Blog: The Ultimate Denial of Children’s Rights

Picture of Jill Berrick

BLOG: Voices in the US are advocating to abolish child welfare. This is a dangerous and irresponsible suggestion.

Blogpost by Jill D. Berrick, Professor II at the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism and Professor at UC Berkeley.

Calls to address longstanding racial injustice in the U.S. came to a fevered pitch in May, 2020, when George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the midst of the summer protests calling for a national affirmation that Black Lives Matter, the COVID pandemic was taking a disproportionate toll on the lives of black and brown members of the U.S. community.

These circumstances, combined, sparked a nationwide awakening about the deeply embedded racialized systems that have been the hallmark of law enforcement, health, education, and child protection, for decades.

The arousal of public consciousness has kindled new ideas for reform. Following on recommendations to Defund the Police, some authors have offered sweeping proposals to totally abolish the U.S. child welfare system.

These ideas, given voice through the upEND movement, are based on assumptions that child welfare systems harm families and that they disproportionately harm black families. Lost in the discussion is a research-based appraisal about the impact of child welfare on children and whether children’s rights would be protected in a country without a child welfare system.

Black families are over-represented

Research consistently shows that black families are over-represented in the U.S. child welfare system. According to some estimates, about 5 per 100 white children are victims of verified maltreatment before the age of six. The rate is double for black children (11.8 per 100).

Black children are also separated from their families and placed in foster care at rates that are approximately two times higher than rates for white children[1]. Over the course of childhood, about 5 % of all U.S. children will spend some time in foster care; about 10 % of all black children will spend a portion of their childhood in care.[2]

These are only some of the data indicating that black children experience disparate risks in the U.S. Black children are also twice as likely to be born low-birth weighttwice as likely to experience infant mortalitythree times more likely to experience poverty; and about 1.5 times more likely to die before adulthood.[3]

If the answer to these troubling statistics is the withdrawal of a mechanism designed to protect children from harm, then children’s rights are clearly trivial in the U.S. context.

Parents’ rights vs. Family rights

The history of Americans’ stance towards children’s rights suggests deep-rooted ambivalence. Although U.S. officials were closely involved in crafting the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the Convention was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. During congressional deliberations, parents’ rights advocates launched an aggressive campaign against the Convention. Cleverly supplanting the language of parents’ rights with family rights, these advocates argued that the UNCRC would enable the state to eclipse the family.

If the answer to these troubling statistics is the withdrawal of a mechanism designed to protect children from harm, then children’s rights are clearly trivial in the U.S. context.

Advocates further asserted that children would gain unfettered access to family planning services (including, importantly, abortion), that the treaty would allow children to rebel against their parents, that corporal punishment would be banned, and that parents would not be able to control children’s religious affiliation.[4]

While legislative efforts in the U.S. stalled, countries across the globe quickly ratified the treaty. Today, the UNCRC is considered the most widely accepted human rights document in history.[5] The U.S. stands alone as the only country on earth that has not ratified the Convention.

A denial of children’s basic rights

The strategy of obfuscating children’s rights by wrapping them in the mantle of family rights has been extremely effective. In part, this is because the interests of children typically align with the interests of parents in healthy, safe families.

But the narrative of family rights becomes problematic for children who are raised with caregivers who are unable or unwilling to provide basic safety and care. For these children, the family rights narrative is a ruse that can camouflage serious maltreatment and deny children basic rights.

Today, the UNCRC is considered the most widely accepted human rights document in history. The U.S. stands alone as the only country on earth that has not ratified the Convention.

The latest incarnation of a family rights agenda is being propelled by the upEND movement and their call to abolish child welfare. Their tag line, that “all children deserve to be with their families,” is fitting for children whose safety is secure.

For children who live with the fear and uncertainty of serious maltreatment, their call to “end the current child welfare system as we know it,” including the opportunity to be safely and temporarily cared for by relatives or non-relatives in foster care, exposes children to harm without a viable alternative.

A dangerous suggestion

There are deeply embedded, longstanding, structural circumstances in the U.S. that put black children at risk for a number of adverse outcomes. Tackling those conditions should be one of the highest priorities of U.S. domestic policy.

To suggest, however, that the structure designed to protect black children from egregious harm should be eliminated, is akin to recommending that because black adults are at disproportionate risk of COVID-19, emergency rooms should be dismantled. The suggestion is irresponsible and dangerous.

There is an almost-global consensus that children have individual rights. Some of those rights include children’s right to dignity, that their voice should be heard, and that they should be protected from maltreatment.

Countries around the world have responded to the principles of the UNCRC in part by establishing child protection systems designed to secure some modicum of safety for children whose harm is unaddressed by family, friends, neighbors, or the community. If the U.S. determines that we should turn our back on vulnerable black children in the name of family rights — just as we stepped aside on the UNCRC — we will become an international pariah.

Calls to reform and improve the US child welfare system are critical and should be heeded. Efforts to support black families, who carry disproportionate burdens in U.S. society, are especially urgent. But calls to abolish the child welfare system wholesale are the ultimate denial of children’s rights.


[1] Putnam-Hornstein, E., Needell, B., King, B., & Johnson-Montoya, M. (2013). Racial and ethnic disparities: A population-based examination of risk factors for involvement with child protective services. Child Abuse and Neglect, 37, 33-46.

[2] Wildeman C. & Emanuel N. (2014). Cumulative risks of foster care placement by age 18 for U.S. children, 2000–2011. PLoS ONE 9:e92785.

[3] See also: Drake, B., Jolley, J., Lanier, P., Fluke, J., Barth, R.P., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2011). Racial bias in child protection? A comparison of competing explanations using national data. Pediatrics, 127(3), 471-478.

[4] See: Barth, R.P., & Olsen, A. (2020). Are children oppressed? The timely importance of answering this question. Children and Youth Services Review, 110; Kilbourne, S. (1996). U.S. failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child: Playing politics with children’s rights. Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems, 6.

[5] As cited in Waldock: Waldock, T. (2016). Theorising children’s rights and child welfare paradigms. International journal of Children’s Rights, 24, 304-329.