Making room for children in adversity

Making room for children in adversity

Yesterday was a good day for children. Hard to believe it, given recent events and the news of death, violence, and the suffering of children around the world. Millions are living in adverse conditions, barely surviving, often completely alone. In response, on Wednesday USAID launched a "whole of government" approach to this global challenge in the form of the first ever U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. This new framework for international assistance targets children who are affected by HIV/AIDS, orphaned, trafficked, exploited for labor, recruited as soldiers, neglected, or in other vulnerable states. It has the potential to dramatically increase the impact of our assistance to improve the lives of highly vulnerable children, especially those living outside family care, by coordinating efforts across multiple U.S. agencies and allowing greater collaboration with civil society. One year ago on this blog, I advocated for a bipartisan initiative, along the lines of PEPFAR, to improve our response to the pressing child protection needs around the world. Though the recently launched initiative sadly does not come with significant new funds, I am delighted to see the White House hosting its launch.

Two recent events highlight the importance of the current focus on child protection. The first, of course, is the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As our country mourns the loss of innocent life, grieves for the families of victims, and tries to explain why this happened to our children, we understand, perhaps more than ever, the need to protect children from adversity or help them recover from it. The children who died at Sandy Hook were clearly loved by their families, their teachers, and their community. One of the teachers, Kaitlin Roig, gave an interview describing her experience saving several of her students by hiding in a bathroom. She made sure to tell them that she loved them all very much, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard in case they died. There are millions of children in the world today who witness or directly experience horrors similar to the Newtown shootings but have no family or other adults to know their pain, mourn their loss, or comfort their fears.   

The second event was the untimely death to cancer of Rwanda’s Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Aloisea Inyumba, at age 48. Mrs. Inyumba was, among many honorable achievements, a superhero for children. In 1994, immediately after the Rwandan genocide, she was a young cabinet minister in her twenties who knew that children, especially traumatized ones, belong in families. She worked tirelessly in intense circumstances, to ensure that the vast majority of the 100,000-plus children separated or orphaned by the genocide were reunited with their families or placed with new families through a national adoption campaign. After reassuming the role of Minister of Gender in 2011, she led the country to set as a policy goal the closing of all orphanages in Rwanda through placement of all children in families.

What the Sandy Hook teacher and Minister Inyumba knew to be true is also backed up by science. Research developments in neuroscience, health, and child welfare increasingly show the detrimental effects of "toxic stress", created by many types of adversity, on a child’s development. Research also shows the importance of the love, care, and protection a family can provide to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and improve outcomes for children into adulthood. The Action Plan’s primary objectives of building strong beginnings, putting family care first and protecting children will help all stakeholders focus on the most effective ways to improve outcomes for children. It is not just the right thing to do. It is the most strategic investment we can make with our foreign assistance and charitable giving. 

The Action Plan also includes calls for more evidence-based research and child protection system strengthening. Both require new tools to enumerate children living outside family care and to help those working with the children to better keep track of their case histories and find solutions for each of them. That is the mission of a new organization I founded called Each Inc. We join many civil society groups across the political and religious spectrum in supporting the Action Plan that prioritizes partnerships and provides a way for all of us to work together. As we prepare for the holidays, many of us ponder the first Christmas when there was no room at the inn for Jesus. My hope this season is that more of us will make room in our hearts and homes for children suffering alone right now. If we do, the world will be better for generations to come, and we will be blessed.