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What Congress can do about hunger & homelessness this holiday season

| November 22, 2021 |

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Heading into Thanksgiving, the negative economic reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be strongest for families with children who were already struggling to make ends meet. While aid — including cash assistance, income support, rental assistance, subsidized health care coverage, nutrition assistance, and more — has mitigated spikes in hardship, communities are still experiencing high levels of homelessness, housing instability, and hunger.

Child Homelessness

For the past year, 14-year-old Kyah has slept on the floor of a relative’s house, living out of a single room with her mother and older sister. Throughout the United States, homeless children like Kyah remain hidden in their communities as they sleep on the couch or floor of another person’s home, in hotel or motel rooms, cars, or on public transportation.

Many communities have no family or youth shelters, and even if they do, shelters are often full. Shelter policies may also prevent families from all staying together. While homelessness for children and youth can take different forms, it always results in frequent upheaval, volatility, and a loss of stability. Children and youth are forced to make frequent moves and cycle between inadequate and often unsafe situations, causing disruption to children’s education, health care, and more.

Child and youth homelessness in the United States is all too common. The latest national data shows that estimated 1-in-41 school-age children are homeless. Young children — those under 6 — experience twice that rate with 1-in-18 living in homeless situations. Homelessness is even more prevalent among children of color —Black, Hispanic, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaskan high school students disproportionately experience homelessness compared to their white or Asian peers.

Quantifying the actual increase in child and youth homelessness as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak remains difficult, as there is a lag in national data reporting and the pandemic disruptions of in-person attendance at many schools and other public institutions made it hard for school homeless student liaisons to find and identify homeless children and youth in their community. Yet there is evidence of rising student and family homelessness from around the country.

Millions more children and youth remain at risk of homelessness. Recent data from the Census Household Pulse Survey showed that more than 5.7 million adults in households with children — or about 21% — are behind on rent. This number is even higher for Black households, with nearly 30% of Black renters with children behind on rent. A recent study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that 3.8 million young adults ages 18-to-25 have little or no confidence in their household’s ability to pay next month’s rent. Hispanic young adults were roughly twice as likely and Black youth were nearly three times as likely as their White peers to report little or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. With the national eviction moratorium no longer in place, millions of households remain at risk of losing their homes.

Families with children, and youth on their own, often become homeless due to traumatic experiences such as job loss, substance abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence. While poverty is inextricably linked to homelessness, often these issues are discussed and addressed in policy silos, as if children experiencing poverty and children experiencing homelessness are two completely separate populations.

A bipartisan resolution (S. 452), led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) passed in the Senate recently designating November as National Homeless Children and Youth Awareness Month. This designation is a good step toward raising awareness. We urge Congress to take the following additional steps to connect homeless children, youth, and families with the holistic support they need to achieve stability:

  • Pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act (S. 1469)
  • Establish a new grant program within HHS to address child, youth, and family homelessness that allocates funds to those agencies working most closely with homeless children and youth
  • Increase funding for the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program by at least $40 million as proposed in the FY 2022 Senate Labor-H Subcommittee Appropriations bill
  • Increase access to affordable housing through rental assistance included in the Build Back Better Act, by passing the Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act (S. 1991) and by creating a renter’s tax credit such as proposed in the Rent Relief Act of 2019 
  • Do more to help prevent evictions by passing the bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act (S. 2182)
  • Increase access to cash assistance by making permanent American Rescue Plan improvements to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.

Child Hunger 

Before COVID-19, 11.2 million children lived in a food-insecure household. The public health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus only exacerbated the problem, leaving nearly 15 million children without enough to eat in 2020.

Food insecurity—which leads to poor nutrition—directly influences health and well-being throughout a child’s life. Food insecurity is specifically associated with poorer physical and mental health, lower school performance, and diminished psychosocial functioning. Families primarily suffer from food insecurity because they lack the resources to access and purchase healthy, adequate food. Federal food assistance and child nutrition programs are critical supports, filling the gaps and fighting hunger and poor nutrition when low-income families struggle to put food on the table.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress made critical investments to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which serves as the first line of defense against hunger for children. The program saw a 15% boost to the maximum benefit issued, which helped the lowest-income families put food on the table. Congress also bolstered school nutrition programs, which faced unprecedented challenges in getting meals to students when schools shut down across the country. School nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, provide an important shield against child food insecurity. They also improve the diets of millions of children — one study found that school meals are the healthiest meals that some children have every day.

Congress also established the Pandemic EBT program, which provided funds to families to supplement the meals that students missed while schools were closed. While some states were slow in getting the money to families, the program was able to lift 3.9 million low-income children out of hunger the week following benefit disbursement.

Pandemic policies have illustrated the positive impact of government investment in food assistance programs. However, sustained investment is needed to tackle the long-term issue of child hunger. We urge Congress to:

  • Increase access to nutrition assistance by making improvements to SNAP and child nutrition programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently revised SNAP’s Thrifty Food Plan to increase benefits to recipients by more than 25% of pre-pandemic levels – the largest increase in the program’s history. This change is an important first step, but SNAP benefits remain too low and administrative barriers still prevent families from getting the consistent support they need.
  • Ensure that all children have steady access to school meals throughout the year by providing free school meals to all students regardless of income. A universal school meals program would remove the stigma associated with free school meals, reduce the administrative burden on school nutrition programs, and would ensure that every single student would receive nutritious meals while they are at school.
  • Create a permanent Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program for when school is out, including for summer breaks, and any other time that schools are shut for an extended period. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when schools close, students suffer not only learning disruptions, but a loss of food and other critical resources.

Child Hunger and Homelessness are Inextricably Linked 

In addressing the issues of child hunger and homelessness, lawmakers should not work in policy siloes. These two problems are linked, and schools can be leveraged to address both. As SchoolHouse Connection Executive Director Barbara Duffield explained in recent Congressional testimony: “Homelessness is inextricably connected to hunger. Families and youth stay hungry in order to stay housed; they eat less in order to pay rent. Once homeless, finding food or accessing meals becomes much more challenging. Moving from place to place, not having transportation or cooking facilities (or even a can opener) are all real barriers.”

Children and youth experiencing homelessness are automatically eligible for free school meals, making schools a critical place for them to get steady access to nutritious food while experiencing upheaval and hardship. When schools closed during the pandemic, that stable presence was lost. As we continue to recover from the economic repercussions of the pandemic, lawmakers must continue to leverage the unique ability of schools to combat child hunger and homelessness.

On World Children’s Day, Has the US Made Progress on Children’s Rights?

| November 20, 2021 |

Today is World Children’s Day, first established by the United Nations in 1954 to celebrate children and commit to improving their well-being.  

World Children’s Day is also the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the foundational treaty recognizing children as rights-holders. The treaty emanates from the principles of non-discrimination, best interest of the child, child survival and development, and child participation. It prohibits the prison sentence of life without parole for children. It states that immigrant families should be together and reunified, and that migrants have rights that countries must protect. It outlines a right to an education that develops a child’s abilities, personality, and understanding of the world. In short, the Convention addresses all the child rights violations that advocates have cited time and again in the United States.

Notably, the United States is the only country in the world who has not ratified the CRC. Despite that, our country can still uphold child rights in our laws and policies, as we have repeatedly called on the nation’s leaders to do

Last year, we wrote about the countries’ evaluation of the United States’ human rights record and the child-specific recommendations. While countries evaluated the Trump Administration’s record, it was the Biden Administration that would be responsible for implementing the recommendations. As we stated, “The recommendations released from the [UN human rights review] process offer an opportunity for the new Biden-Harris administration and a new Congress to remedy the human rights violations of the past four years and bring human rights home for all of us.” Our question this year is, how did they do when it came to kids, and what is left to be done? 

Racial Equity 

Progress: The Biden Administration has made racial equity a key priority. The President issued an executive order on advancing racial equity and supporting underserved populations and established a White House Equity Office. In turn, agencies have put out requests for information and strategic plans to implement the executive order. 

Next Steps: 

  • Create culturally competent services and interventions that have been developed and tested in diverse communities 
  • Fully integrate children into government plans and efforts to achieve equity 

Juvenile Justice 

Progress: President Biden issued an executive order limiting the use of private prisons. The President also issued a proclamation on National Youth Justice Action Month. 

Next Steps: 

  • Appoint a permanent Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention who is committed to racial and ethnic equity and to full implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act 
  • Collect data on the number of minors in adult facilities at both federal and state levels 
  • Ban For-Profit Facilities, including detention and correctional centers 
  • Launch a public education and engagement campaign to showcase various pathways to juvenile justice system involvement 


Progress: The Administration has developed a Family Reunification Task Force to reunify families separated by the previous administration and provide them with services. The Administration has taken steps to limit family detention and expand legal representation for children. It has also reinstated and expanded the Central American Minors Program, allowing more children to reunite with family in the United States. 

Next Steps: 

  • Welcome children at the border by implementing orderly and humane border processing, providing for basic needs, and offering information about the immigration process 
  • Protect family unity. End family separation, including separation caused by policies such as expulsions and limits on entry at the border 
  • Ensure the right to liberty. End family detention and institutionalized care for unaccompanied children by using family- and community-based case management.  
  • Expand legal representation to all children during their immigration cases  
  • Restore asylum access and refugee resettlement for children and families 
  • Prioritize child health and well-being by considering the best interests of children in all immigration policy decisions, including immigration enforcement actions and immigrant access to services 


Progress: The bipartisan infrastructure bill will provide broadband funding which will take strides to bridge the digital divide which affects children’s access to the internet in a time when so much of learning takes place virtually. The Build Back Better plan, just passed by the House, will provide free and universal pre-k to all 3- and 4-year olds. The President’s FY 2022 budget proposed investments into equity through Title I funding to take steps to counteract decades of unequal school funding, which has seen mostly white schools getting far more funds than their mostly non-white counterparts.  

Next Steps: 

  • Ensure universal access to adequate and equitable education without barriers based on class or race, disability, or citizenship status, by prioritizing the funding of public schools over charter and voucher systems. Ban for-profit management of charter schools 
  • End the use of harmful and exclusionary disciplinary practices like suspension and expulsion, which disproportionately target Black, brown, and indigenous children. 
  • Support culturally responsive and sustaining curriculums, as opposed to test-based standards 
  • Provide suitable education for students with disabilities, English learners, and students in foster care and experiencing homelessness by passing expanded Title I, IDEA, and McKinney-Vento funding 
  • Pass expanded funding for socialemotional learning, counseling, and medical support in schools to support student mental and physical health 
  • Desegregate schools as a necessary step toward civil rights in education 

Child Rights Mechanisms 

Progress: The Biden Administration has introduced — and the House has passed — the Build Back Better agenda, which has the potential to be the biggest advancement for children in decades. The President also issued an executive order on modernizing regulatory reform to “promote the interests of future generations.” The President’s FY 2022 budget also promises to provide the highest share of federal spending on children since 2016, at 12.7% of total spending. The President also recognized children by proclaiming November 21, 2021 as National Child’s Day. 

Next Steps: 

  • Establish an independent Children’s Commissioner to report and provide recommendations on advancing children rights, in consultation with children and youth 
  • Create a White House Office of Children and Youth to facilitate interagency coordination on policies affecting child health and well-being 
  • Establish a national “best interest of the child” standard  
  • Require child impact statements for all policies that impact the health and well-being of children 

Watch: Experts discuss how to achieve vaccine equity for kids

| November 18, 2021 |

First Focus on Children co-hosted a virtual Congressional briefing today to discuss how to achieve equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine for children and ensure that caregivers are reached in ways that are compelling and authentic to them. The event was co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Kim Schrier. Senator Brown has been named by us as a Champion for Children for nine consecutive years, and Representative Schrier — an outstanding supporter of children in the House of Representatives and a leading expert on these matters, as the only pediatrician serving in Congress — kicked off the briefing with opening remarks.

Our panel of experts included presentations from Dr. Rhea Boyd, MD, MPH — a Pediatrician and co-developer of THE CONVERSATION: Between Us, About Us, Dr. Jessica Calarco, Ph.D. from Indiana University’s Department of Sociology, and Dr. Michelle Fiscus, MD — a FAAP Pediatrician and Public Health Consultant for National Academy for State Health Policy. These speakers described the challenges facing equitable access to vaccines, how to effectively address parent concerns, and how state and local officials are responding to the pandemic in ways that are helpful and harmful.

As Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus on Children said during the briefing — “a false narrative took hold early in the COVID-19 pandemic that children aren’t affected by this virus. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

For example, this is the current state of kids and COVID-19:

  • 6.6 million children have tested positive for COVID-19. 
  • 25,292 children have been hospitalized. 
  • 625 children have died. 
  • More than 175,000 U.S. children have lost a primary caregiver due to the pandemic. The majority of children who lost a parent or grandparent caregiver come from American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic families.  
  • There was a 24% increase in mental health emergencies for children ages 5-11 and a 31% increase for children ages 12-17 in 2020. 
  • Black, Hispanic, and Asian children have had lower rates of testing and are significantly more likely to be infected than white children. 
  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be hospitalized. 
    Hispanic, Black, and American Indian, and Alaska Native children have been more likely to die. 

Now that they’re eligible, 2.6 million kids have already gotten their first dose of the vaccine. Unfortunately, only seven states and D.C. report race/ethnicity data on kids, so it remains unclear who is vaccinated and most importantly, who isn’t. Our speakers did a terrific job of offering insights and solutions to getting kids vaccinated and responding to racial inequity.

For access to the slides used during this briefing, click here.

Advocates explain how tax credits can offer solutions for TAY

| November 10, 2021 |

Today, First Focus on Children co-hosted a briefing with Representative Danny K. Davis, (IL-7th District) on the economic obstacles that Transition-Age Youth (TAY) face and how tax credits can offer potential solutions. In addition to opening remarks from Rep. Davis (a 10-time Champion for Children), the briefing included an expert panel of advocates who presented recommendations to increase awareness and opportunities for Congress to invest in long-term solutions for these young people.

Even before the pandemic, many transition-aged youth (TAY) between the ages of 16 and 24 who have been in foster care struggled to achieve a measure of economic stability as they found their footing as adults. The temporary changes to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit could help many TAY youth who have experienced foster care find a way out of deep poverty, and maintain their housing, food security, school enrollment, employment, and more. At the same time, an expansion of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit could create powerful new financial incentives for private-sector employers to invest in TAY.

Panelists for this briefing included:

  • Jennifer Pokempner | Policy Director, Youth Law Center
  • Anna Johnson | Senior Project Manager, John Burton Advocates for Youth
  • Cara Baldari | Vice President, Family Economics, Housing and Homelessness, First Focus on Children
  • Michelle Dallafior | Senior Vice President, Budget and Tax, First Focus on Children
  • Aubrey Edwards-Luce | Senior Director, Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice, First Focus on Children

Materials Referenced in this briefing include:

Experts gather to explain why we need to cover all kids

| November 9, 2021 |

Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus on Children moderated a Congressional briefing today on the need to ensure that allchildren have access to health insurance. Joining Bruce were a panel of child health experts including Kelly Whitener (Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families), Dr. Glenn Flores (University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, Holtz Children’s Hospital), Dr. David Rubin (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and Dr. Marceé J. White (Total Health Care, Inc.).

As Bruce Lesley said:

“Nearly 4.3 million children are still uninsured in this country. We have made tremendous progress due to Medicaid and CHIP, but have lost ground in recent years. We must get back on the path to covering all kids.

According to census data, children of color were hit hardest, with 9.5% of Hispanic children and 6% of Black children lacking health insurance. In states that have not expanded Medicaid, the rate of uninsured children is more than twice as high. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on the mental and physical health of our uninsured children and highlighted the pressing nature of this issue.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Children’s Health Care Caucus opened the briefing calling the fight for robust care for kids, “vital”See her remarks below:

The panel of health experts then went on to detail the challenges that prevent children from enrolling in health care programs or the administrative and policy barriers that drop children from Medicaid and CHIP programs once they are enrolled. We learned about the different measures we can take to expand access to care and heard about innovations in health care to address racial disparities in children’s health.

For a copy of the slide deck used in today’s briefing, click here.

For a fact sheet detailing policy recommendations to get kids covered, click here.

2021 Children’s Budget shows largest year-to-year increase in the share of federal spending on kids

| November 3, 2021 |

Sec. Xavier Becerra today reiterated the Biden Administration’s commitment to children, pointing to investments in child care, income supports, and the physical and behavioral health of the nation’s children.

“At the end of the day we know what it means to make a difference in the lives of American families,” the Health and Human Services Secretary said in live remarks to the 2021 Children’s Budget Summit. “And we start at the beginning: With the lives of our kids.”

Becerra also highlighted yesterday’s approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, noting that “15 million vaccines are going out now even as we speak.”

First Focus on Children’s 2021 Children’s Budget Summit gathered policymakers, experts, and advocates to analyze findings of the 2021 Children’s Budget and its implications for U.S. policy.

This year’s Children’s Budget, the 15th edition, finds that COVID funding fueled the largest year-to-year increase in the share of federal spending on kids since tracking began in 2006.

The share of federal spending on children rose to 11.2% in 2021, a 3.5 percentage point increase over 2020. The historic increase comes after four straight years in which the share of spending on children declined by 25% to just 7.6%. Internationally, the United States invests just .08% — less than one penny per federal dollar spent — in children abroad.

“The pandemic and its economic fallout revealed decades of delayed maintenance on the systems that protect the health and well-being of our children,” said First Focus on Children President Bruce Lesley. “Massive investments in early childhood funding, income supports, education, and food programs merely stabilized our kids. And yet, some in Congress are working to reverse even these gains.”

Summit guests echoed the need for continued investment in our nation’s children. 

Calling children “our greatest natural resource,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, urged reform of the “unfair tax code” that shortchanges children and pledged continued efforts to eradicate child poverty. “It is nothing short of a moral crisis, and a moral urgency, that we have a nation that’s the wealthiest on the planet, but that we fall behind our peer nations in investing in our kids,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, called attention to the systemic inequities revealed by the pandemic and stressed that the country cannot “just go back to normal.” She emphasized the need for Congress to deliver “affordable, quality child care, national comprehensive paid leave, and a permanent expanded Child Tax Credit.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, called on Congress to pass universal pre-k, more affordable child care, and continued monthly payments to families under the improved Child Tax Credit. “Investing in children is about investing in the future success of our country,” he said. Van Hollen has sponsored two bills designed to increase transparency around investments in children by requiring annual reports on the actual federal investment in children’s programs.

Well before she became chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, had waged a battle to make permanent improvements to the Child Tax Credit. Since July, families have received monthly payments of up to $300 per child, significantly blunting the impact of the pandemic’s economic fallout. “[Families] have used these monthly checks for child care, food, diapers, school expenses, braces, and maybe even swimming lessons,” she said. “Families are relying on the Child Tax Credit, and it is imperative that we do everything we can to lock it in for years and years to come.”

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-CA, also emphasized the poverty-reducing power of the Child Tax Credit and called for the establishment of a Children’s Interagency Coordinating Council at the Department of Health and Human Services in this year’s federal budget. “This council is essential to support the effective implementation of the Child Tax Credit and other child poverty-reducing investments,” she said. “Our goals will not be reached until we eradicate child poverty once and for all.”

Internationally, advocates and Administration officials called for whole-of-government leadership on U.S. funding for children globally and for close tracking of this assistance. “By tracking foreign assistance spending, the U.S. government, its partners, stakeholders, and the public can better understand which countries and sectors are recipients of foreign assistance, reduce overlap, collaborate more effectively and work more cohesively to tackle today’s most pressing global challenges, such as the hardships experienced by children and their loved ones,” said Michele Sumilas, assistant to the Administrator in the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL) at USAID, which leads implementation of the new Global Child Thrive Act, which requires U.S. government policy to support early childhood development in relevant foreign assistance programs.

The 2021 Children’s Budget tracks domestic and international spending on children, including both mandatory and discretionary funding across twelve federal departments and numerous agencies and bureaus. This is the second year the book tracks international resources supporting kids, and this year newly captures pandemic aid and adds three refundable tax credits for the first time: the Child Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The report is made possible by the generous support of the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, Oak Foundation, GHR Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. First Focus on Children also receives critical support on behalf of children from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Watch the full livestream

Agencies must strengthen standards and safeguards that protect unaccompanied children in government care

| October 26, 2021 |

Attacks on migrant children in the United States continue to threaten the well-being of children seeking refuge. In a May disaster declaration, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered that the state revoke licenses of facilities caring for unaccompanied children — children younger than 18 who migrated to the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian and do not have immigration documentation. Once an unaccompanied child is processed at the border, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) assumes responsibility for providing care, security, and safety in a facility until authorities can locate a sponsor for the child. Facilities are required to abide by multiple layers of accountability and oversight through the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997, ORR standard policies of care, and state licensing standards to prioritize children’s well-being and ensure that they have access to trauma-informed care. As states such as Florida begin to follow Texas’ lead, advocates worry that some of the measures used to maintain proper oversight of these facilities will be lost. Eliminating any of the existing layers of safeguards can place unaccompanied children — many of whom have fled violence, persecution, or trafficking in their home country — at risk of further harm and trauma.

The layers of safeguards began in 1997 with the establishment of the Flores Settlement Agreement. The agreement created baseline standards for minors in custody that take into consideration their well-being and safety. These standards established a general precedent to maintain independent oversight of federal facilities. The agreement also establishes how long and where minors can be housed in detention facilities. Within the Flores Agreement, private attorneys can enter and examine facilities on behalf of children and families. These independent attorneys can also meet with children to make sure that facilities are meeting minimum standards of care. This third-party oversight has become an important way that investigators can hold the government accountable and keep children safe.  

The minimum standards of care established in the Flores Agreement also required ORR to create a baseline standard of established, detailed and robust policies aligned with federal law and the agreement to uphold child safety and well-being. These standards require an unaccompanied child to be placed “in the least restrictive care setting in their best interest” and incorporate child welfare principles, the best interest of the child, and considerations for each child’s unique circumstances.

The Flores Agreement also mandates that states must license ORR facilities to uphold minimum standards of care. As ORR does not license individual facilities, state licenses establish a more direct layer of oversight to monitor the quality of care in each facility and provide more timely state-led investigations of claims of abuse or neglect. The standards set by state licensing originated out of reforms in the child welfare system to protect, promote and ensure the best interests of children in foster care. Although the program for unaccompanied children and the child welfare system are separate entities, both share the goal of providing care that is in the best interest of the child until they are reunited with family and upholding standards of care and oversight through multiple layers of accountability.

While these three entities all provide a form of oversight, they also have their individual shortfalls. While ORR, particularly under the Biden Administration, has certainly continued to work to create a safer environment for children, a GAO report illustrated that ORR often lacks strong implementation measures and monitoring oversight to quickly mobilize on-the-ground assistance, while also lacking standards for timely investigations of complaints about a facility. Since ORR’s policies are not codified in law, they are subject to change at any moment and contribute to many gaps concerning a child’s safety, security, and overall well-being. This is where state licensing steps in — states are often able to respond and investigate more efficiently. Additionally, the Flores Settlement and the independent oversight it provides has been under attack. In a series of actions throughout 2018 and 2019, the Trump Administration continuously attempted to undermine or terminate the agreement resulting in a series of lawsuits. Attacks on Flores mean attacks on independent oversight of the ORR system, thus showing why state licensing is an important piece of the puzzle to preserve unaccompanied children’s well-being. However, Govs. Abbott and DeSantis’ attacks on state licensing have made clear that each of these systems of oversight — Flores, ORR, and state licensing—are needed to protect children’s care and well-being.

In 2020, unaccompanied children spent an average of 102 days in an ORR-funded facility; in other words, children spent more than three months of their life, time fundamental in shaping the trajectory of their development, in government custody. This fact illustrates why it is of the utmost importance that ORR facilities are held to multiple layers of accountability. As the Flores Agreement, state licensing and ORR standards of care establish a foundational network of essential oversight for ORR facilities, we recommend all parties responsible for the care of unaccompanied children prioritize their well-being by:

  1. Adopting higher standards of care: We urge all entities involved in caring for unaccompanied children to uphold high standards of care that align with best practices and strong oversight.
  2. Improving existing monitoring and oversight: Strengthening rigorous, independent, and expert monitoring and oversight are essential to providing care that advances child well-being.
  3. Applying lessons learned and best practices in child welfare and child well-being to the care of unaccompanied kids: In order to establish robust best practices for children in ORR facilities, regular and transparent collaboration between ORR providers, child advocacy groups, states, and child welfare advocates is foundational.

Every child deserves to have their basic needs met and to feel safe, secure, and supported while awaiting family reunification. We cannot deprive children of any safeguard and must hold ORR facilities to the highest standard.

Build Back Better package is part of a larger fight to end child poverty in America

| October 26, 2021 |

For the first time in generations, we are on the precipice of making serious and long-term progress to reduce our stubbornly high rate of child poverty in the United States.

Historically, the United States has had a significantly higher rate of child poverty than other developed countries because we have continually failed to sufficiently invest in our children. While the establishment of Social Security has permanently reduced poverty for seniors, children have remained the poorest group in America.

This situation is not due to a lack of evidence on what works to reduce child poverty, but rather the lack of political will to act.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 increased hardship for many families who were already experiencing financial insecurity. The pandemic and its economic fallout disproportionately affected low-income families and families of color, compounding pre-existing racial-economic inequality. In response, Congress passed several aid packages that caused child poverty to decrease in 2020 and continued the trend in 2021, so far nearly cutting child poverty in half in 2021, with an outsize impact for children of color. Taking this assistance into account, including improvements to the Child Tax Credit that account for the majority of this poverty-reducing impact, children are projected to now be the least poor group in the nation in 2021.

While this progress is worth celebrating, we are at great risk of backsliding and letting millions of children experience poverty once again unless we take further action to extend the improvements to the Child Tax Credit beyond 2021. As Congress negotiates the Build Back Better plan, First Focus Campaign for Children and many of our partners in the children’s community continue to fight for a robust package that prioritizes kids and ensures that families with children with the greatest need, regardless of their immigration status, have access to cash assistance through a monthly Child Tax Credit, quality and affordable child care, paid family and medical leave, nutrition assistance, healthcare, and more.

In the immediate, it is important to keep our focus on the passage and implementation of assistance for children in this reconciliation package. But we also can’t lose sight of the fact that these efforts are part of a larger fight to end child poverty in the United States.

Setting a National Target to End Child Poverty

Even if Congress passes a robust package for kids by the end of 2021, the assistance included sadly will not be enough to lift all children out of poverty or to close the significant racial-economic inequities that persist in our country. Child poverty in the United States is a long-term problem in need of a long-term solution.

This is why First Focus on Children established the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in 2016 and along with our fellow CPAG members, has long fought for the setting of a national target to address child poverty, inspired by examples in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. These other countries illustrate that the only way to ensure that child poverty reduction remains a priority for decision makers is for them to feel accountable and face political pressure if they fail.

In order to inform our strategy and elevate the issue on Capitol Hill and in the public eye, in 2015 we worked with Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) to secure federal funding for the landmark National Academy of Sciences study, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, which was published in 2019. This study, written by a committee of the country’s leading experts, confirmed that we already have the evidence on what policies have the biggest poverty-reducing impact for children, including specifically for children of color, and that providing families with flexible cash assistance through a monthly child allowance was the most effective way to combat child poverty, reduce racial-economic inequality, and improve children’s long-term outcomes.

This study has been widely influential, ultimately informing the improvements to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan that make up most of its child poverty-reducing impacts. We want to ensure — as do Reps. Roybal-Allard, Lee, and other Congressional champions — that the momentum that resulted from this study and the American Rescue Plan are not lost.

Therefore, we urge Congress to:

a) Establish a Children’s Interagency Coordinating Council in the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which would help federal agencies work together to improve children’s well-being and promote racial equity by increasing the collection and reporting of data on children’s outcomes, creating or improving cross-cutting initiatives, and identifying gaps and barriers where programs are not reaching vulnerable children and families

Due to the leadership of Reps. Roybal-Allard and Lee, language to establish this council was included in both the House and Senate FY 2022 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee Reports. We are continuing efforts to ensure that this council is included in a final FY 2022 spending bill.

b) Pass the Child Poverty Reduction Act (S. 643/H.R. 1558), led by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), which would codify a national target to end child poverty and direct resources to the National Academy of Sciences to analyze and monitor progress toward this goal. A target is essential to support the effective implementation and analysis of the improvements to the Child Tax Credit as well as other child poverty-reducing investments from the American Rescue Plan and the Build Back Better plan currently being negotiated. Over 160 organizations support this legislation, and the Child Poverty Action Group urges organizations and individuals to take action to encourage their Members of Congress to support this bill.

There is more energy and attention behind reducing child poverty in the United States than possibly ever before. We know what works. We have the tools laid out in front of us. Now we need the political will to enact these transformative changes to ensure every child has the resources they need to support their healthy development. I hope you will join First Focus and the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group in working to end child poverty in the United States once and for all.

Ending “Remain in Mexico” Policy is the minimum: We must implement child-centered border policies.

| October 25, 2021 |

President Biden came into office promising a “fair, orderly, and humane immigration system.” While his Administration has taken important steps toward that goal — including fighting for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and undoing the Africa and Muslim bans — the President has failed to uphold his promise at a critical point: The border. The Administration has continued to use the pandemic to summarily expel asylum-seeking families and adults from the border, a policy that permitted the recent mistreatment and abuse of Haitians seeking safety. Most recently, the Biden administration has failed to fight for the complete end of the Remain in Mexico program.

The Remain in Mexico program is a Trump-era policy that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while U.S. officials reviewed their case for asylum. Under the program, children experienced violence, family separation, and sham court proceedings that denied them due process. We applauded the Biden Administration for suspending the program on Day One, allowing those with active cases to enter the United States, and for formally ending the program in June. And yet, in mid-October, the Administration notified a federal court that it is taking steps to reimplement the Remain in Mexico program as soon as mid-November.

So, what happened? The states of Texas and Missouri sued the Biden Administration over its decision to end the Remain in Mexico program and a federal judge decided in their favor, saying that the Biden Administration hadn’t sufficiently explained why it ended the program. The Administration appealed this decision all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost. The Court said the government had to abide by the earlier ruling and act in good faith to reinstate Remain in Mexico.

However, the Biden Administration had options. Most of all, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could have — and should have — written a new memo to more fully explain why it ended the Remain in Mexico program. Importantly, this new memo could have explained not only the logistical nightmare of the program, but its toll on human life and dignity. An amicus brief joined by First Focus on Children and other child advocacy organizations outlines story after story of the danger and indignity children and their families faced in Mexico. Unfortunately, while DHS has announced that it will issue a new termination memo, the Administration has offered no details or timeline for how quickly it will again rescind Remain in Mexico. It has, however, laid out a clear timeline for restarting this policy that inflicted so much harm on children and families.

There is no lawful, safe, or humane way to turn children back into danger. Ending the Remain in Mexico policy was the right thing to do, and the Administration must act quickly to end it once and for all.

But ending cruel policies is the least our government can do. We have long positioned our nation as the beacon on a hill, a safe haven for those in danger. However, with policies like Remain in Mexico and expulsions under Title 42, our country fails to live up to those ideals. U.S. border policy must prioritize the safety and well-being of children without compromise. The only legal and humane way forward is for the government to fully restore our asylum system and provide children and families a safe place to live in the United States, access to lawyers, family unity, and a fair and just chance to seek safety. Anything less is less than kids deserve.

Why Paris Hilton and I were at the Capitol yesterday

| October 21, 2021 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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