, if unemployed, may only remain on SNAP for 3 months. Research suggests work requirements don’t have a meaningful impact on employment outcomes, and the added burden of documentation and paperwork can threaten benefits even when a household is meeting the requirements.

Even though these rules claim to target childless adults, they often have harmful spillover effects on children.

This draft Farm Bill would strengthen and expand this ill-informed policy. It introduces a new unified work requirement: individuals aged 18-59 must either work or be in an approved training program for at least 20 hours a week, and individuals who have children older than 6 are no longer exempt. Making matter worse, the bill would limit the ability of states to waive these requirements (for instance, to protect vulnerable populations like youth aging out of foster care, or in regions with high unemployment rates), while also requiring them to develop expensive training programs and tracking systems.

More than two-thirds of the children on SNAP are school-aged, and these proposals could be devastating for them. Parents who work will now face additional burdensome documentation requirements, which could have a chilling effect on participation. Those who have struggled to find adequate employment, or who can’t afford childcare, may lose benefits. Not only will this mean less food on the table at home, but many school aged children receive school meal eligibility through their family’s SNAP participation status. If kicked off the program, they may face additional barriers to accessing healthy, consistent meals at school.

Potential Disincentives for Immigrant Families

In an effort to monitor SNAP more closely, the draft would create a national system called the Duplicative Enrollment Database to make sure people can’t apply for assistance in multiple states. It would also research and incentivize systems that would allow the federal government to track who is on food stamps, for how long, what the benefits are spent on, and recipient’s employment status, using the recipients’ social security number or substitute social security number. In the context of the Administration’s plans to penalize immigrants seeking legal status if their family members have accessed public benefits, these oversight provisions are cause for alarm, and could further discourage immigrants from utilizing critical programs like SNAP.

Many of these SNAP policies are presented under the guise of promoting work and encouraging self-sufficiency, but the reality is that families, and especially children, must have their basic needs met. If enacted, the above proposals would seriously impede SNAP’s ability to fight hunger and lift children out of poverty during their critical years of development. Lawmakers instead should use the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorization as an opportunity to strengthen and protect SNAP, so that low income and food insecure children have every available tool they need to succeed.

The March for Our Lives: From Sea to Shining Sea

| March 30, 2018 |

This is part two of First Focus’ March for Our Lives series. Check out part one.

History was made this past Saturday as millions marched in cities around the world, standing in solidarity to prevent more innocent lives from being lost to gun violence and pushing Congress to act on comprehensive gun reform. Each person participating in the March for Our Lives had a unique experience, but all were bound together by an ultimate desire to see change.

The Diamondback reporter Allison “Ally” O’Reilly was in the field in the Washington, D.C., march and First Focus’ Giselle Miranda was across the country to march in Los Angeles.

Ally – Washington D.C.

When I arrived at the march, camera dangling from my neck and phone poised for potential interviews, my first instinct was to scan the crowd. The march had an overwhelming ambiance of hope and togetherness. The weather was warm and bright, there was music and chatter everywhere and almost everyone was there with the same purpose.

There were a lot of speakers at the event who shared their experiences with gun violence. Though their stories were sad at their core, each of them expressed and exuded hopefulness as they spoke out loud to a crowd of over half a million people. An 11-year-old girl named Naomi Wadler gave an impassioned speech about gun violence disproportionately impacts black women and girls. She noted that she and her classmates will be voting in seven years, which served as a reminder to politicians that these student leaders should be taken seriously as they will yield their political power as soon as they turn 18.

As powerful speeches boomed in the background, I approached a man and woman with a stroller holding a sign that read “one child is worth more than all the guns on earth.” The woman was Katie Ryder, 35, who was present with her husband and three kids — a seven-month-old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old.

“Our oldest started kindergarten this fall and so this issue of school shootings has become much closer to at least my heart, probably both of our hearts,” Ryder said, referring to herself and her husband. “I’ve always thought it was awful and I’ve always wanted and voted for better gun control but now it’s real, our kindergartener comes home and tells us about lockdown drills and what kind of world is that? That’s terrible.”

She noted that “banning assault weapons would be a good first step” in changing America’s gun policies and added that the issue of gun violence impacts young people and people of color the most, “which is a whole other problem that could be addressed by decreasing the number of guns circulating in our country. Urban violence is just as big of an issue, suicide is also a huge issue and all of this could be addressed by decreasing access, easy access, to guns.”

The march was not one of sorrow or harping on the past, it was instead a display of hope from individuals who have seen so much pain but look toward so much change. These protesters have seen the damage done by countless mass shootings and instead of cowering in fear they stood up and marched on Pennsylvania Avenue — sending a message of adamancy to their representatives in Congress.

Among the most unifying moments of the day was during Miley Cyrus’ performance of her 2009 classic The Climb. It seemed as though all 500,000-or-so marchers knew every inspiring lyric and were singing along.

Hearing a crowd of mostly young people, fighting for a cause they believe in so deeply, sing the lyrics “The struggles I’m facing, the chances I’m taking / Sometimes might knock me down, but no, I’m not breaking / I may not know it, but these are the moments / That I’m gonna remember most, yeah / Just gotta keep goin’” was emotional — and truly emblematic of the whole afternoon.

Giselle – Los Angeles

I woke up on Saturday morning with a jolt of excitement, an excitement that only grew stronger as I checked my phone that buzzed every few minutes with news alert headlines announcing the overwhelming size of the D.C. march.

“There are 800,000 people marching in DC! Can you believe it!?!” I exclaimed to my boyfriend as we got into our Uber.

Arriving in downtown LA, we were greeted by a sea of people holding colorful signs, music, and amplified voices shouting their words into a microphone for all to hear. The energy, similar to what Ally experienced in DC, was hopeful and filled with raw emotion.

As someone with a keen interest in photography, I wanted to capture every moment of my experience through pictures.

A peaceful crowd moving in two opposite directions. You would think this could get chaotic, but whenever we bumped each other we all just smiled and kept moving. After all, we were all there in support of one another.

Earlier last month Marco Rubio dodged Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky’s question regarding whether he’d accept more campaign money from the NRA.

The President, alongside others, believes arming teachers with guns and installing metal detectors in schools will end mass school-shootings. In reality, there exists little evidence demonstrates that these changes—already implemented in some schools—lead to meaningful impacts on school safety.

How can the federal government afford to arm teachers with guns when it continuously underfunds K-12 public school programs and school infrastructure?

Remember: Communities of colors are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Black students make up 16.6 percent of the school population, but they experience school shootings at twice the rate of white students.


Children and young adults of all ages joined together at the march to voice their opinions. This youth advocacy, similar to the student-led protests during the Civil Rights-era, filled me with a surge of optimism and reassured me that change is inevitable.

Children and young adults of all ages joined together at the march to voice their opinions. This youth advocacy, similar to the student-led protests during the Civil Rights-era, filled me with a surge of optimism and reassured me that change is inevitable.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting and these marches, we cannot let our voices fade. For it is only when there is strength and fervor in of our voices that we will see politicians act through sensible policies that keep our children’s best interests in mind. In the words of one of the speakers at the LA March:

“We fight today so the children of the future won’t have to fight tomorrow”

After a day of being behind the camera capturing critical moments, I turned around one last time as I left the march only to be sent into a state of awe at just how many people were at the march. And from that, I got this last shot.


Special thanks to Ally O’Reilly for contributing to the Voices for Kids blog. She is a journalist and writes for the University of Maryland’s student-led newspaper, The Diamondback. See more of her coverage on the march.

How the Citizenship Question in the 2020 Census Would Harm Children

| March 28, 2018 |

The U.S. Constitution requires an accurate count of the nation’s population every 10 years, which is critical to establishing equal government representation and identifying where to allocate federal spending and resources for millions of children and families in our society.

Ensuring a fair, equitable and successful implementation of the decennial census has far-reaching outcomes for the protection of civil rights and our nation’s economic future. This not only includes securing adequate funding for the census, but also reversing the recent decision from the U.S. Department of Commerce to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire. If this question remains, it would have severe implications for the reliability of the 2020 data, resulting in significantly lower response rates among immigrant and mixed status families.

The 2020 decennial census is coming up quickly yet remains underfunded. While the recent FY18 federal spending bill (H.R. 1625) appropriated $2.814 billion for the Census Bureau, approximately $1.13 billon more than the administration’s adjusted FY 2018 budget request, ($1.68 billion), it is noteworthy that the report accompanying H.R. 1625 includes language to allow the use of half of the appropriated fiscal year 2018 dollars in future fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

This “forward funding” is justified because nearly 70% of the lifecycle costs of the 2020 Census will be incurred in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The report further explains that making current resources available in those later fiscal years will help to ensure a smoother transition between fiscal years 2018 and 2019. As Congress turns its efforts toward the FY 2019 budget, those of us advocating for a successful decennial census need to keep a watchful eye on the allocation of FY 2018 funding in order to ensure critical preparation activities are not shortchanged.

Insufficient census funding is particularly problematic for young children, who continue to be undercounted in the census. Young children (under age five), are the most likely to be undercounted, and more than one million young children were missed in the 2010 decennial census. And this problem is only continuing to grow. The count of young kids is becoming less accurate at the same time that the count of adults and older kids continues to improve.

While it is not completely understood as to why young children are so severely undercounted, we do know children of color are more likely to be overlooked. We also know that 1.3 million children and youth experience homelessness each year, with many more living in unstable housing situations. These children are living in highly mobile households that are likely to be missed entirely by the census. Young children in households that are splitting time between parents, living with grandparents, or residing in multigenerational households are also often not fully accounted for.

Early investments in a child are crucial to place them on the right track to healthy development and success. Child development research shows that kids benefit from resources provided at an early age – and that those resources create a long-term positive impact on every child’s life. Therefore, it is particularly critical we can account for all young children in our society and identify how to allocate resources that provide healthcare, nutrition, early childhood education, and affordable childcare assistance to help support healthy childhood development.

For Hispanic children, the problem of being undercounted is exacerbated by a recent decision from the Department of Commerce to add a question on citizenship in the 2020 census. Coupling this announcement with aggressive and cruel immigration enforcement tactics currently being undertaken by the Trump administration, the expectation becomes a dramatically reduced participation rate from immigrant and mixed status families who fear the negative repercussions of revealing their immigration status.

Title 13, section 141 (f)(2) of the U.S. Code establishes that the Bureau must deliver the 2020 census questions to Congress not later than two years before the appropriate census date, April 1, 2018.

The announcement of the inclusion of a citizenship question, which has been absent from the census since 1950, comes days before that target date and therefore raises serious concerns.

According to the Department of Commerce’s FY 2018 budget justification: “Any changes to the topics or questions after that point would have significant cost and schedule impacts on all English and Non-English questionnaires, the questionnaire vehicles (Internet, telephone, and paper), translation, and printing, and will put the 2020 Census at risk.” Announcing the reinstatement of the citizenship question only five days before the April 1 date technically meets the deadline, but it does not allay the undesirable and serious consequences that will result if this question is added.

The inclusion of a citizenship question will lead to a lower response rate and unreliable data on immigrant and mixed status households. This has severe negative consequences for the protection of the civil rights of these families, resulting in unequal representation and misallocation of government resources in areas with high immigrant populations. Therefore, it is critical for the well-being of children in immigrant families that this decision from the Department of Commerce be overturned.

In the upcoming decades, the ratio of seniors to those of working age will be twice as great as in the 20th century. This means far fewer workers to support our economy and replace the retiring workers. This shift would be even more dramatic if it wasn’t for immigration, for grown children from immigrant families will account for about ¾ of the working age growth projected from 2020 to 2030.

Therefore, it is imperative that we prioritize investment in our nation’s children.

Yet to understand the funds needed and how to properly allocate them, we need a reliable, accurate count that includes all of our country’s children.

Without adequate funding and a process that encourages responses from immigrant households, the 2020 decennial census will fall far short of the comprehensive, accurate count that is foundational to our democracy and paramount for our children and economic future.

The March for Our Lives: Not a Moment, A Movement

| March 26, 2018 |

This is part one of our series on the March for Our Lives. Stay tuned for part two.

This weekend, more than 500,000 people mobilized in Washington, D.C., to attend the March for Our Lives. They called upon Congress to take action and pass “a comprehensive and effective bill” to address gun safety. Led by students demanding change, this was the culmination of weeks of engagement, organization, and activism.

Outside of Washington, 752 marches around the nation hosted 1.7 million people. Beyond the United States, 104 marches took place around the world.

I joined with a group of friends covering a wide swath of the political compass, but brought together by the desire for common sense gun laws.

“This is my first march,” said one friend before we left our apartment building, “Not sure how to go about doing this.”

Another replied, “Don’t worry. The kids will guide you.”

Getting to the event was a march in itself. The moment we stepped into the daylight, we saw dozens of people on the sidewalks, signs in-hand, surging toward Pennsylvania Avenue. In the streets, cars pulled over to the roadsides with passengers jumping out to make the rest of the trek on foot.

Passing one corner by a metro stop, a small child held up a poster larger than herself: “Am I worth more than a gun?”

Around 12:00 p.m., the slated start time, we arrived at our destination. The streams of walkers flowed into an ocean of a people, each person advancing forward when there was space to do so. Slowly, but surely, my friends and I were in the thick of it.

On 12th and Pennsylvania, we were nowhere near the stage and no screen was in sight. Yet gleaming at the top of a street pole, a tall bank of speakers told us all we needed to hear.

The program had already begun, with Andra Day and the Baltimore Choir welcoming the vast assembly of marchers with her song “Rise Up.” Soon after, the voices of the students leading the March boomed over the crowd.

Not a single speaker was over the age of 21, but each delivered a powerful speech to grand applause.

Surrounded on all sides with little room to maneuver, we were near the back of the march, by the Trump International Hotel. Whether the building wanted to be part of the event or not, advocates recorded its presence in thousands of Instagram shots.

Inching closer to the center of the center of the street, I was able to catch a glimpse of a large screen and the glowing white dome of the Capitol building. My short stature meant I could only see the screen about 40 percent of the time. Around me, parents hoisted children onto their shoulders so that they could get a better view.

“So many people!” yelled a five-year-old. She later cheered, “I’m from there, too!” when 16-year-old Mya Middleton, from Chicago, took the stage.

Middleton spoke, ”Join me in sharing my pain and my anger. Help us by screaming to the government that we are tired for crying for help to a group of people that have turned their backs on us – despite their reassurance to make our country safer.”

And so, the crowd roared.

The rearguard of any march tends to have its own atmosphere, one similar to but separate from that at the front. Here, at the back of it all, the theme was allyship–loosely defined as taking action to stand in solidarity with others through the constant reexamination of privilege, the recognition of marginalized groups, the commitment to listening, and the ability to put personal needs aside for others. From those adults boosting kids up to see above the crowd to those holding signs advocating for a safer world for children, this was the gathering space for allies.

While screens and speakers held the audience’s attention, independent chants and cheers reverberated through the crowd, sometimes overpowering the humble sound system.

During one pause in the chatter, the speaker bank echoed, “And it feels great!” Far ahead, the crowd began to clap wildly.

“Wait, I missed something. What’d she say?” said a person to my left.

Onstage, the young woman at the podium, Parkland survivor Sam Fuentes, had just vomited on international television. It was moment of unplanned catharsis that everyone needed. Instead of covering it up, she embraced it. That’s leadership.

Later, there was silence. While it took longer for this back area of the march to comprehend it, Emma Gonzalez delivered a long, abrupt, and powerful moment of silence during her time onstage—silence that gave her audience time to reflect on why we were here and what we could do to bring about the change that these kids envision.

The historic march is over. A historic fight to protect our children and fellow citizens is here. While Congress was well away on recess during the march itself, they will continue to see this intersectional movement grow as kids lead from the front and their allies–adults–support from the back.

Let us be good allies as we continue to advocate for Congress to:

  • Require background checks on all gun sales
  • Restore a ban on “military-style assault weapons”
  • Ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 rounds
  • Toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t have them
  • Significantly increase funding for mental health treatment
  • Collaborate with schools, educators, law enforcement, and others on school safety measures

Raise a glass to all of us. Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.

The New Children’s Crusade

| March 14, 2018 |

Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Save Lives, student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It was May 1963. The Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, nicknamed “Bombingham,” Alabama for its violent explosions against protesters, began to wane after the arrest of Martin Luther King failed to attract new adult protesters, who feared losing their jobs, their only means of supporting their families. James Bevel, a local leader with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suggested recruiting school-aged children as protesters. Although initially opposed to the idea, Martin Luther King agreed, hoping to “subpoena the conscious of the nation to the judgment seat of morality.”

So, on May 2, 1963, more than 1000 African American youth, guided by the rightness of their cause, skipped classes, gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and marched to downtown Birmingham where they were met by hostile crowds and police officers who arrested them and threw them in jail. So many children were arrested that day that city officials had to house them at the local fairgrounds, where they sang “We Shall Overcome.” Undeterred, the following day hundreds more children joined the protest. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety, directed police to beat the children, sick police dogs on them and blast them with high powered fire hoses, all on view for the nation and world to see.

“Pictures of the bravery and determination of the Birmingham children as they faced the brutal fire hoses and vicious police dogs were splashed on the front pages of newspapers all across America and helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Movement’s fight for justice,” recalled Marian Wright Edelman.

Under intense public pressure, Birmingham negotiated a truce with Dr. King and on May 10, Connor was removed from his position.

The Children’s Crusade worked. Historians credit it and the thousands of brave children with shifting public opinion in favor of the movement. Without the children, there would have likely been no March on Washington, no Civil Rights Act of 1963, no Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Fifty-five years later our nation is again learning the power of children to speak truth to justice. On March 24, millions of school-aged children are expected to join the March for Our Lives in over 658 events in local communities across the nation and in Washington, DC. Inspired by the bravery of the students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida where a gunman killed 17 people, the students are demanding that their lives and safety become a priority, and that we end gun violence in our schools and more broadly in their communities.

In its mission statement, the students boldly declare that they will “no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings.

The students are demanding that comprehensive and effective legislation be brought before Congress to address gun issues, so that there will be no future Sandy Hooks, Columbines, and Stoneman Douglases.

The students’ actions are already yielding results. Last week, against the objection of the powerful National Rifle Association, the Florida legislature passed and Governor Scott signed legislation that would raise the minimum age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21 and create a waiting period for the purchase of guns. The legislation, which is being challenged in court by the NRA, does not go far enough but it is a baby step in the right direction, something we have not seen in decades.

It’s time for Congress to act with meaningful school safety and gun control legislation aimed at preventing gun violence in schools and communities, and not piecemeal stopgap measures meant to placate the students. In Congress. for example, recent legislative proposals such as the STOP School Violence Act, which would create anonymous reporting systems and provide some funding for states and schools to develop threat assessments and intervention teams would do little to prevent guns from getting in the hands of students and others who intend harm. Likewise, the President’s school safety proposal, which would strengthen efforts to “harden schools” and establish a national commission to investigate ways to arm certain qualified teachers on a voluntary basis, fails to advocate for sensible gun controls, such as universal background checks or an increase in the age requirement to purchase a rifle, something that the president touted in talks with legislators but who has since walked back those components after meeting with the NRA.

These efforts fall far short of the transformative change that the students are calling for to end gun violence in their schools and communities. It will be up to the students and adults who support their advocacy to demand real action now. At First Focus, we join the children across the nation in their crusade for safer schools and communities, in their calls to not make school safety a partisan issue, and in their calls to protect children over guns. To accomplish this, we believe Congress must take concrete actions to:

  • Require background checks on all gun sales
  • Restore a ban on “military-style assault weapons”
  • Ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 rounds
  • Toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t have them
  • Significantly increase funding for mental health treatment
  • Collaborate with schools, educators, law enforcement, and others on school safety measures

We call on Congress, the President, and adults across our nation to stand with the children to say Not One More child will be lost to gun violence.

Congress should take note of these powerful voices that are calling on Congress and adults to do what is right for children.

Children Must Be Seen and Heard

| March 4, 2018 |

Children have a right to be protected from harm. This includes the right to be protected from being physically abused, sexually abused, neglected, or killed.

And yet, as a nation, we are failing to do the job of protecting our children.

Just last month, physician Dr. Larry Nassar, who was affiliated with USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University (MSU), was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison after more than 200 girls and young women, including USA gold medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and McKayla Maroney, have spoken out about Dr. Nassar’s abuse of them over a period of two decades.

Despite numerous reports by children and young women to adults in positions of power, Dr. Nassar was allowed to continue to maintain his positions with both USA Gymnastics and MSU. The victims told horrific stories, and yet, over the course of years, numerous adults had been told but refused to really listen. Institutions repeatedly chose to look the other away.

Source: The Indianapolis Star that broke this story in 2016.

Reports of abuse including young athletes at MSU where Dr. Nassar worked. Amanda Thomashow, a cheerleader at the university, filed an official Title IX complaint against Nassar accusing him of violating the school’s sexual harassment policy back in 2014.

CNN reports that, among a number of disturbing issues with the university’s handling of the matter, MSU failed to even report the case to the Department of Education despite having signed a previous agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to report all reported allegations of sexual assault claims to the agency.

Thomashow said:

I think that the way that my investigation was handled was not in a way to bring out the truth, but instead it was performed in a way to conceal and protect a pedophile.

Growing evidence indicate that staff at the university were repeatedly told about Nassar’s behavior and abuse over the years, and yet, as softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez explains in a civil lawsuit filed against the university, they were told by MSU staff that his behavior “was not sexual abuse, that Nassar was a world renowned doctor, and that the plaintiff was not to discuss what happened with Nassar and was to continue seeing him. . . .”

In March 2017, Michigan State University Trustee Joel Ferguson insisted that the investigation into the allegations involving Dr. Nassar would show that his actions were his alone and that Michigan State would be cleared and that “MSU’s going to look great,” despite evidence that gymnasts had reported abuse to MSU staff back in 1997.

Sadly, our society simply refuses to hear allegations of misconduct and abuse involving our children. Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to file a police complaint against Dr. Nassar, explains in a New York Times Op-Ed that some adults had been notified about Nassar’s abuse over 20 years ago:

More than 200 women have now alleged abuse by Larry Nassar. Even more staggering than that number is the revelation that at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse. What is truly stomach-turning is the realization that a vast majority of those victims were abused after his conduct was first reported by two teenagers to M.S.U.’s head gymnastics coach as far back as 1997.

Denhollander explains that research shows “pedophiles are also reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.” In fact, some parents of children abused by Nassar dismissed the complaints by their own children.

Children who are abused or sexually assaulted must not be denied the right to speak out against that violence and abuse. But it is equally important to understand that, if adults are going to fulfill their obligations to protect children and to promote their best interests, they need to really listen to the children themselves. In other words, children have the right to be heard.

It may even take further litigation to protect children.

Other recent examples include the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reported by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight unit that forced the Church to finally acknowledge the crimes of its clergy over numerous years and to begin to address its failings, the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State, and recent allegations involving USA Swimming.

Denhollander concludes that society must do more to listen to and protect children who speak out:

Most important, we need to encourage and support those brave enough to speak out. Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.

The right of children to express their experiences and viewpoints and to have them listened to and taken seriously is a powerful tool through which to challenge incidents of violence, abuse, threats, injustice, or discrimination. Children who are silenced or ignored cannot challenge violence and abuse perpetuated against them. In fact, the consequence of the silencing or dismissal of the voices of children and the abuse they experience has the effect of protecting the abusers rather than the children.

In Australia, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held 57 public hearings over 444 days with over 1,300 witnesses speaking about child sexual abuse. According to Matthew Ricketson and Jennifer Martin, who examined the findings in an article for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University:

What is important to underscore is the fact that at the centre of every instance of child sexual abuse examined by the commission is a socially sanctioned imbalance of power between the child and those charged with the responsibility of looking after them.

The flood of testimony by adult survivors of abuse over the past four and a half years [in Australia] has revealed many things, not least an unintentionally and bitterly ironic illustration of the original problem of power imbalance. When adults testify to their abuse, they are usually believed; when children, especially those in the care of institutions, testify, they often aren’t. Yet that is when they most need to be heard because that is when they are most vulnerable.

Children have just as much of a right to speak out and have their views respected as anybody else in society, particularly about those things that impact them directly. Violence against children in families, schools, prisons, and institutions can best to tackled if children themselves are enabled and encouraged to tell their stories and be heard by those people with the authority to take action.

For example, to protect children from online sexual abuse and exploitation, it is important and critical that policymakers engage with children to understand how they use the Internet, the degrees and nature of the risk they face on-line, and the policies that they would think would best work to protect them.

Likewise, children with disabilities are the greatest source of knowledge with respect to the discrimination and social exclusion that they face in society and in school settings. These children can be the most effective contributors to identifying the barriers and challenges they face in order to be successful.

Just this past week, the Kentucky legislature finally began the process of protecting children from being subjected to forced marriages. And yet, the legislation has been stalled — not out of concern for the protection of children — but to issues raised by the conservative organization Kentucky Family Foundation about parental rights in these decisions.

One might ask where the voice, the best interest, and the rights of children are being properly considered. As Kentucky Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) said:

It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults. We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.

Meanwhile, in the case of the forced detention of young children who are fleeing violence, rape, and possibly death in Central America and the separation of them from their parents despite their request for asylum, the voice and best interests of children are clearly being ignored, once again.

“Studies overwhelmingly demonstrate the irreparable harm to children caused by separation from their parents,” write Galacatos, Alan Shapiro, and Brett Stark in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. “Family separation . . . can lead to chronic conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and heart disease. For that reason, more than 200 child welfare, juvenile justice and child development organizations (including First Focus) signed a letterdemanding that the Trump administration abandon this ill-conceived policy.” They haven’t.

This also includes the case of children who have knowledge and experience with violence — both inside and outside of school. In the case of school shootings, only they and their teachers know what it is really like.

Our political leaders are clueless. President Trump brags that he would have run into the building without a weapon to challenge the gunman, and members of the Florida legislature tried to avoid discussions about assault weapons, bump stocks, and closing loopholes in background checks by changing the subject to other issues like video games and offering “thoughts and prayers.”

It is these students and not the politicians that know what it is like to be on the other end of an assault rifle and who saw their teachers and fellow classmates protect the lives of thousands of kids across the campus. The students and teachers at Stoneman Douglas High School are undoubtedly far greater experts than our lawmakers in understanding what happens in those environments and their expertise needs to be acknowledged when developing laws and policies to reduce exposure to risk.

And yet, they haven’t thus far. The President and the Florida legislature keep pushing to arm teachers despite the fact that school shooting survivors and most teachers oppose it and support other solutions that legislators have ignored for years.

The public agrees with the students and school administrators. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Florida voters oppose arming teachers by a 56–40 percent margin.

Lawmakers also ignore growing evidence that indicate NRA-backed gun policies, such as “stand your ground laws” and permissive concealed carry laws, increase homicides, suicide, violent crime, and accidental firearm injury. In this, our politicians are failing all of us.

Sadly and astonishingly, other adults have chosen to troll the students whose classmates, best friends, and teachers were murdered. Fortunately, it is backfiring.

These kids have been incredible at defending themselves. Here and here are samples of their excellent clapbacks.

Frankly, the students are far too savvy for their Fox News obsessed elders. They are wisely ignoring the trolls. But when they do respond, it is with the perfect mix of facts, attitude, and sass that are used to either reason with, mock, or shame their opponents. Heck, I truly wish I were half as good as the Stoneman Douglas kids.

In the meantime, the adults of this country should be doing a great deal of introspection and soul-searching at this moment in time.

It is our generation that failed the children that have been molested and sexually abused by adult predators and pedophiles. It is our generation that is investing less and less in their education and well-being. It is our generation that is destroying the environment. It is our generation that has allowed child deaths in this nation to exceed those in other wealthy country by an astounding 70 percent. It is our generation that has put unrestricted gun ownership ahead of the lives and safety of our children.

We have repeatedly failed our kids.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of policymakers that get it. Politicians from both political parties have been meeting with the students in the last few weeks in Washington, D.C., and in Tallahassee, Florida. They understand the importance of hearing from and listening to young people from all over this country.

They understand that respecting the voice of children doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything they say.

But the fact is that children have a stake in what happens in this country now and for decades to come. Frankly, listening to them and hearing them out is only humane, fair, and smart thing to do. It is our best hope for the future.

Jaclyn Corin tweets, “. . . we’ve created a new hope for succeeding generations.” There is no doubt, and we must hear their voice.

The Children’s #NeverAgain Movement

| February 28, 2018 |

Children across this country are letting adults know — with great passion, courage, savvy, and strength — that we are failing them. Their voices are raw and yet astute, unpolished and yet articulate, strong and yet innocent.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are just the latest group of young people, which have rightfully and fairly pointed out that political leaders at the federal and state levels have unsuccessfully protected them from harm, as 17 students and teachers had their lives taken by a former student with an assault weapon on Valentine’s Day at their school.

Source: Stoneman Douglas High School website

The students are rejecting the old and sadly repetitive paradigm where policymakers have historically offered “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and families of gun violence but refuse to take subsequent action to end it. Words don’t cut it.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times writes:

Children keep dying. And our country won’t do anything about it.

The United States, to put it bluntly, has grown callous about the lives of its children. We mourn their deaths when they happen, of course. But it’s an empty mourning, because it is not accompanied by any effort to prevent more suffering — including straightforward steps that every other affluent nation has taken.

Stoneman Douglas students have organized #NeverAgain protests on-line and in public that demand change, including a March for Our Lives scheduled in Washington, D.C., for Saturday, March 24.

In a raw, emotional, eloquent, and passionate speech that will not soon be forgotten, Emma González demanded legislative change and an end to inaction by both federal and state lawmakers.

These are kids that have experiences that adults outside of schools do not understand. They have experience active shooter drills throughout their lives — learning how to hide in closets and underneath desks in order to shield themselves from death. Guns are not a symbol of freedom and safety to many young people. In fact, guns threaten their lives.

Therefore, the students felt and continue to feel compelled to speak out. As González writes:

We are kids, we are parents, we are students, we are teachers. We are tired of practicing school shooter drills and feeling scared of something we should never have to think about. We are tired of being ignored. So we are speaking up for those who don’t have anyone listening to them, for those who can’t talk about it just yet, and for those who will never speak again. We are grieving, we are furious, and we are using our words fiercely and desperately because that’s the only thing standing between us and this happening again.

Sadly, some adults felt the need to attack these children — kids who just witnessed a terrible tragedy where 17 of their friends and teachers were murdered. Among the Internet trolls were Fox News host Laura Ingraham, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and guest Dinesh D’Souza. They would soon regret it. Amid intense backlash, D’Souza had to apologize. The others should too.

Brilliantly and strategically, the students largely dismissing the voices of preposterous and outlandish conspiracy theories and adults that pedantically dismiss their right to have to a voice simply because they are children.

Addressing these attacks, González says:

We are children who are being expected to act like adults, while the adults are proving themselves to behave like children. . .

We have always been told that if we see something wrong, we need to speak up; but now that we are, all we’re getting is disrespect from the people who made the rules in the first place. Adults like us when we have strong test scores, but they hate us when we have strong opinions.

With just the right combination of wit and snark, they are also letting condemning adults, weak-kneed politicians, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) understand that they represent a movement for change that will not passively go away.

The students have recognized that Internet trolls are nothing more than distractions, that the road to change is long, that they will need to fight and overcome paralyzing cynicism, that they will need to outlast their opponents, and possibly even need to remove politicians from office with their future votes.

In a system where gridlock and inaction are the norm, these kids are already making astounding progress.

They have seized the nation’s attention and there will be voices urging them to focus on just a narrow issue or two, but the students have already rejected limited, narrow, and unproductive proposals.

First, although the students are focused on protecting students in school, they also recognize this debate is about protecting children from gun violence both within and outside of school. Many of them in the #NeverAgain movement retweeted these posts about the six-year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin and the recent death of 10-year-old Yovanni through gun violence.

That is one of the many reasons why they are almost uniformly rejected the idea of arming teachers. Not only do most teachers strongly oppose the idea, but the Stoneman Douglas students point out that it would likely be counter-productive and even misses the overall point entirely.

Policy changes will be required at the federal, state, and local levels, but arming teachers is not one of them. In fact, teachers across the country started a hashtag #ArmMeWith that pointed to a variety of things teachers would rather have for their students.

The fact is that gun violence threatens the lives of children each and every day in a variety of settings — not just in schools. Deaths caused by firearms have risen for high school-aged teens (15–19 years of age) in recent years, with 2,056 dying in 2013 and 2,665 dying in 2016, according to a Health Research Institute (HRI) analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

To put these numbers in context, Julia Belluz and her colleagues at Vox foundthat “guns led to more deaths than the next 12 leading causes of teen deaths combined.” For example, compared to the 2,665 firearm-related deaths, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes caused the death of 596, 293, and 54 high schoolers, respectively, in 2016.

Our children deserve much better from all of us. In fact, society’s failure to protect the lives and well-being of children is systemic. Far too often, politicians pay lip service to caring for children, but fail to make children a priority with respect to the full array of issues of importance to children.

The March for Our Lives organizers from across the country bear witness to this first-hand. They are on the frontline of recent legislative and policy trends that have shortchanged their futures.

For example, at the national level, the share of investments in children is at an all-time low of just 7.75 percent of the overall federal budget in FY 2017. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would have cut to further to just 7.47 percent.

Trump’s most recent budget also fails kids in a number of ways. As one example, the President’s own budget documents acknowledge that his recommended budget for education programs is “a $7.1 billion or 10.5 percent decrease from the 2017 enacted level.”

This would come on top of a long-term downward trend in funding for education at the federal, state, and local levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 29 states were providing less school funding per student in 2015 than they were in 2008 with Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature leading the race-to-the-bottom among states.

Robert Runcie, Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools (which includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School), had to take the extra step of calling out the Florida legislature for proposing cuts to education funding last year that would have required $6 million in cuts to schools in the county. Runcie wrote:

. . .you may be asking why cuts are being made to education, while the Legislature is poised to pass a historic total budget of $83 billion — and the state’s economy is growing, unemployment rates are low, and property values are increasing? The answer is simple — the Legislature has not prioritized public education in its budget.

He added:

Make your voices heard. These are our children and our schools. They deserve better.

I agree with the Superintendent. Children deserve much better.

Unfortunately, 2017 may have been the worst legislative year for children at the federal level in decades. Congress’s inaction or, even worse, threats to do harm to children dominated the year, as it:

  • Attempted to disproportionately cut Medicaid funding for children by hundreds of billions of dollars and failed to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP);
  • Failed to take any action to combat our high infant and maternal mortality rates;
  • Voted down two amendments in the U.S. Senate that would have substantially improved the Child Tax Credit for low-income children;
  • Failed to address fact that nearly 1 in 5 children live in poverty and the child poverty rate is 62 percent higher for children than for adults;
  • Increased the federal budget deficit by $1.4 trillion through the passage of a tax bill that was not paid for — a debt that children will be asked to pay off in the future;
  • Failed to address the enormous problem caused by President Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for 800,000 immigrant children and young adults;
  • Failed to address a whole array of other children’s issues, including lead poisoning (where children are, yet again, prominent in the fight).

This year, President Trump’s budget proposals fail children again. Even on the matter of school safety, the President’s rhetoric does not match his budget. According to First Focus’s Rachel Merker, the Trump budget contains “dangerous cuts to education, health, and law enforcement programs that are aimed at keeping our children safe from violence and helping them cope with trauma.”

While some “adults” like Michelle Malkin attempt to disrespect, dismiss, and disregard young people and their right to have their voice heard by pointing to “Tide pods”. Malkin claims that teenagers “do not possess any semblance of wisdom because they have not lived those years. Their knowledge of history, law and public policy is severely limited.”

Although I am not sure what is going on with Malkin’s kids, I can guarantee that the teenagers at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the kids I know at Walt Whitman High School and B-CC High School in Bethesda, Maryland, know far more about civics and history than the vast majority of adults in America.

Bill McRaven, retired United States Navy admiral who last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command and is the current Chancellor of the University of Texas System, is also a fan of America’s youth. He posted the following message:

For those adults who feel some strange pathetic need to point to the shortcomings of kids, they should do some self-evaluation and recognize their generation’s enormous failure in fulfilling its responsibility to protect our nation’s children from harm. According to a recent study published in Health Affairs, the United States is “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.”

Specifically, the study found “from 2001 to 2010 the risk of death in the US was 76 percent greater for infants and 57 percent greater for children ages 1–19. During this decade, children ages 15–19 were eighty-two times more likely to die from gun homicide in the US.”

As if this isn’t bad enough, children are bearing the brunt of the divestment that is taking place in our nation’s schools. Children are hearing about adults who sexually abuse kids and institutions, such as the Catholic Church, Penn State, and the U.S. Swim and Gymnastics teams, that then cover it up rather than protect kids. Children are watching as President Trump threatens harm to their friends and classmates by letting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrives (DACA) expire and his increased deportation of children and families. Children are questioning why some officials in the State of Michigan and City of Flint would pipe water with lead into the homes of children and families. Children are witnessing people take to the streets for fetuses but do nothing about the deaths of children once born. And children know they will be the ones asked to fight when President Trump threatens war.

This is all far too real and disturbing to them. As Jon Lovett, co-founder of Crooked Media, writes:

One of the many questions those extraordinary Stoneman Douglas students asked was offered by Annabel Quinn Claprood. “I just want to know,” she asked, “Will my school campus be safe when I return?” No one could answer that question to any satisfaction. And not just in the obvious way, that it’s not possible to make such a promise. It was worse than that. No, Annabel, your school is not safe. It’s not safe at all. No school is safe. No concert is safe. No movie theater is safe. No mall is safe. No mosque is safe. No temple is safe. No church is safe. No street is safe. No home is safe.

This country is not safe for you. It’s not keeping you safe from gun violence. It’s not protecting your generation from rising seas and burning forests. It’s not safeguarding your financial future when the government borrows more than a trillion dollars for tax cuts to help corporations and wealthy heirs. It’s not investing in the economy you’ll inherit by building public infrastructure that meet the standards set by other countries. It’s not ensuring your success by helping you afford college. It’s not defending you against the excesses of corporate greed. And you certainly will not be safe from the rot in our political culture. . . .

Making Children a Priority Among Policymakers

How do we change the current narrative? While the kids at Stoneman Douglas are making progress and their March for Our Lives movement is something we should all support, how do we change society’s will to do right by our children in the long-term?

First, there is a need for a national public campaign to raise attention to the problems facing our children and to demand that policymakers take action to address the needs of children. At First Focus, we urge our sister child advocacy organizations to consider working jointly on a campaign, such as past ones that asked “Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding” and another that urged policymakers to ask and answer the question — “Is It Good for the Children?” — whenever they are making policy decisions. We must do a better job holding our policy leaders accountable on children’s issues.

Second, we need to elect more Champions for Children. Children are a mere afterthought to many policymakers. Fortunately, we are seeing movements, such as those in Oklahoma and Texas to change this. In ruby red Oklahoma, teachers that have become increasingly upset by budget cuts to schools have run for political office on an education platform and have had some success. And in Texas, educators and public school advocates have banded together with the commitment to #BlockTheVote and support candidates for public office — both Republicans and Democrats — that commit to supporting public schools and education funding. That campaign is underway now, as early voting is taking place in Texas’s Republican and Democratic primaries. We must urge others to #VoteKids.

Third, we need to improve the field of child advocacy. Children don’t vote and don’t have political action committees (PACs). Instead, they rely on child advocates to make the case for investing in children. Consequently, child advocates must step up their game to change outcomes and the well-being of children in our country. If we learn anything from the very children we advocate for, one lesson is that child advocates need to be more bold and demand change.

After the disastrous prior year for children in Congress, there were some important examples of recent success, including passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act that included, among other things, critically important extensions of CHIP for 10 full years and the Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for five years, passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act to combat child abuse and neglect, and a much needed increase in non-defense discretionary budget caps to increase investments in children’s programs. It will be important to think about lessons learned from these successful campaigns.

Fourth, we need to figure out ways to make systemic changes to our political system to create a better avenue for policymakers to hear and think about both the challenges facing our nation’s children and potential solutions to those problems. There is an array of options here — any and all of which would improve the consideration of children’s policy issues. They include:

  • Establishing a Bipartisan National Commission on Children: The 1991 National Commission on Children issued a landmark report entitled Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families that included numerous recommendations to improve the lives of children. Recommendations from that report helped lead to the subsequent passage of the Child Tax Credit and CHIP in the 1990s. Therefore, a new commission or council could lead to the creation of a new bipartisan framework and consensus policy agenda for America’s children that would be difficult for Congress and state legislatures to ignore.
  • Adopting a Child Poverty Target: This action would commit the United States to the goal of cutting our nation’s child poverty rate in half in 10 years, just as the UK successfully did under the leadership of Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden recently committed governments in New Zealand to set 10-year targets to reduce child poverty, adopt a child wellbeing strategy, and report on progress each year. Legislation by Sen. Bob Casey (PA) and Rep. Danny Davis (IL), entitled the Child Poverty Reduction Act, would do the same in this country.
  • Creating a Children’s Budget: The federal government requires the examination of a number of topic areas where funding for an area, such as weather, bioterrorism, etc., comes from different agencies. The creation of a Children’s Budget would require a similar accounting of children’s programs so that the President, Congress, and the American people fully understand where children stand in the federal budget process.
  • Creating a Children’s Ombudsman or Commissioner: A number of European countries have Ombudsmen or Children’s Commissioners in recognition that adults are responsible for children and must pay particular attention to their special needs within government. The Ombudsman or Commissioner is given the power the investigate issues of importance to children within the government and to issue reports on how public policies or administrative procedures could be changed to improve the care and well-being of children.
  • Establishing a Youth Congress: In nation’s across the world, they have formed mechanisms, such the Youth Parliament in the UK, that give children a much needed voice in their government. As the Washington Post’s Steven Levingston points out, “History shows that kids, with their innocence, honestly and moral urgency, can shame adults into discovering their conscience.”
  • Lowering the Age of Voting to 16: In Lovett’s article cited above, he argues that lowering the right to vote to age 16 is a means to give children a true voice in finding solutions to the problems they face and defending themselves from harm. As Lovett explains, “Teenagers deserve the vote because the rest of us have proven that we are not adult enough to have their interests at heart. The NRA is right about the importance of self-defense, but wrong about the means. Voting is how America’s young people can protect themselves.”
  • Passing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): The CRC was adopted by the United Nations on November 20, 1989 and went into effect in September of 1990. As of now, the United States stands alone as the only country in the world to not have ratified the treaty. Passage of the CRC could have important implications on improving the status of childrenin our country.

Children must be seen and heard. The entire nation will be hearing from them at the March for Our Lives events on Saturday, March 24.

According to political commentator Sally Kohn:

A precondition to making change in the world around us is noticing injustice in the way things are and refusing to accept that this is the way they must be. That restless rebelliousness that has left so many parents and teachers frustrated is also the essential superpower of youth. Adults who too often are accustomed in acquiescing to the status quo are the ones who end up schooled by young people who notice the absurdities of flagrant injustice and dare to ask “Why?

Kohn adds:

In the history of social change in America and around the world, youth have always been a blessing — the blessing to believe that another way is possible and to insist on change, in spite of any barriers. Yes, kids can be impulsive. And when that impulse is toward more fairness and people and liberty for all, that impulse is not only just but timeless.

At First Focus, we stand with the young people at Stoneman Douglas High School and all the children and families that have been impacted by gun violence over the years. In recognition of the fact that adults and institutions are sadly failing to protect our children in a number of ways, we owe it to the next generation of children to ensure that they have a voice in their government and their own future. Old habits that allow society to treat children as merely an afterthought must end.

#WHATIF #ParentsPromiseToKids