Publications, opinions, and speeches


Protecting children: moving from a focus on immediate needs to acknowledging rights

Published on 07/07/2016

Maytree’s human rights approach to poverty reduction connects with my interest and experience working to improve the lives of children, a journey which began while working as a consultant with UNICEF starting in 1999. I quickly learned that children’s issues are not simply a matter of charity or needs, but a matter of justice and fulfillment of human rights.

Meeting immediate needs versus acknowledging rights

The International Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed by world leaders in 1989 as a special agreement that recognized the right of children to special care and protection. It has received unprecedented international support. In fact, the only country in the world that has not ratified it is the United States. However, in spite of ratifying the Convention, many governments continue to respond only to children’s immediate needs rather than their rights.

Needs- and rights- based approaches present different starting points. Focusing on immediate needs follows a charity model of addressing poverty. In the interest of only addressing the needs of children, it does not consider the broader context and systems which created those needs in the first place. For example, because children may be institutionalized before the details of their situations are assessed, they are vulnerable to the choices that governments or other institutions might make on their behalf. By not looking at a child’s entire situation, it is impossible to recognize where the system might be failing them. This exposes them to band-aid solutions which can result in actions that exacerbate the problem. Declaring a child “at risk,” for example, focuses on how to mitigate that risk or achieve an outcome that separates the child from risk. As a result it does not address how the child landed in the situation in the first place.

In contrast, a human rights approach based on the Convention of the Rights of the Child starts with a holistic view of a child’s situation and considers where the system may be failing him or her. It identifies which rights are not being guaranteed or protected, as well as the root cause of each violation. In the case where parents are not able to protect rights because of poverty, unemployment, marginalization or other circumstances that make them vulnerable, it is the responsibility of the government to provide support and work with them to enable the family to fulfill their children’s rights.

The Convention also guarantees children the right to have their voices considered in relation to decisions that affect them. This means expressing their views in their own voices in a medium of their choice and giving their views due weight. Such an approach adds to the government or institution’s understanding and assessment of a child’s complete situation which can help identify where their rights are not being acknowledged or where the solutions being implemented do not meet their needs.

Labelling children ignores issues with the system

During my time at UNICEF I was responsible for legislation and public policy in accordance with the Convention. This included compiling best practices for juvenile interventions.

In Latin America, where social institutions are often under-resourced, children considered to be “at risk” are institutionalized, rather than having their situations assessed in detail. To do so would require more social workers and healthcare practitioners, more coordination and ultimately an analysis of the system. In the needs-based approach, governments are quick to label children as “street children” or “children at risk,” detracting from the fact that there are systems that are broken that are creating these conditions.

It is a one-size-fits-all approach that treats all children the same, ignoring the specific needs of children with disabilities, those facing domestic violence, sexual exploitation, or who have to work to sustain their families.

I once interviewed a Chilean man who grew up during the 1980s. Government authorities found him begging in the streets and not going to school. Without considering or exploring the details of how he got there, the authorities labelled him “at risk,” separated him from his family, and decided that institutionalization was the best solution for his case. They placed him in an orphanage where he was supposed to be provided with food, education and healthcare.

After experiencing abuse, he escaped and fell into a life of crime. He told me that all the children he met in the orphanage were put through the same procedure, regardless of the details of their situation. Those in charge of the system neglected to assess their individual situations in their entirety, therefore addressing their needs only partially.

A needs-based approach systematically fails children because it doesn’t begin from an analysis of their rights. This approach to “protecting” children was standard procedure in many parts of the world during the second half of the last century and continues in many places today.

What it means to focus on the rights of children

Looking at the above example, what would a rights-based approach look like? When government authorities found the child begging in the streets and not going to school, they would have referred him to social services. He would have met with a social worker, who would have asked about his family and had his overall situation assessed. If possible, the family would have been contacted and interviewed and, from there, they would have assessed and reported on his situation in its entirety.

During the assessment, the social worker would determine whether he was in an abusive situation (i.e. domestic violence or sexual abuse) or if there was a lack of resources to care for him. If it was a case of abuse, this would lead to charges against the adult responsible and their subsequent removal from the home. Before putting him into an institution, social workers would try to find another family member to care for him.

Protecting children’s rights means recognizing that poverty is created and systemic. It also requires us to look at everyone’s ability to claim economic and social rights. This includes rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education.

Children’s rights in Ontario

Children’s rights were recently acknowledged in Ontario through the report Because young people matter, released by the Residential Services Panel convened by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS). It follows a system-wide review of Ontario’s child and youth residential services and offers a critical look at what needs to be done to ensure that children receive quality care.

It is encouraging that during the research phase of the report, among the 865 people consulted across the province, 264 of them were young people. This reflects one of the report’s central themes that the voices of children need to be heard and their rights respected.

Among the recommendations suggested in the report are that MCYS create:

  • An advisory council of children, youth, families and caregivers to provide access to clinical expertise and lived experience;
  • A Data Analytics and Reporting Unit to collect and analyze all data including Serious Occurrence reports, quality of care assessments, as well as data related to gender, race-based and identity rights; and
  • A Continuity of Care Unit mandated to monitor changes in placements and care trajectories of each child in care.

Even though the report does not use a formal rights-based approach, some recommendations and elements are consistent with it, including:

  • Creating mechanisms for accountability and governance;
  • Measuring progress within an organized system of updated and coordinated data and information;
  • Providing access points and improving the quality of service through training and capacity building of staff, addressing the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit young people in residential care and adequate services to marginalized groups; and
  • Including those with lived experience to poverty, in particular youth and their families, in the decision making process.

While the report makes no overt reference to the Convention of the Rights of the Child or to the improvement of the domestic legislation or regulation, it is an important step toward examining the systems that create poverty, protect children’s rights, and ensure that children can actively assert their rights.


Human rights


What it means to focus on the rights of children and why we can be hopeful for children in care in Ontario.