01/29/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Time to Put Children and Youth at the Top of the Agenda


Let's make sure the health of children and families get addressed in the president's second term.

We're not doing enough as a nation to protect our children. These were the words of President Obama, speaking about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School that resulted in the deaths of 20 children. The murders have sparked serious debate on what needs to happen to protect the safety our children -- the hope and investment for the future. President Obama was right. We are not doing enough for children. And sadly, we are failing them at every turn.

The nation has gone too long without a real commitment to the health and welfare of children and youth. Babies are dying at birth at higher rates than those in all other developed countries and some developing countries. Too many children live in poverty or suffer from lack of access to regular health care, dental care or mental health services. The president's next administration, along with a new Congress, presents us with opportunities to address these needs and help solve problems, such as our shamefully high infant mortality rate, child poverty, teen pregnancy and childhood obesity. There are two steps we can take now to show that the United States is committed to children, youth and families.

First, there has been no White House Conference on Children and Youth for more than 40 years. The first conference, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt, included delegates from across the United States to find solutions to the care of dependent and neglected children. After that, there was a conference every decade under Presidents Wilson, Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower, until the most recent conference in 1971 convened by President Richard Nixon. Such a conference could address the alarming disparities in health that children across this country face.

Evidence from my four decades of research and practice in public health shows that these disparities could be eliminated if a range of social, educational, and health policies were fully implemented in all states and local settings. The problem? We know what works when it comes to providing the best care for families and children, but we don't always implement it. We need systems in place to ensure that children born in this country, whether in Texas or in Massachusetts, have access to the same high-quality education, health and other community services. Holding a conference on children and youth would provide a vision to address solutions to the health, education and welfare challenges faced by today's children and youth in both rural and urban settings across the country.

Second, to show our nation's commitment to children and youth, we need to ratify the United Nations' Convention on the Rights for the Child, which was finalized and opened for signature in 1989. The convention acknowledges that "the child, by reason of his physical and mental maturity, needs special safeguards and care." Although signed by President Clinton in 1995, it was never ratified, leaving the United States to stand with Somalia and South Sudan as the only non-supporters of the Convention. President Obama promised in 2008 in his first presidential campaign to pursue the ratification of this convention in the Senate, which would show that the United States supports the protection of children and is committed to assuring their human rights. Taking both action steps would show our moral leadership on behalf of children in the United States as well as around the world.

Children cannot vote, so it is our ethical duty to be their voice in a democracy. We need the political will to embrace a national agenda that addresses child and adolescent issues in every state and across the country and invests in their futures. The sorrow we feel over the loss of precious, young children in Newtown is immense. But sorrow is not enough. We need action to make this nation's children exactly what they should be -- our top priority.

Deborah Klein Walker is a Vice President and Senior Fellow at Abt Associates. She served for 15 years at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and was Associate Professor of Human Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a former president of the American Public Health Association and the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, and the 2012 winner of the APHA Martha May Elliot award for lifetime achievement in maternal and child health.