Moving Beyond Siloes: Urgent Need for an Integrated Approach to Children’s Rights and Well-Being

Jonathan Todres

Child development is multi-faceted and complex. Although the lived experience of children cannot be neatly parsed into siloes, government responses to, and support for, children are typically divided among sectors. From education to health care to juvenile justice, different departments and agencies typically develop and implement narrowly defined programs. The problem with this approach is that it risks failing to deliver meaningful assistance to the children and adolescents who need it most.

Human rights—and children’s rights—are interrelated and interdependent.[1] That is, the realization of one’s right to education depends in part on securing housing rights, health rights, and more. In turn, securing one’s education rights can help to realize health rights. Further, all rights are intertwined with the right to live free from discrimination. The interconnected nature of human rights means that siloed responses are likely to produce suboptimal results. For example, education-specific interventions, such as the range of school-based ideas being considered to address COVID-19 related learning loss, might help some children, but such measures might fail to reach the children who are also experiencing inadequate nutrition, housing insecurity, and lack of consistent access to health care. In short, continuing down the road of over-relying on sector-specific responses is failing our most vulnerable children.

What is needed is a comprehensive, integrated response to issues affecting children, so that the rights of all children are fulfilled. A critical step is the creation of a high-level government body dedicated to children.

There are various paths to achieving this step, including the creation of an independent Children’s Commissioner, a White House Office on Children and Youth, or a Cabinet level department that overseas all issues affecting children. Whichever approach is taken, it is essential that such an entity is given the mandate and resources to help coordinate the array of systems that affect children—from health and education, to social services and juvenile justice, to transportation and infrastructure, and more. Young people’s lives are affected by all sectors of society, including both public and private entities. To ensure children thrive and develop, we need a holistic approach that recognizes the impact of various systems on children.

A holistic approach to child well-being in the United States requires that we mainstream children’s rights.[2] Mainstreaming children’s rights involves two critical elements. First, it means taking into account children’s rights and needs across all sectors of society. Second, it means accounting for children’s views and their rights at each stage in the process of developing law, policy, and programs to support children and their families. Children’s rights and well-being must be a central consideration in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation stages of all law, policy, and programs.

A high-level government body that coordinates policy and programmatic responses to children can help ensure that children’s interests are represented and addressed from the outset. From developing a national plan of action on children’s issues to designing and implementing specific legislative and regulatory strategies, a Secretary for Children and Youth (or similar senior official) could ensure both that children’s interests are represented, and that young people have avenues through which they can make their voices heard on issues that matter to them, their peers, and their communities.

Children have no voting rights and little, if any, economic power. This combination makes it all too easy for policymakers to overlook their interests. Doing so leaves us with a piecemeal approach to the breadth of issues that affect, and often harm, children. The United States can do so much better, but doing so requires a commitment to developing a comprehensive, coordinated response to the issues that affect children’s lives and healthy development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency of a senior-level post focused on children’s issues. Children are suffering an array of harms as a result of the pandemic, including learning loss, adverse mental health consequences, housing and food insecurity, maltreatment, and more.[3] Moreover, many parents and caregivers are similarly overwhelmed by the pandemic’s impact and have little time and resources to advocate on behalf of their children.

A critical, long-overdue step is to elevate children’s interests by establishing a senior-level government body that can ensure the United States genuinely prioritizes the rights and well-being of all children.

Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor & Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law, Atlanta, USA.

[1] Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,4 (2005),; Philip Alston, “Economic and Social Rights,” Studies in Transnational Legal Policy (1994) 26: 137-166.

[2] Child Rights Connect, Mainstreaming Child Rights: A Call for a UN-wide Strategy on Child Rights in Response to

Our Common Agenda, Position Paper (Sept. 2021),; Jonathan Todres, “Mainstreaming Children’s Rights in Post-disaster Settings.” Emory International Law Review (2011) 25(3): 1233-1261.

[3] American Academy of Pediatrics, COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools and Promotion of In-Person Learning, (last updated Jan. 27, 2022); UNICEF, Preventing a lost decade: Urgent action to reverse the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people (December 2021),