Ensuring Children’s Well-Being: Analyzing Policies and
Practices through a Child Rights Lens
by Marv Bernstein, chief policy
advisor, UNICEF Canada, and Pat Convery, executive director, Adoption Council
Before joining UNICEF Canada in 2010, Marv spent 28 years in
legal and policy positions in child welfare in Ontario and five years as the
Children’s Advocate for Saskatchewan. Pat is the executive director of the
Adoption Council of Ontario. She has worked in child welfare since 1975 and in
adoption since 1982.
Although North Americans typically greet one another with
the phrases “How are you?” “Comment allez vous?” or “Como estás?”, Masai warriors say “Kasserian ingera?” (meaning “Are the children well?”). This phrase—which
puts children front and center—resonates nicely for our work in child
welfare, permanency planning, and adoption, and can help those of us in the
child welfare and adoption communities remember the importance of having a
child rights focus at all levels of our work. What better way to guide our
discussions, our advocacy, and our policy than to ask: “Are the children well?”
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
Almost universally around the world, we believe children
have the right to be safe from physical harm, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
We believe children have the right to education, family relationships, and
access to their culture. The list goes on. These beliefs in children’s rights
have been translated into obligations for us to consider in our practice by the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (available at www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx).
The four guiding principles of the Convention on the Rights
of the Child are:
All rights set out in the Convention apply to all children, who shall be protected from all
forms of discrimination, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, opinion,
origin, disability, birth, or any other characteristic.
interests of the child: In all actions concerning children, the best interests
of the child shall be a primary consideration.
survival, and development: Every child has the right to life, and the state has
an obligation to ensure the child’s survival and development. This includes the
right to a standard of living, health, and education that is adequate for the
child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development.
for the child’s views: Children have the right to participate and express their
views freely, and have those views taken into account in matters that affect
Since its adoption by the United Nations in 1989, this
treaty has received near-universal ratification by 193 countries. (Canada has
ratified the Convention; the U.S. has signed but not ratified it, although
it has ratified two Optional Protocols.) The treaty has inspired changes in
policies to better protect children, altered the way organizations see their
work for children, led to a better understanding of children as having their
own rights, and served as a catalyst for children’s rights advocacy and
Children Need Special Attention during Program and Policy Design
The Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that we
must consider the potential impacts on children’s rights and interests in all
legislation, policies, programs, and practices. Children need this special
focus for many reasons:
are particularly vulnerable by virtue of their developmental stage and
dependence on adults.
can be disproportionately affected by adverse conditions. For example, the
adverse impacts of poverty in a child’s early years can be much greater than
the effects of poverty in adulthood.
- As non-voting citizens, children do not have the same
opportunities as adults to influence or complain about public policy; instead,
they must rely on adults to advocate for them.
are a significant segment of the population and are more affected by the
action—or inaction—of government than any other group.
- There is no such thing as a child-neutral policy. Almost
every area of government policy affects children to some degree.
are also among the heaviest users of public services, such as education,
health, child care, and youth services. As a result,
children can suffer the most from the fragmentation of public policy and
services or from policies or services that have unintended consequences.
Using a Child Rights Impact Assessment to Ensure the Best Outcomes for Children
So how do we bring the “Are the children well?” philosophy
to bear on our policy and practice development? The Convention on the Rights of
the Child helps us do just that.
To make sure children’s best interests are given priority
consideration and all the Convention’s provisions are respected in policy, the
monitoring United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that
Child Rights Impact Assessments (CRIA) are required of all
ratifying nations, and that “this process needs to be built into government at
all levels and as early as possible in the development of policy.”
But a CRIA is not just something that governments should
use. It can be used to good advantage by parliamentarians and legislators,
child and youth advocates, schools, universities, hospitals, child welfare
organizations, professionals advocating for child-centred policy and legislative change,
and the private sector.
In Canada, the U.S., and internationally, the CRIA framework
has already found some support. In New Brunswick, for example, a proposed law
or policy going to Executive Council must have a completed CRIA. Edmonton,
Alberta, and Saskatchewan have also been using aspects of CRIAs. In Tennessee,
the Shelby County and Memphis governments use a web-based application to
develop, modify, and assess proposals concerning safety, health, education, and
land use for their potential impacts on children. England, Scotland, Wales,
Western Australia, New Zealand, Belgium (Flanders), and Sweden also regularly
use these assessments.
A CRIA involves a structured examination of a proposed law
or policy, administrative decision, or action to determine its potential impact
on all children or a specific group of children, and a determination of whether
it will effectively protect and implement the rights set out for children in
the Convention. Potential impacts may be positive or negative, intended or not,
direct or indirect, short- or long-term. A CRIA should be undertaken whenever
children might be affected by new policies, proposed legislation, regulations,
or budgets being adopted, or other administrative decisions at any level of
There are three key steps to a CRIA:
screening, and scoping — CRIA should be used on those decisions most
likely to have a significant impact on children, including those that directly
concern children—such as child welfare or child health policy—and
those that may have a more indirect impact, such as immigration or economic
- Assessment — Advocates, policymakers, and administrators can use a variety of tools
to assess potential impacts, including administrative data, research, checklists,
and detailed modeling. The assessment should explicitly address the
Convention’s four core principles and the other relevant articles. The
analysis can also help identify needed changes to the policy or practice.
- Communication — Publicizing the CRIA’s results and recommendations is essential to
informing the decision-making process. Communication may be within
government agencies or to the broader community depending on where advocacy is
From time to time, legislation and policy have unintended
negative consequences for the children they are meant to benefit. Sometimes ideas that work well for one group may have unintended
negative consequences for another group of children. A Child Rights
Impact Assessment can help avoid or mitigate such adverse impacts and balance
competing rights of different groups of children.
How an Assessment Can Make a Difference
Ensuring that all policies, practices, and actions have been
thoroughly examined through a lens of how they affect children can help in a
number of ways. Such assessments:
the interests and rights of various groups of children by analyzing the
different and potentially inequitable impacts, particularly for children who
are often marginalized and most vulnerable, rather than treating children as
one homogenous group.
coordination across government by examining potential impacts on the whole
child across the full scope of their rights, which can lead to departments
jointly engaging in a stronger integrated policy development model.
an opportunity for the child’s best interests to be explicitly considered in
the decision-making process, improving the likelihood of positive outcomes.
the quality and quantity of information available to decision-makers.
the need to consult with children as legitimate stakeholders in relevant
policymaking areas, giving their views due consideration in the process.
second and third order effects on children—not just the immediate
effects, but also those that can affect them in the long term,
including future generations.
or mitigate costly errors by addressing potential negative impacts at an early
stage of the policymaking process.
public support for policy decisions by creating more transparent,
collaborative, and defensible policy processes, and by bringing together
external stakeholders, including children and those involved in policy
development, for focused discussion concerning potential impacts on children.
Consider these examples of how a CRIA can avoid unintended
consequences and achieve better outcomes for children:
- An agency makes a policy to never separate siblings in
adoption. A sibling group of five waits for many years to be adopted because
the oldest child is severely autistic and needs extensive support that many
families cannot provide. If stakeholders had conducted a CRIA, they might have
built in some limited, specific exceptions for adoption to proceed where it is
in the best interests of the other siblings with provision for post-adoption
sibling contact and expanded funding and counseling support services.
- A policy provides health coverage and educational support to
youth who age out of care. A 17-year-old youth who has been in foster care for
most of his life must now choose between being adopted by a relative or remaining in foster care to access the benefits. A CRIA
would likely have uncovered this potential conflict, and perhaps led to
extended benefits being made available to older adopted children.
The child rights framework can also help advocates frame
their arguments. In Canada recently, adoptive parents and adoption
organizations advocated for an increase in employment insurance maternity
benefits for adoptive parents. (Biological mothers currently receive 15 weeks
of maternity benefits plus 35 weeks of parental leave; adoptive parents receive
only the 35-week parental leave).
Ultimately, the parliamentary committee refused the
increased benefits, basing its decision not on adopted children’s needs, but on
a belief that biological mothers have rights that adoptive parents do not. It
is possible this result may have been due, in part, to adult-focused, rather
than child-centred advocacy. Instead of talking about the impact of the law on
adopted children and discriminatory impacts upon those adopted children, many
advocates talked about maternity benefits as a competition between biological
and adoptive parents. A CRIA would have likely identified bonding as a critical
element that must occur in the early stages of a parent-child relationship. In
a birth family, bonding starts before the child is born. When an adopted child
has experienced loss, neglect, abuse, or difficult transitions, her ability to
form healthy relationships and feel secure is damaged. Adoptive families
therefore need at least as much time to help adopted children adjust, recover,
and bond—a consideration that wasn’t properly raised by advocates or
addressed by the committee.
Child Rights-Proofing Legislation, Policy, and Practice
Even when a Child Rights Impact Assessment is not required,
advocates, policymakers, administrators, and others can use it as a tool to
help ensure proposed changes result in the best possible outcomes for children.
We have a collective responsibility to give the protection of children’s rights
the highest priority. Dialogues on the implementation of children’s rights
should not be the limited purview of elected officials, but should be taking
place in our homes, schools, workplaces, and government offices.
Using Child Rights Impact Assessments with greater
frequency will enable us to ensure laws, policies, and practices have been
child rights-proofed—that we have considered carefully how they will affect
children. This, in turn, will lead to more positive and affirmative responses
when we pose the question “Are the children well?”
Learn more about Child Rights Impact Assessments at