April 12, 2024

Student Reflection on Benforado Talk “How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All”

[Benforado] inspired me to continue advocating for the cause of putting children first.

Minjee Kim PPS '25

Dr. Adam Benforado, professor of law at Drexel University, discussed the importance of prioritizing child wellbeing in public policy as part of the Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture series on March 7, 2024. Benforado was welcomed by the Duke Centennial, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Center for Child and Family Policy.

Benforado began by providing an overview of the history of children’s rights in the U.S. to show that recent improvements in child wellbeing fall short of expected progress, given the explosion of technology, knowledge, and wealth over the last 100 years. He pointed to particular areas of concern, including the recent movement to weaken child labor laws in many states and the still-common practice of treating teenagers like adults in the criminal justice system, despite teenagers not being granted the same rights as adults. Benforado also pointed to other countries as benchmarks, noting that the U.S. remains one of three countries, along with Somalia and South Sudan, that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects the rights of children 18 or younger.

Benforado emphasized that this was not simply a matter of morality—a failure to ensure child wellbeing today has significant negative impacts on our future economy and society. In the face of such troubling developments, he argued that the purpose of law should be to prioritize the interests of children—not just in children’s issues like education and foster care, but in all areas of law. Doing so, Benforado explained, could remind us of our values and present a more cost-effective way to create the society we want.

Benforado argued that prioritizing youth could also allow us to be more proactive in policy and lawmaking, since children are essentially the canaries in our coal mines. Because children are more sensitive to various hazards, zeroing in on their wellbeing could help us intervene earlier during the critical window of opportunity in childhood, with major benefits for everyone. For example, when considering issues of climate change, water safety or infrastructure, if the wellbeing of children were prioritized, the policy and legal outcomes would be considerably different. Benforado recognized that restructuring the legal system to put children first may feel radical, but he explained that current legal movements such as originalism, were similarly radical when they were conceived. He argues that “children first” is as valid as any other basis for legal and political decision making. He expressed his hopes that this talk and his book, A Minor Revolution, encourage people to think big and push for more ambitious goals.

As a student pursuing the Child Policy Research Certificate at the Center for Child and Family Policy, I appreciated hearing such an inspirational call to action. When I explain my studies to friends and family, I have found that many seem to think of children’s matters as separate from the “bigger issues” facing society. That is evident in Congress as well, where children’s rights are not at the forefront of many of the bills being discussed. But, as Benforado shared with us during his lecture, it is impractical to think of youth as separate from the rest of society.

Benforado’s discussion of children’s rights in the criminal justice context was particularly relevant to me. For the past two years, I have been part of a Bass Connections team exploring trauma-informed approaches to juvenile justice and, as part of our research, I have observed juvenile court proceedings and talked to various actors in the juvenile justice system. Throughout the talk, Benforado explained how promoting the wellbeing of youth used to be seen as a collective goal, but over time, the task of raising children has become the sole responsibility of parents. This reminded me of how, since the late twentieth century, parents continue to be charged exorbitant fees for their children’s incarceration. This policy began under the belief that parents were trying to shift the responsibility of disciplining children to the government. For many parents who are charged these fees, it feels like the government is rubbing salt into the wound of having their child detained for a prolonged period of time. I am sure that Benforado’s message about the collective project of raising the next generation resonated with the future policymakers who attended the event. It certainly inspired me to continue advocating for the cause of putting children first.

Minjee Kim is a junior majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Global Health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She hopes to pursue a career in law advocating for evidence-based reform.