September 18, 2015 Articles

International Summit Sets Ambitious Agenda to Aid Street Children

By Shannon Prown and Lourdes M. Rosado

Tens of millions of children live or work on the world's streets. Many factors propel children into the streets, most notably extreme poverty and violence. Once there, youth face even more dangers and challenges, including the risk of being abused, trafficked, arrested, or detained; a lack of access to nutritious food, basic health services, and an education; and the absence of connections to a caring adult. As Ester Mrutu of the Dogodogo Centre Street Children Trust in Tanzania described:

Most governments have legislation to protect children. But in fact street children are not among those children when it comes to implementation of such legislation. They are left out! Census is taken but they are not counted as if they don't matter to anybody. Strategies and plans are prepared by government authorities but street children in most cases are not captured by those plans. Budgets are made that do not incorporate street youth and children.

The International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth convened on June 16–17, 2015, in London, England, to formulate an ambitious global advocacy and reform agenda to promote better outcomes for street-involved youth. The Summit—which was organized by the American Bar Association's (ABA's) Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, the Children's Rights Litigation Committee of the ABA's Section of Litigation, and the global law firm of Baker & McKenzie, along with many co-sponsors from around the world—drew more than 150 experts, including youth, from nearly 40 countries who serve children in more than 100 nations. Included were representatives from networks of professionals working with street children such as the Consortium for Street Children and Dynamo International. Several United Nations (U.N.) representatives also participated in the Summit, including: Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing; and Bernard Gastaud of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. Baker & McKenzie hosted the Summit at its London offices, and many who could not travel to London participated virtually from Baker & McKenzie offices around the globe, including Johannesburg, Bangkok, Cairo, and Manila. The Summit immediately followed the ABA's Magna Carta events in London, and ABA President William Hubbard and President-Elect Paulette Brown opened the Summit with welcoming remarks.

Street children (those under 18 years of age) and youth (those ages 18–24), also sometimes referred to as "street-connected" children or youth, work or sleep (or both) on the streets. Some may maintain contact with their families and return to a home in a slum or squatter settlement at night. Others are homeless and sleep on the streets with other homeless children or adults. Summit participants did not debate who qualifies as a "street youth," nor the language that should be used to describe this population. Instead they focused on remedying the dire circumstances facing children and youth struggling to survive on the streets. Jacob Akumbe, a former street youth from Kisumu, Kenya, described the conditions that too many children experience:

During my days in the streets . . . there was no treatment when one is sick. . . . There was frequent police harassment and brutality, insecurity. Most of us resorted to drug abuse, due to life conditions. Some of us were prone to diseases like malaria, typhoid, HIV/AIDS. The youths were and are still stigmatized by people who branded them with names. We lacked shelter. Youths, especially those who have reached 18 years, could not access to ID cards. We faced harsh weather conditions. During electioneering periods we faced political violence and some of us died. There was rampant sodomy. We experienced physical torture between us and also police on patrol. We faced exploitation by those who employed us.

Judge Eduardo Rezende Melo of Brazil, former Secretary General of the International Association of Youth and Family Judges and Magistrates, described the key themes that emerged during the Summit. These included a recognition of children in street situations as a global phenomenon, and the need for legal professionals to engage to improve life conditions for such youth, including clarifying ambiguity in the law with clearer international standards. The Summit also was "a great moment to bring the voice of the voiceless, vulnerable youth," stated Ester Mrutu of Tanzania. There was universal endorsement of the concept that "a bottom-up approach to reform is key, with a reliance on the experiences of street children allowing effective change," explained Richard Hooks Wayman of LUK Inc. in the United States.

Developing Global Legal Standards
The Summit was organized around five key issue areas. Leading up to the Summit, a panel of experts assembled on each issue and drafted an issue brief, case studies, and proposed legal standards for debate and consideration at the Summit.

Issue 1: Human Needs. Street youth must be protected by the full range of rights within the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), including the right to protection from discrimination and the right to have best interest be a primary consideration in all decisions affecting the child.

Issue 2: Child Welfare. There must be a child welfare approach to street youth, and governments must intervene with a protective, not punitive or penal, response to children who live or work on the streets.

Issue 3: Cross Border Issues. Children and youth who independently cross borders to attempt to work or access education or other opportunities should be recognized as a special category and protected from exploitation by employers, particularly from work that is harmful or hazardous to their health.

Issue 4: Education and Employment. Experts on this panel provided model legislation to protect children from economic and labor exploitation and to provide supportive housing.

Issue 5: Criminalization. Standards are designed to prevent children and youth from being ensnared in the justice system simply for sleeping in public areas, being without their parents, engaging in life-sustaining activities, or for status offenses (e.g., running away or truancy).

Cross-Cutting Themes
A number of issues emerged during the Summit that cut across the five issue areas.

Safety and welfare. Many street children are on the streets because the alternative is worse. Their family did not provide for their safety and welfare so they took to the streets. Kesz Valdez, founder of Championing Community Children, joined the Summit remotely and provided a vivid description of his life on the streets. Valdez lived on the streets to escape a violent home situation. He drank sewage water and ate spoiled food to survive but it made him progressively ill. He was severely burned when he was pushed into a street fire by those trying to flee it. His mother refused to help him. He was rescued by the man who would ultimately become his father. He was lucky.

Ester Mrutu commented on the barriers to providing for the safety and welfare of street youth: "When a vulnerable child falls sick they have no one to go to. Health facilities have no room for children who are alone on the streets to get treatment."

There is a misguided focus on reunification with families. Reunification assumes children have become separated from their families by accident, when this is not always the case. Many times the children have separated deliberately to escape a dangerous or abusive situation.

Children are on the streets for many reasons. Each child must be treated as an individual, but in every case their basic safety and welfare needs must be met. That means that those needs must be met on the streets as well as in care or through reunification with the appropriate balance of autonomy and protection.

Identity. Identity is an important factor in how we feel about ourselves in society. One tweet articulated the notion well: "I can't say who I am unless you agree I am real . . ."

Identification also plays a more practical role in the safety, welfare, and development of street youth. Lack of identification documents impacts many elements of street life: access to services and education, ability to obtain employment, and protection of rights in a criminal proceeding.

Ari Widodo, speaking on the youth panel, shared his experience and spoke about the quandary he faced in obtaining identification. Widodo moved from a small town in Indonesia to Jakarta at the age of 15 years without any identification papers. Indonesian citizens should have an identity card, but without connection to a family, you cannot get the card and therefore cannot prove citizenship. Widodo was forced to contact his family and to follow their will that he claim he is Muslim on his identity card.

Without those documents, Widodo faced many challenges other undocumented street youth face. Government officials would come with a rubbish truck at night to catch anyone without identity cards. They would have to run or be caught and jailed. In addition, they had no access to services that were their right as Indonesian citizens. Widodo explained that "you are not even second-class citizen, [you are] not citizen at all."

Jacob Akumbe described a similar situation in his country of Kenya:

Chapter 3 of the Kenya Constitution provides that every citizen has a right to be issued with identification documents, which includes birth certificates, identification cards, and passports. These identification documents are used to access government services, vote in elections, getting employment, opening bank accounts, and registering businesses. The street youths have a big problem in acquiring identification documents as quite a number cannot identify their biological parents, which is a condition for issuance of either a birth certificate or a national identity card. Without these documents the street youths are harassed by the police and council officials and most of the times they are arrested for lacking identification documents and thrown in jail or Borstal institutions.

Criminalization. Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reported that in the United States, homeless people are swept into the criminal justice system by ordinances prohibiting a variety of activities, including loitering, vagrancy, urinating in public, and sleeping on the streets. Some jurisdictions even criminalize people who try to help homeless people; some U.S. states have laws prohibiting sharing food with homeless people. Youth are targeted through laws prohibiting "status offenses," such as being truant from school, running away from home, and breaking curfew. Once they have a record, young people encounter often insurmountable barriers to obtaining employment and housing. Stephen Gaetz of York University and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub described a similar situation in Canada.

Street-involved youth worldwide are subject to increased surveillance and harassment by law enforcement. As one participant stated, "All over the world the police are the biggest enemy of street kids." Kenya's Akumbe explained that police grossly violate the rights of youth by "arbitrary arrests and dumping them in either juvenile remand homes or adult remand homes." Even more troubling is the physical abuse that street children and youth suffer at the hands of police. Tanzania's Ester Mrutu described the situation:

Most [street children] will tell you it is the police and the city militia that they fear the most. None of them will mention food, clothes, or shelter as their greatest challenge! Security is crucial to children on the streets. They are criminalized by being on the streets, always under the pretext of loitering. Street children have no identity cards which is true of the vast majority of Tanzanians! . . . Unfortunately the police do not just enforce the laws, they also break the laws through child abuse.

Once arrested, children in most countries have no legal representation. As a result, "[m]ost of them stay in prisons for longer periods, and when some are released their ages had advanced. Back in the society they are rejected and viewed as social outcasts. The youths are viewed as criminals, outcasts, useless, and bothersome," stated Kenya's Akumbe.

Summit participants agreed that training police and other programming designed to change their interactions and attitudes toward street children and youth must be a priority. Vicky Ferguson, chief executive officer of Glad's House in Kenya, pointed out that stigma among police toward homeless youth drives much of the abuse. Consequently, "programs are being run with the police and with the children to try and show police the human nature of the children and their situations. This challenges that stigma."

Education and employment. Experts from around the world agreed that the stigma surrounding street youth prevents them from obtaining an education. Anna-mai Estrella from Chance for Childhood in Uganda pointed out that even if street youth are able to attend school, their stigmatization is still a huge barrier to obtaining an education and may lead them to drop out of school. Thus, such youth engage in a street economy to earn scant income to survive without ever finding a way out of the cycle of poverty.

Participants thus pointed to promising practices to promote better educational outcomes for street-involved youth. Sanjay Gupta of Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (CHETNA) in India uses a "contact point approach" to reach street children as it allows "the education, training, and support to come to them. This builds the foundation of education with street children to allow some to transition into real schools."

Children and youth often engage in the street economy to earn money for their survival. Magda Barsoum, a child protection consultant in Egypt, sets up special "banks" to allow children to save part of any money they earn. Their savings are supplemented with monies from special funds and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) "in order to promote a level of security not found on the street. It's also a base for the organisation of street children groups that provides an education in economics and teambuilding skills," explained Barsoum. A successful model for youth ages 16–24 is to provide supportive housing, described Hooks Wayman of the United States. "This can be done either through using an entire block of property, or through renting several apartments within an area based around a central hub." Youth receive supportive services to help them access education and employment while allowing them continued independence.

Exploitation. Street youth lack protection, which often leads to some form of exploitation. Traffickers, employers, or others hoping to profit from this vulnerable population can exploit them.

In the context of trafficking, migrant children are more at risk, particularly if they have no identification or their identification has been taken by their trafficker. However, there is no need to cross borders for trafficking to take place (in fact, domestic trafficking is more prevalent). Victims will often not act like victims as a mode of survival, particularly if they fear retribution. If they do not act like victims, they are at risk of criminalization and end up being charged with the crimes they are trafficked into committing.

Unscrupulous employers may also exploit street youth. Angel Benedicto from Tanzania described her journey as well as the efforts she has taken to help others in similar situations. Benedicto went to live with her father when her mother died. Her father tried to force her to get married but she did not want to, so she fled home and ended up on the streets. She found employment as a child domestic worker. The work she was forced to do was not what she was promised, she did not always get paid, and the workload kept her from being able to complete her education. After being unable to change her position, she left and went back on the streets.

Benedicto found another position as a domestic worker and was treated well there. When the wife began traveling for her job, the husband approached her to have a relationship with her. She did not want to have a relationship and fled. She found her way to an NGO that helps child laborers to assert their rights and they coached her. Benedicto has since become their representative to reach other child domestic workers to teach them how to assert their rights and protect themselves. Benedicto has been presented an award by Queen Elizabeth II.

Next Steps and a Call to Action
As Jacob Akumbe of Kenya advised, "The plight of the street children and youths need a concerted effort of all the stakeholders to pool their resources together and also to come up with structures that can address the root causes of the problems right from the household level." Toward that end, Summit participants agreed to work on two key initiatives in the coming months: (1) to support the development of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child's General Comment on Children in Street Situations and create standards and methods by which international human rights law will become a reality for street youth globally; and (2) to finalize and publish the legal standards drafted for the Summit. In addition, advocates vowed to reenergize efforts to push for U.S. adoption of the UNCRC.

General Comment on Children in Street Situations. Governments worldwide—with the exception of the United States (see below)—have promised all children the same rights by adopting the UNCRC. These rights describe what a child needs to survive, grow, and reach his or her potential in life. They apply to every child. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child uses the UNCRC to hold governments accountable for protecting the rights of children. The U.N.'s commitment to develop a General Comment on Children in Street Situations stems from a recognition that children in street situations often do not have access to these rights.

Legal standards for street children. The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and its partnering ABA entities will work to finalize the standards with target completion of early 2016. The standards will inform the General Comment as well as be standalone resources for reform advocacy. The ABA Board of Governors approved the establishment of an ABA Coordinating Committee on the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth in August 2015 to coordinate future work. ABA members who wish to participate in this important effort are urged to contact Amy Horton-Newell at

U.S. adoption of the UNCRC. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signed the UNCRC on behalf of President Clinton and the United States, but procedural and political barriers have kept the Convention from being sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration. It should also be noted that ratification in the United States requires an evaluation of constitutionality and impact, which can take several years.

The United States is one of only two nations in the U.N. to have not ratified the UNCRC, Somalia being the other; however Somalia is in the process of finalizing the process for ratification. This diminishes U.S. efforts to advocate for human rights globally. In addition, the United States is not gaining the benefits ratification would bring. While the United States generally has some good programs and laws to protect children, many of those children still face challenges associated with health care, education, and general safety and welfare.

With the ratification of the UNCRC, U.S. leaders would be compelled to reevaluate the status of child welfare in the United States and take steps to address the shortcomings. The UNCRC could become the foundation for improving U.S. policies and programs as it has in other countries. For example (as noted in the information packet from the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child):

  • The United Kingdom enacted new laws specifying that both parents are jointly responsible for the upbringing of their children.
  • Australia implemented a national initiative designed to support parents and families in fulfilling their responsibilities.
  • Canada launched a National Children's Agenda in order to develop unified territorial and provincial goals that promote and enhance children's welfare.
  • Romania amended its Penal Code to establish community service sentences for juveniles.

Objections against ratification include concerns about U.N. control over U.S. law, impact on the primacy of the parent-child relationship, and scope of rights assigned to the child. To learn more about the campaign for ratification, please visit the Convention on the Rights of the Child website.

Twitter Posts Narrate Compelling Conversations #RightsForStreetYouth

On Youth

  • Original definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy. How many children fall outside?
  • On the street, I believed stories ppl told me abt myself: that I'd be in jail, that I was a problem. -Andy McCullough
  • McCarney: kids are agents; we can help equip them to seek out assertion rights (not just protection)

On Safety and Child Welfare

  • We must make it illegal for youth to exit foster care or JJ to homelessness!
  • Kesz: "For me, health, a safe home and education are the keys to success."

On Identity

  • Street child testimony: "I just want to be seen and treated like a human being, like everyone else."
  • Youth Panel: No ID impacts every element of your life - no health care, no school and not even being able to be buried

On Criminalization

  • Street children are not in conflict with law, the law is in conflict with them #RightsForStreetYouth
  • Regular policing of young ppl is traumatic, creates big debt that follows them & limits their future opps
  • Children imprisoned in adult cells and exposed to abuse because they can't prove their age - no ID cards.

On Education and Employment

  • Hearing how stigma is the biggest barrier to employment and education for #streetchildren
  • Comment: We need to limit the kinds of work and hours per week. If we ban work they will just work outside the system.
  • Comment: Whether a child should be allowed to work should be case specific. Children should be treated individually.

On Exploitation

  • Joe Hewitt speaks on use of children to commit crime, often forgotten as a Worst Form of Child Labour

On Cross Border

  • Child migration must be treated differently than adult migration. They are, after all, children.

On the Movement Forward

  • Changed mind & heart can chge world. I changd from street kid to kid adv & change world 1 heart at a time #KeszValdez
  • "A world that abandons its children in the street has no future" - inspirational words. Let's do something about it!

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, homelessness, poverty, street-connected children and youth, human needs, child welfare, border crossing, education, employment, criminalization

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Shannon Prown and Lourdes M. Rosado – September 18, 2015