Child Advocates Hope For A Champion In Kirsten Gillibrand

The senator has a solid track record when it comes to fighting for children's rights, children's advocates say.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) joined the 2020 presidential race by saying, “As a young mom, I am gonna fight for other people’s kids as hard as I fight for my own” in an appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

Gillibrand vowed to improve kids’ access to health care and public schools ― and child advocates say her promises about children’s rights are likely to be more than just talk.

Experts are hopeful the senator’s track record and the fact that she made kids the headline of her announcement on Tuesday means they would also be a priority if she was elected to the White House.

“She’s one of those people who puts her money where her mouth is,” said Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, an advocacy group for children and families. “She makes [children’s rights] enough of priority that if she was elected president, she would do good by kids.”

Lesley says that under the Trump administration, children’s rights have taken a hit. Trump has proposed slashing funding for children’s programs, including child care and food assistance programs, and the president has created policies that actively harm children, such as family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lesley adds that even Democrats, who often say the right thing about children, have been failing to pass legislation that tackles important issues such as child poverty and child abuse. He’s hopeful that Gillibrand and other rumored Democratic presidential candidates with strong track records on child advocacy, such as Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), could make a difference.

“If she was elected president, she would do good by kids.”

- Bruce Lesley, president of advocacy group First Focus

Gillibrand says she wants to change the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee new mothers paid leave, and it will likely be part of her 2020 agenda. In 2013, she released a bill to create America’s first universal paid family leave program, and since then, she has reintroduced the legislation every year in Congress.

“Our policies are stuck in the Mad Men era,” she said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “We are the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee workers paid family leave. Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth.”

Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, recently told The Washington Post that “Gillibrand has been 100 percent committed and dedicated to this issue ... She’s definitely led the charge in the Senate.”

Gillibrand has supported legislation that would provide all unaccompanied immigrant children with a lawyer in court, but her immigration record hasn’t always been so progressive. Critics point out that before becoming a senator in 2009, she opposed any form of amnesty for undocumented immigrants and co-sponsored the SAVE Act, which called for more border guards, surveillance technology and speedier deportations.

Lesley says that in his organization’s annual ranking of how much senators and representatives support children’s rights, Gillibrand is consistently in the top tier, and in 2014, she earned the No. 1 spot. He says her advocacy for medical care stands out in particular.

Along with supporting universal health care, Gillibrand has focused on making sure families who don’t qualify for Medicaid but who are still struggling to pay for health insurance are covered.

In 2017, she called on Senate Republicans to continue funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides insurance to over 300,000 kids in New York, and in 2018, she introduced the Basic Health Program Expansion Act of 2018, aimed at helping low and middle-income New Yorkers pay for coverage. She’s also introduced legislation involving infertility and children affected by autism.

Gillibrand also works to support child abuse victims. In 2017, she was part of a coalition of senators introducing legislation to combat sexual assault on campus and to protect children in military families from abuse.

In 2015, she helped pass federal funding to help states adopt Erin’s Law, a bill that requires public schools to teach students how to recognize and report child abuse. Erin Merryn, a child abuse survivor and advocate who helped draft Erin’s Law, says she could not have passed the bill in 35 states without Gillibrand’s legislation.

“She’d be a dream for every child abuse prevention agency in America if she was elected [to] office,” said Merryn. “She would be the perfect person to [elect] if you want to see kids being put first.”