Fighting for Kids in the Age of Trump

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By Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, Juvenile Law Center, and Sue Mangold, Executive Director, Juvenile Law Center

President Trump’s moral equivocation on racism and bigotry in the wake of Charlottesville has prompted countless responses across America, decrying his utter lack of moral leadership and shocking ignorance – seemingly willful – of American history. His absurd “both sides” rhetoric wrests any mantle of legitimate authority to lead our nation in these times of unrest and tragedy. The consequences of his rhetoric are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. As lawyers and advocates for children, we are especially mindful of how his words and actions can trample the fragile foundation we have built toward achieving racial, social and economic justice for youth in this country.

President Trump’s words most profoundly give succor to prevailing racist views. Structural racism persists, and this drives youth into our justice and child welfare systems; the disproportionate numbers of black and brown youth in these public systems has been a constant. Research consistently demonstrates disparities in arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates for youth of color in the justice system. Studies cited by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report that 112/100,000 white youth are incarcerated while 521/100,000 African American youth are incarcerated. In the foster care system, youth of color are more likely to be removed from their families, have longer lengths of stay in foster care and exit the system without a permanent family. In our foster care system in 2015, The Administration of Family and Children Services reported over 55% were African American, black, multiracial or Hispanic. In both systems, poverty puts youth at risk of being separated from families who are devalued and demonized. The ravages of racism are pervasive and visible.

For over forty years, Juvenile Law Center has been a fierce advocate for youth in the justice and child welfare systems. Founded in the 1970’s on the heels of the civil rights activism that swept the nation a decade earlier, we aimed to give children a voice in legal proceedings, to protect their rights and to hold the public systems set up to serve them accountable. In the intervening four decades, we have championed reforms of our justice and child welfare systems and witnessed enduring contradictions: the advancement and suppression of children’s rights, treatment of children like adult criminals and then exempting them from our most severe punishments, turning teens out of foster care at age 18 to survive on their own and now allowing states to extend financial supports and services to foster youth until age 21.

We have also worked with partners on both sides of the aisle and with six Presidents. The Justice Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were sometimes adversaries but were often allies as we worked to ensure that the rights of youth in the justice and child welfare systems were protected and that they had an opportunity to reach their potential. President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement and abusive costs and fees for youth in the federal justice system. The Every Student Succeeds Act recognized and sought to protect the unique education needs of youth in foster care and those who are incarcerated. The progress has been at times frustrating and always too slow but the arc was bending toward positive reforms.

But while our advocacy goals have been buffeted by somewhat predictable swings in crime rates, public sentiment and shifts in the political landscape, the actions of the Trump administration threaten to wreak havoc in the lives of our vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Trump’s pathetic response to the racism, bigotry and hatred that washed over the streets of Charlottesville created a fissure, risking the modest gains in decarceration and support for a more humane justice system, educational equity and economic justice. There is no moral equivalency between White supremacists and neo-Nazis whose vile and violent rhetoric preaches hate, xenophobia and intolerance, and those who stand in opposition and resistance. The lack of moral leadership at the very top of our government creates a void where shameful, ineffective or repudiated policies and practices are creeping back into our discourse, and our communities.

This backwards-facing, fact-averse administration has ignored, rolled back or cancelled prior evidence-based initiatives or directives designed to minimize incarceration and promote rehabilitation to once again using the justice system as a blunt instrument of incapacitation, cruelty and disenfranchisement. It has reinvigorated the private prison industry – both for immigration purposes but also for traditional law enforcement. It has turned away from aggressive enforcement of our civil rights laws – often promoting or defending the very polices previous administrations challenged, threatening youth of color, LGBTQ youth, and youth with disabilities in particular. It embraces criminalizing minor offenses, which for youth often means simply criminalizing adolescence. It has created a false narrative of rising crime, which invites targeted crackdowns in communities of color.

In the age of Trump, fighting for kids means we double down on our commitment to our youth. We will stand taller and stronger beside them as we work together for a just world where such despicable hatred is unacceptable.

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