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 56 bills introduced in state legislatures
would bar trans youth from playing on the sports teams that match their gender
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
As President Biden looks to see
every adult vaccinated by summer, we are still waiting for a vaccine for our
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
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.
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.”
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 children. We 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 anempoweredcommunity. 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.
Suspensions, expulsions, and
They make schools less
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.