Reading the News is a Constant Reminder of Why We Need a National Children’s Commissioner

Child Rights

I felt uneasy as I was doing my usual scroll through the daily news last week and read about child sexual abuse, child abuse in government facilities, and the failure of government agencies to accept responsibility for children in their care. However, my uneasiness did not stem from the fact this was happening, but that I was not even surprised by it any more.

Children are the nation’s most vulnerable population. With no proper representation in the government, they have a heightened chance to be subject to abuse, exploitation, and neglect. The rate of news coming out these days regarding the abuse of children is astonishing, and there is no end in sight as long as children remain underrepresented, shortchanged, and forgotten. Just look at last week, for example, when three major instances of abuse against children surfaced.

First, a grand jury in Pennsylvania issued an explosive report last Tuesday showing that hundreds of Bishops and leaders in the Roman Catholic Church of Pennsylvania perpetrated and covered up the sexual abuse of around 1,000 children over a period of 70 years. The scope of these abuses and the subsequent cover-ups are staggering, and the Roman Catholic Church was left free to run its own phony investigations and allow abusers to remain employed at the church. The lack of a proper investigation by both the church and outside officials allowed the church to prioritize its own self-image and the reputation of its establishment over the interests of abused and traumatized children. Worst of all, the disregard for the well-being of children under their care allowed the problem to fester until the cases were too old to prosecute, leaving countless children traumatized for life.

Also on Tuesday of last week, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice released a report regarding the alleged abuse of immigrant children at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. Governor Ralph Northam ordered this review in June after the Associated Press published accounts of children as young as 14 who said facility officials handcuffed, shackled and beat them. However, the investigation did not even look into those past abuses—investigators only inquired about the 22 children currently housed there. On top of this, the facility would not allow state investigators to interview the children without a staff member present and barred them from copying or making notes on case files, medical records, and other documents. The report confirms that the facility restrained immigrant children by strapping them to chairs and placing mesh bags over their heads, but, shockingly, concludes that this is not child abuse.

Lastly, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on investigations continued their probe into the treatment and care of unaccompanied immigrant children in a report issued last Wednesday. The report states that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not taken proper responsibility for tracking unaccompanied children once they are out of government care and in the custody of sponsors. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for processing unaccompanied children at the border, after which HHS is charged with housing them in shelters and screening adult sponsors to care for them as they await immigration court proceedings. However, once children are with sponsors, HHS does not take any measures to ensure their well-being besides a one-time phone call, which often goes unanswered. Thanks to this lack of follow-up, HHS could not account for nearly 1,500 children who left its custody this past year. This is worrisome given the 2015 finding that HHS released eight immigrant children into the custody of sponsors who forced the children to work twelve-hour days on a farm in horrible working conditions. It took an exhaustive committee investigation to even unearth these shortcomings, and, as of now, there has still been no noticeable improvement.

These examples of child abuse and neglect, as well as the lack of government oversight and action in response, seem shocking—and this is just one week’s worth of news. The true scope of the plight of children in our country is much larger, of which these stories are just a small sample. One thing is becoming clear: our country desperately needs a national Children’s Commissioner that advocates for and protects the well-being of children. When adults are tasked with conducting internal investigations, they almost always ignore what’s best for the children. These instances, along with many others, prove that adults can and do exploit the vulnerability of children to further their own image and interests. The only way to even the playing field for children is to install an independent Commissioner with an unbiased, vested interest in protecting children—something the federal government currently lacks.

The concept of a Children’s Commissioner is not new. More than 40 U.N. countries have created Commissioner positions or similar bodies since 1990. England, Ireland, and New Zealand are just a few examples of Children’s Commissioner making a difference for children in their country. In the U.S., Tennessee and Connecticut, among others, have established robust Commissions of their own on a state level. An independent Children’s Commissioner would have the power to investigate matters like the stories above, and the role’s exclusive focus on children would spur action far sooner with more impactful outcomes.

The United States should follow in the footsteps of other countries and states that have given kids the attention they deserve from the government and have established children’s commissioners to do just that.