Youth Justice


“. . . We see repeated efforts in Congress in recent years to take resources away from poor and middle-class children and families, like food stamps and tax credits and education funding and access to affordable health care, and give even more to the wealthy and powerful. Bipartisanship has taken a severe beating in recent years, as has the willingness of Congress to enact or support policies driven by evidence-based research that help children and families and our country as a whole.”

–Congressman George Miller, Foreword, Improving the Odds for America’s Children

More than 40 years ago the earliest planning for what would become the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) took place at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. CDF began in 1973 in a Harvard University owned clapboard house. Our beginning was bolstered by a two-volume publication of the Harvard Educational Review in 1973 and 1974 among whose top editors were CDF staff, many of them graduates of or students at Harvard’s education and law schools. Another young staff attorney, Hillary Rodham, in her first job after law school contributed an article on the “Rights of Children.”

At the same time, CDF staff knocked on doors to look for children out of school in Massachusetts and all across America. A local group, Massachusetts Advocacy, had issued a report on Children Out of School in Boston and we wondered whether this was a statewide or national problem. After knocking on many thousands of doors in census tracts across our country, CDF documented it was a national problem with at least 2 million children out of school including 750,000 the census said were between 7-13 years old but did not tell us who they were. We found many were children with disabilities. Other children were pushed out by discipline policies, language, and the inability to afford school fees. Children Out of School in America became our first report in 1974. We followed it up by organizing with parents at the local level and collaborating with national organizations concerned with children with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities and many others to help push Congress to enact 94-142 – now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – which for the first time gave children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education. CDF’s first report led to publication of School Suspensions: Are They Helping Children describing many of the practices we are still combating today with school discipline policies that suspend children for a wide range of nonviolent offenses include truancy and subjective offenses like disruptive behavior.

After 40 years we are now blessed with a new indispensable evidence-based book from Harvard Education Press—Improving the Odds for America’s Children: Future Directions in Policy and Practice. Dr. Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College and former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was the driving force behind this volume which she coedited with Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Laurie B. Forcier. It features articles from a wide range of scholars, child and family policy experts, and practitioners. Their combined expertise documents the benefits to be gained by closing the gap between what we know and what we do for children—and we know a lot more than we did 40 years ago. Hillary Rodham Clinton, now informed and seasoned by many years of state, national, and international experience, says of the book: “This important collection of ideas about how to improve the odds for America’s children should be required reading for policy makers across the country.”

Each chapter suggests a prominent pathway for moving forward to level the playing field and improve the odds for children. In their recommendations for future directions in child and family policy and practice, the contributing authors to Improving the Odds for America’s Children affirm a foundational belief that CDF has acted on for decades: children don’t come in pieces and require a continuum of comprehensive and quality support throughout their lives. The volume starts with prenatal and infant health and development, emphasizing parent and caregiver support in a child’s earliest years, moves through the school years and adolescence, and addresses the special needs of the most vulnerable youth involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Common threads essential to sound policy and practice emerge quickly—including the impact of poverty and inequality on children’s well-being. Unifying refrains include the need to bring multiple supports together to seek change for children and families; the need for more intensive supports for children and parents with special health and mental health needs; recognition of the harm done to children by withholding help to children and adults who are not citizens nor legally present in the U.S.; and the call to pay attention to the well-being of parents and caregivers and all those who care for children. The book reinforces the importance of never giving up on a child.

This second decade of the twenty-first century is a crucial one for the children’s movement and the nation’s future, as poverty and child poverty have resurged in a prolonged recession and jobless “recovery” and with wealth and income inequality at near record levels and achievement gaps among children who are poor and of color unacceptably wide. Our children are in trouble and our nation is in trouble, and we must reset our moral and economic compasses. CDF has been sounding the siren with urgency and persistence over four decades and will not stop until it is heard.

In our fifth decade CDF is committed to implementing the comprehensive policy vision in this fine book and building the critical mass of servant leaders and transforming voices needed to build and sustain the political will to do for all children what we know works. We must band together across all racial and income groups and be clear that we cannot wait any longer to ensure our children’s healthy development and well-being. It is the right thing to do, it is the cost effective thing to do, and we can start right now by putting into place a comprehensive early childhood development system including a continuum of care birth through age 5. Children have only one childhood, and it is now. We know what to do. We know what works. We must make it happen now by working together. Improving the Odds for America’s Children is a blueprint for action. 

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.