The Need for Pro Bono in Children’s Rights

By Daniela Ramirez-Ledesma, PBI Intern

As provided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, every child in this world has the right to be protected from neglect, abuse, exploitation, and mistreatment and should grow up in a nurturing home with food, health care, and education. Sadly, this does not always happen, and over 600,000 children every year are abused in the United States. Children’s rights are fundamental in advancing human rights for all, but without the help of pro bono attorneys, children often are forced to live under unlivable circumstances and experience physical, emotional, and mental abuse from their families. There are more children in need than organizations can help, so exploring ways to build children’s rights projects in our community is crucial.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Children, held in 1989, established 54 articles to define specific children’s rights and how each country’s government should work to ensure these rights are protected. One hundred ninety-six countries signed and ratified the treaty. The United States is the only nation that chose not to ratify it because, according to the Bush administration, the treaty conflicted with U.S. laws regarding privacy and family rights. In the U.S., children have the same constitutional rights as adults, such as the right to privacy, due process, and freedom of expression. Although the Constitution does not explicitly give children specific rights, there are several federal laws in the U.S. that ensure children are protected and safe, such as the compulsory education, child labor, and child welfare laws. The compulsory education laws vary across jurisdictions. For example, in D.C., every child is required to attend school Monday through Friday, from the age of 5 to 18 years old, unless the child has a valid absence excuse. If a child is not attending school, then the school must incorporate interventions to improve the child’s attendance. If the attendance is not improved, then it can be considered as educational child neglect and the child can be referred to the Juvenile Justice system as a Person in Need of Supervision. Federal child labor laws prohibit employing minors under the age of 14 and restrict the hours and types of work that can be performed by minors under 16. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) gives the federal government the responsibility to address child abuse and neglect. It also provides funding to public agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to prevent, assess, investigate, prosecute, and treat child abuse.

Although there are laws that protect the wellbeing of a child, many children’s needs are not met, and the “standards relating to the health, safety, and wellbeing of children are applied unevenly across jurisdictions.” The U.S. does protect children from abuse, neglect, and mistreatment by allowing the government to intervene when parents/caregivers are violating their right to protection. Unfortunately, many children have their rights violated daily and seek help through nonprofit organizations that have public interest and pro bono attorneys working for them. According to the D.C. Children’s Law Center, most of their case referrals come from judges, pediatricians, parents & caregivers, teachers, and social workers. The most common referral sources are from education (18.4 percent) and legal/law enforcement (18.3 percent). Pro bono work is needed to respond to these referrals and to ensure every child is treated with justice and receives the basic needs to excel in life.

The primary issue areas for engaging in children’s rights pro bono work include but are not limited to custody support, immigration, human trafficking, juvenile justice, care and protection, education, and health care. Many organizations have pro bono projects where they seek to recruit attorneys to help with pro bono work and provide them with training and guidance on how to help with children’s rights. Below are some examples of organizations that are dedicated to offering legal pro bono work for children’s rights:

  1. The Children’s Law Center is one of the largest nonprofits in D.C., whose goal is to help protect children’s rights by taking legal action. Children’s Law Center provides legal services to the D.C. community by ensuring children receive quality education, supporting families to stabilize, solving health problems, and advocating for systematic reform. CLC provides mentoring, training, tools, and resources to attorneys new to pro bono work to help guide and encourage them. They partner with over 500 pro bono lawyers every year and are always in need of more pro bono volunteers. You can find more information on how to sign up to become a pro bono volunteer with this link.
  2. The Children’s Rights organization uses advocacy and legal action to work towards investigating, exposing, and combating any violations of children’s rights. Their advocacy includes child health, keeping families together, holding the government accountable, fighting for immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, and racial and youth justice. The Children’s Rights organization has helped over 2 million children through legal action and will continue to help protect children by “exposing the dysfunction and deep roots of racism inside child welfare systems.”
  3. Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) is an international organization that is devoted to protecting unaccompanied and separated children in search of safety. KIND partners with private sector pro bono, NGOs, international organizations, and governments to help unaccompanied children with legal and psychological support. They primarily focus on protecting children through legal protection, policy and advocacy, family separation, psychosocial support, reintegration programs, and Central American Minors (CAM) application programs. Through KIND, you can become involved in many different ways: through donations, becoming a pro bono attorney, or volunteering.
  4. The Alliance for Children’s Rights is another nonprofit organization that focuses on the rights of children who are abused, neglected, or in poverty. The alliance offers various pro bono opportunities such as adoption, probate legal guardianship, education advocacy, services for youth transitioning out of foster care, foster care benefits, Supplemental Security Income, and many other opportunities. They will provide training, manuals, support, and supervision to help you through your pro bono work. With the help of pro bono attorneys, they have been able to help over 150,000 children. You can join their community of pro bono partners by clicking on this link.
  5. Another organization that has developed a successful pro bono project is the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC). Their main goal is to become advocates for policy reform while training and certifying attorneys representing children, families, and agencies. NACC offers training, conferences, certifications, and opportunities to become a policy advocate to protect children’s rights. This is one of many organizations offering different programs to help children live the quality of life they deserve.

Every child deserves to grow up in a loving and safe environment. We all have the power to help transform a child’s life for the better, so I urge you to seek ways to help children get the justice they deserve.

For more information on how to advance justice for children either through direct representation, policy advocacy, strategic litigation, clinics, research projects, and capacity-building efforts, please join us at our Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference from March 6, 2024 – March 8, 2024 at the Westin Washington D.C., Downtown. The children’s rights panel will take place on March 7, 2024, from 3:30 PM – 4:45 PM. The session, titled “‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ Needs Pro Bono Too: Building and Finding Pro Bono for Children and Youth” features the following expert speakers: Kim Dvorchak, Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC), Angela Vigil, Pro Bono Partner and Executive Director of Global Pro Bono at Baker McKenzie, and Chris Tirrell, Senior Commercial and Product Counsel at Google.