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The Biden Administration and Congress Must Protect Transgender Kids

| May 7, 2021 |

Photo by Denin Lawley on Unsplash

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Biden addressed transgender youth directly: “I want you to know your president has your back.

His acknowledgment is timely. Just five months into the year, 2021 has seen a staggering volume of legislation introduced — more than 100 bills in 33 states — that targets trans children and their caretakers by criminalizing standard medical care, restricting access to school sports, and more:

  • At least 24 bills would prohibit or restrict medical professionals from prescribing gender-affirming care to minors — at least one bill would make it a felony offense, and North Carolina and Oklahoma define “minor” as anyone under 21;
  • At least 56 bills introduced in state legislatures would bar trans youth from playing on the sports teams that match their gender identity;
  • At least four bills would require government agents, including school employees like teachers, to notify parents immediately if they believe their child may be transgender or gender non-conforming (NC SB 514; SC HB 4047; AL SB 10/HB 303; IA HF 193).

Other implications of state bills include, but are not limited to:

  • Making it a form of child abuse for parents to consent to gender-affirming care for their child, punishable by loss of custody and up to 10 years in prison (TX SB 1646);
  • Enforcing athletics restrictions via invasive exams to “verify the student’s biological sex” (FL HB 1475);
  • Barring insurers from covering gender-affirming care for anyone under 18 (AR HB 1570);
  • Allowing doctors to refuse care to LGBTQ patients based on religious beliefs (AR SB 289).

Why the targeted cruelty toward transgender youth? This recent state legislative trend may reflect political backlash to the second attempted passage of the Equality Act in Congress, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected characteristics, or to the anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers provided by the 2020 Bostick v. Clayton County decision.

But the number of anti-trans bills, and the moral panic their sponsors stoke, has been growing since at least 2015. These bills assert disproven ideas that children and adolescents lack the capacity to understand their own identities, or that affirming adults are facilitating harm. Since Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade against anti-discrimination laws in the 1970s, unsubstantiated concerns about children’s safety have been a favored pretense for anti-LGBTQ measures.

In reality, the anti-trans legislation being debated and signed into law across the country right now will inflict real, immediate harm on transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming children.

A recent study concluded that trans children who have earlier access to gender-affirming medical care are less likely to suffer from mental health conditions. Trans and gender non-conforming youth already face higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, so restricting access to known effective interventions poses grave risks.

One study of 10 states’ proposed restrictions projected that more than 45,000 children could lose medical care. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, and American Medical Association have vocally opposed bans on gender-affirming medical care and access to school sports.

Bills banning transgender students from secondary and post-secondary sports teams that match their gender identity would effectively bar them from athletics altogether, and counter the more inclusive precedents set by the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA.

What can be done at the federal level?

The Biden Administration and Congress need to take swift and decisive action to strengthen federal protections so that kids’ rights aren’t subject to the whims of their state legislatures.

President Biden has taken an important step by signing an Executive Order affirming that transgender and gender non-conforming students are protected from discrimination under Title IX. We propose two next steps for Congress and the Biden Administration:

1.Pass the Equality Act

The Equality Act passed the House for the second time in February. The bill first passed the House in 2019, but then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to allow a hearing or floor vote in the Senate. Its fate in the Senate remains uncertain and it is a likely candidate for filibuster.

President Biden has expressed emphatic support for the legislation, and now Champions for Children in the Senate must make every effort to pass the Equality Act.

2.Make protecting LGBTQ youth a top priority for the Department of Justice

Many of the state bills targeting trans youth are likely unconstitutional. President Biden’s Department of Justice should follow the example of Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who publicly denounced North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act — better known as HB2 or the “bathroom bill” — as “state-sanctioned discrimination.” The DOJ filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina in 2016.

The DOJ under Attorney General Merrick Garland should treat attacks on trans kids’ rights with even greater urgency and file lawsuits or issue statements of interest wherever possible.

The bottom line

Restricting children’s and adolescents’ access to medical care, school sports, and privacy is dehumanizing and unscientific. The state bills discussed here would unequivocally harm kids and families; LGBTQ youth deserve support and appropriate care. President Biden has signaled his support. Passing the Equality Act in the Senate and preparing the DOJ to champion legal challenges are critical next steps.

WATCH: “What If Kids Were In Charge?”

| April 28, 2021 |

As we approached the election last November, First Focus on Children and Highlights For Children sought out the most ignored constituency in our country — children — and asked them what they would say to the grown-ups in charge of their lives.

The response was overwhelming — we received messages from all over the country — from teenagers and preschoolers, from small towns to big cities, from Zoom schoolers, and from socially distanced classrooms.

Here is a brief sample of the messages we received right after the election:

Now, as President Biden reaches his 100th day in office, we reflect on what we learned from the children who sent us videos and letters — and what all of us can do to make sure our leaders — the grown-ups in charge — listen to their voices.

Join the conversation live on April 29th on Facebook or at this link.

As vaccine rollout ramps up, kids ask, “what about us?”

| April 22, 2021 |

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Last week as I excitedly told my 6- and 3-year-old daughters that my husband and I had been able to schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments for ourselves, my older daughter said quickly, urgently, and loudly, “What about us??”. What an honest and gutting question. What about them and all of the other children who cannot yet get vaccine protection against COVID-19? Her question was more significant to me than to her, but she is well-aware of the pandemic and our path out of it. And she wants to be on that path, too.

Children have carried some of the heaviest burdens during this pandemic. They have endured school and child care closures; increases in mental health needs; parent deaths; increased poverty; and rising hunger. It is time for us to stand up for them. We must ensure that they too are able to benefit from a safe and effective vaccine and an organized, accessible system for distributing it.

Twenty percent of adults say they will only get vaccinated if it is required, or that they will “definitely not” get vaccinated. This attitude shifts the burden of reaching herd immunity to our children, who will need exceptionally high rates of vaccination to make up for adults who choose not to get a vaccine. It is extremely unfair — and irresponsible — to let the choices of adults imperil the lives of our children. Children will now have to be key to our efforts of reaching herd immunity. The federal government must devise a vaccination rollout plan to meet children’s specific needs, and it must do it now.

The challenges of vaccinating children will be different from the challenges of vaccinating adults, and we therefore need a plan tailor-made for children. These challenges include distribution methods and locations in order to reach all children, vaccine-hesitant caregivers, racial inequities in vaccine distribution and use, and the perception that COVID-19 does not affect children. Overcoming these challenges will require adequate and planned funding, an effective distribution process, and a public education campaign.

We look forward to the time when all children can return in-person to school and their lives can regain a sense of normalcy. In order to ensure that happens, the federal government must prepare now for the vaccine that will eventually be available for children and determine how to distribute it equitably and effectively. Only then will we have an answer to the question, “What about us?”

This Earth Day, Let’s Remember to Prioritize Kids in Climate Change Policy

| April 21, 2021 |

Since President Biden has taken office, it seems America is finally taking the threat of climate change and the implications it has seriously. Just hours after being inaugurated, Biden issued several executive orders that aim to protect the environment and public health. After four years of an attack on science, it was great to see action being taken. But more work needs to be done – and children need to be a priority in what we do next. 

Today, President Biden is hosting a virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit where over 40 nations will be present. It is a wonderful opportunity for America to re-establish itself as a leader in the fight against climate change. Yet the agenda includes not one mention of children. How can we effectively address the issue of climate change without discussing how it will impact the most vulnerable among us? 

Unfortunately, it is all too common that children are an afterthought in such discussions. Yet it is their futures that will be threatened by rising global temperatures, destructive natural disasters, and toxic pollution. Children are also impacted differently, and sometimes more harshly, by the negative implications of climate change. Children are not just little adults. Their bodies react differently to toxic environmental exposures because of differences in physiology and behavior. Children drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air in relation to their body weight than adults. They also exhibit hand-to-mouth behavior frequently and live and play closer to the ground. These differences put them at a much higher risk of being exposed to environmental threats, such as air pollution, water pollution, and toxic substances.

Earth Day is a time for people around the world to reflect on the state of our planet. This year, let’s remember that the stakes are higher than ever before as we begin to see an increase in the consequences of rising global temperatures – raging wildfires, brutal hurricane seasons, toxic pollution, and more. We have an obligation to the world’s children to take action before it’s too late.

Click here to read the letter we wrote to the administration urging them to include children in the Leaders’ Climate Summit. 

The Fight to End Child Poverty: A Conversation with Rep. Rosa DeLauro

| April 20, 2021 |

Join us on April 21st at 3:15 pm ET for a conversation with Rep. Rosa DeLauro — the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, a 16-term Congresswoman representing Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district, and a steadfast Champion for Children. The main focus of our conversation will be about the fight to end child poverty in the United States — specifically through programs like the Child Tax Credit. This is a cause that Rep. DeLauro has been fighting for over two decades that has recently become a centerpiece of the American Rescue Plan and could now become permanent if Champions for Children like her are successful in Congress.

Join us to learn more about the fight, how we got here, and what all of us can do now!

The nation needs a plan to vaccinate students

| April 16, 2021 |

President Biden has introduced a massive infrastructure plan that would, among other things, invest $100 billion in building and restoring American public schools. In the meantime, students and teachers everywhere are returning to school. Most will be at school for only a fraction of the time they used to spend there. These are “hybrid” schedules, where students attend in cohorts, in an effort to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in our over-capacity and underfunded public schools.

As students begin to return, the question lies less with whether they will go back — most students will be attending school in person at least part of the time this school year, and there is an expectation that most students will return in full. The question we have to answer is how to return students to school safely, and to address their needs and supports to make sure they are healthy – mentally and physically – and able to learn.

One barrier to learning during the pandemic has been the digital divide. While schoolwork and research have moved increasingly online during the pandemic, 20% of parents said their kids likely lacked access to the resources necessary to finish their homework online. However, for years before the pandemic, the homework gap has contributed to massive achievement disparities. Students without access to reliable broadband struggle to keep up as school and learning increasingly incorporate technology.

Many have underlined the necessity of confronting “learning loss.” There is good reason to dispute the validity of these concerns. In addition, the pandemic has given many educators the opportunity to reconsider learning, questioning long-held assumptions about what is and isn’t learning. Regardless, it is important to recognize that high-stakes testing is not the answer. In the best of times, high-stakes testing undercuts the nature of learning by treating learning as something to be objectified. The story of learning cannot be told by multiple-choice and when teachers, schools, and students are judged on this metric, classrooms and curriculums become cold and formulaic. During the coronavirus pandemic, high-stakes testing will punish the very schools that it purports to help. The schools and students that have been most hurt by the pandemic will be the same schools that see their funding siphoned by charters, increased teacher shortages, and even shutdowns.

Mental Health

As we try to return to “normal,” schools must work to support students who experienced trauma during their time out of school. Many students lost loved ones or experienced economic, mental, or physical distress over the course of the pandemic. The mental health care needs of children are rapidly increasing.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental health-related emergency room visits for children increased by 24% for children ages 5-to-11 and 31% for children ages 12-to-17 last year. Counselors, school nurses, wellness offices, social workers, and homeless liaisons must be prepared to provide compassionate care to students. Underfunding means that these staff will often be overwhelmed and under-resourced.

The American Rescue Plan, recently signed into law by President Biden, includes millions of dollars in funding directed to children’s mental health efforts. This is a positive start but it will take a sustained effort to address the existing and new mental health needs of children. Schools will receive nearly $130 billion to aid them in reopening. Mental health services and social-emotional learning are allowable uses of those funds, but not required. First Focus on Children recently joined nearly 100 other organizations in asking the Biden Administration to issue guidance for schools focused on the mental health supports and social-emotional learning that we believe will be necessary as students return to school and begin to recover from the trauma suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We must maintain focus on the mental health needs of children as we all begin to recover.  

As President Biden looks to see every adult vaccinated by summer, we are still waiting for a vaccine for our children. The story of COVID-19 has long been that it does not affect children, but it has in innumerable ways, including through their health. As of April 1, 2021, nearly 3.5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, and 284 have died due to the virus. That is 284 preventable deaths and 284 families in unspeakable pain. And this number represents an undercount, as not all states report this data or report it in the same way, and the child share of overall COVID-19 cases in this country is on the rise. Children have been susceptible to Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), and 75 percent of children with this illness did not experience any COVID-19 symptoms at the time of infection.

Students will be back in school soon. There is little uncertainty on that. What’s necessary is that we make sure students and school staff are supported and safe in returning to schools. For that, we need massive investments in the infrastructure and personnel within those schools.

At the same time, as states begin to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions and protections, more adults get vaccinated, and more social activities begin to return to pre-COVID-19 practices, unvaccinated children will be increasingly at risk. We call on the Administration to create a plan — tailored specifically for the unique needs of children — for getting children of all ages vaccinated against COVID-19 as expeditiously, efficiently, and effectively as possible.

This is Our Moment — an announcement.

| April 15, 2021 |

I firmly believe that this is our moment. I don’t need to explain to any of you how bad things have been — this past year, especially, has exposed us as a nation that has failed to invest in its future and desperately needs to correct injustices.

But, as we emerge from this crisis, there is cause for hope. At the center of the most recent relief package was a plan to cut child poverty in half and help families — and renewed momentum to put us on a pathway to ending it entirely in a generation. It took a pandemic, but we’re finally viewing child care as essential. And millions of voters are now telling pollsters that Congress should pass laws in “the best interest of the child.” 

And, so, now is our moment to act. And it’s why First Focus Campaign for Children is officially announcing a new opportunity for advocates in every city and town in the United States to act with the Ambassadors for Children Network.

The First Focus Ambassadors Network is a movement of committed advocates who serve as a voice for children in the United States. They will be the local leaders in the fight to eliminate child poverty, secure health coverage for all kids, end racial inequity in schools, protect immigrant youth, and finally make kids a priority in federal spending.

We are at a critical time in our nation’s history. Our leaders are making decisions about how we will “build back” our communities — let’s ensure we all build a better future for our childrenWe all have a role to play. Together, we can be a voice for kids in DC — and in Kansas City and Cleveland, and everywhere in between.

Learn more about this opportunity and how you and/or your friends can be among the first to join.

30+ Child Advocacy Organizations Call on Biden to End Title 42

| April 13, 2021 |

John Moore | Credit: Getty Images

Since taking office the Biden administration has made many changes to immigration policies that are good for kids. The administration has ended the Trump administration’s so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” or the Remain in Mexico policy and has begun to allow some people in the program into the country. The administration has ended the information-sharing agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency responsible for children’s care until they are reunited with family. It has ordered a review of asylum policies. It has re-started the Central American Minors program, which provides a way for children to apply from their home country for reunification with family in the United States. However, there is one Trump-era policy the administration has not ended in its entirety: The misuse of the Title 42 public health authority to expel children in families and adults at the border. This is why First Focus on Children and 30 other child advocacy organizations wrote a letter to the Administration calling for the policy’s end.

Since March 2020, the Department of Homeland Security has used Title 42 to immediately turn back asylum seekers at the border under the pretense of halting the spread of COVID-19, with more than 70,000 expelled in February alone. In the past year, public health experts have pointed out the specious COVID-19 pretext of the policy. While we are glad that unaccompanied children are now exempt from Title 42 expulsions, the fact remains that thousands of children with their families are still being turned away from the border in violation of their legal right to seek humanitarian protection.

The Title 42 policy puts children in harm’s way by returning them to danger in Mexico or in their home countries. It retraumatizes children who have already seen persecution and violence in their community and on their journey to the United States. It has led to the separation of families, as parents desperate to keep their children safe have made the wrenching choice to send them to the border alone. And importantly, the Title 42 policy goes against the administration’s commitment to racial equity. Since February, a disproportionate number of Haitian families, many with young children, have been expelled under the Title 42 policy, despite the fact that Haiti is reeling from the pandemic and a political uprising that puts children and families at more risk of danger. A report by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, the UndocuBlack Network, and the Quixote Center document the clear harm to which the administration has returned Haitian asylum-seeking children and families under the Title 42 policy. 

These traumatic impacts make clear that the Title 42 policy is not in the best interest of children and therefore must end. By following clear recommendations put forward by public health experts, the administration can resume the safe processing of asylum seekers at the border in a manner that is equitable, in line with public health guidelines, and in the best interest of children. Our country can, and must, protect asylum-seeking children and families and public health and the same time.

Biden Administration to send much-needed Disaster Response Team to Central America

| April 8, 2021 |

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced that it will activate a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs in Central America. The team is slated to scale up emergency food assistance, jobs programs, and protection for the most vulnerable families and communities. This news is welcome after two devastating hurricanes, the ongoing pandemic, and years of violent insecurity to citizens in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

As arrivals at our border indicate, the recent natural disasters along with years of lack of physical security have greatly impacted children and families. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken rightly noted the US needs to address the root causes that drive many people to flee their homes or to send their children seeking safety and opportunity. Children in Central America experience high rates of homicide, gender-based violence, and gang violence. As the UN Special Rapporteur for the sale of children has reported, the pandemic compounds the risks of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and abuse because of school closures and increased poverty. The hurricane also destroyed critical infrastructure for children’s healthy development, such as hospitals, schools, and sanitation systems. The damaged sanitation infrastructure has left children without clean water and sanitation, and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

It is our hope that as USAID builds out its disaster response in the region, it does so in a way that makes the needs of children paramount. The Biden-Harris administration has recognized programs that support children, such as schools, are important parts of infrastructure. The DART team in Central America should build up education, youth employment programs, and child protection programs in these countries. Importantly, the administration should work with local civil society organizations, especially those with expertise in child development and trauma, who best know and understand their communities to ensure the best delivery of assistance to children and their families.

Ending criminalization in schools

| March 19, 2021 |

Schools should represent the idyllic sandbox of a hopeful future. Then, they are society’s incubators where young people together begin to envision a shared world. Instead, schools often become like colanders, meant to separate high and low “achievers.” By bolstering the myth of the meritocracy, education then provides a flimsy justification for inequality. It is lauded as the cure-all for the plague of poverty. In this case, education legitimizes injustice, instead of offering ways to combat it.

In the past few decades, the criminal justice system has become more and more deeply enmeshed in American education. Last summer, the Oakland Unified school board voted unanimously to end police presence in schools, taking an important step towards ending criminalization in schools, and one which should be emulated throughout the nation. But if we hope to disentangle education from criminal justice, we have to find the roots of their union: a deep attraction between the two systems. What is the intent of the American school?

Grace, a Black high schooler in Michigan, was incarcerated for not doing her remote homework. Isaiah, a Black seventh-grade boy, had the police called to his home for playing with a toy gun on his Zoom class. When it comes to behavior and discipline, educators often become unwitting agents of the criminal justice system. Educator Henry Giroux called education a struggle over what kind of future we want for young people. We might specify: our education system decides which young people are entitled to which future.

In preschool, white students are almost four times less likely to be suspended than their Black peers. A total of 44% of youth in jail are Black, despite making up 16% of the population. Similarly, Black girls make up 16% of the school-age population, but 42% of those expelled. In some states, white youth are 10 times less likely to be incarcerated than their Black peers. Punitive practices, brutally effective at disaffecting students from their learning, are ingrained with discriminatory biases. How else can we reckon with anti-Black policies on hairstyling?

It has become en vogue to acknowledge the existence of “systemic racism.” But acknowledgment is not enough. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Our schools are still segregated. That is, most white students go to schools with mostly white students, and most Black and brown students go to schools with mostly Black and brown students.

For a segment of students, a primary goal of schools becomes teaching compliance and normalizing control. Schools covertly integrate the carceral system and even mild misbehavior becomes a criminal affront. Viewing schools through the framework of productivity betrays the soul of education. Instituting compliance becomes the priority.

Systemic, or structural, problems require a shift of focus from individuals to the structure itself. Yet initiatives to tackle systemic issues are often myopic: hiring a new staff member or enlisting the help of an under-resourced community organization. Efforts to fix schools cannot end at asking individual actors to bring about sweeping change. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Democratize Schools

As Paolo Freire said, part of the learning process requires students come to be masters of their own learning. That can’t happen in a school where students are treated like criminals. It also can’t happen when students have no control over what they learn and how they learn it.

Students must exercise power in schools. Necessarily, this process will take different forms under different conditions. But the primary engine of effective change is anempowered community. When participating in youth organizing organizations, for example, students regain a measure of autonomy over their lives, in and out of school. Democracy stems from the community. But to truly embody democratic schooling, student power must be centered.

Decriminalize Schools

Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests hurt kids. They make schools less safe. And they are expensive and ineffective. We have to get rid of zero-tolerance policies and invest in social-emotional practices and compassionate responses.

Fund for the future

Scholars point out that most of the workaround initiatives like restorative justice stem from local, under-resourced organizations. Public schools need full funding for effective practices which actually make schools and students safer, encourage learning, and help create compassionate school communities.

Lawmakers have begun to recognize the need to challenge school discipline practices. Calls for a “New Deal for Education” counteract decades of underfunding and privatization of schools, and the increasing tendency to sacrifice education at the altar of the free market. Others have called for an end to criminalization in schools, and investment in social-emotional support. We need a radical and wholesale commitment to and investment in democratic public education. Schools must pursue the now revolutionary goal to empower all students in their learning. Hopefully, they will build a more just world tomorrow.