chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Declaring Justice for and with Children: The 2021 World Congress

Cédric Foussard and Angela C Vigil


  • The 2021 World Congress on Justice with Children emphasized ensuring access to justice for all children and highlighted significant principles and demands.
  • The Global Declaration on Justice with Children addressed issues like mental health, equal treatment, and the need for flexible policies and laws to support children.
  • Key demands included child participation in legal processes, addressing pervasive inequality and discrimination, and providing accessible mental health and psychosocial support for children and their families.
  • The congress stressed the importance of training justice professionals, integrating child-centered services, and empowering children to understand and exercise their rights, aiming to end discrimination and ensure equal justice for all children.
Declaring Justice for and with Children: The 2021 World Congress
AVNphotolab via Getty Images

Sometimes the first step to achieve justice is to demand it. That was the spirit of the World Congress on Justice with Children. Between November 15 and 20, 2021, more than 4,800 people from over 100 countries met online for the 2021 World Congress on Justice with Children. The topic was “Ensuring access to justice for all children: towards non-discriminatory and inclusive child justice systems.” Outstanding discussions, debates, and presentations crowded a busy week, which virtually crossed lines of geography, politics, governmental structure, philosophy, and culture. Though there were many critical issues, challenges, and principles discussed, some of the most universal and significant emerged in the Global Declaration on Justice with Children. This short article outlines, in plain language, some of the highlights of the declaration and the congress in the hope of launching a discussion in the United States about challenging discrimination and executing the World Congress principles to demand justice for all children.

The declaration included not only significant, universal principles but also demands. A key part of those demands came from a Child and Youth Advisory Group to the World Congress. Consistent with the spirit of lifting up the voices of young people, we have outlined our summary of the Global Declaration around the demands of those young people. Who better to lead than those most directly affected by the change that must come?

Mental Health: Toward Child-Centered Policies

Many children face violence and abuse in the family and cannot go to school. This affects our mental health severely.
          —Youth Advisory Demands in the Declaration of the World Congress

The World Congress was replete with discussion about the importance of equal treatment for all children, not only because it is an important part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but also because it is a core principle in so many treaties, regional agreements, national laws, and state practices. Equal access to justice and ending violence against children are both important parts of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet, our systems often fail to respect the rights and well-being of every child and treat each child as a whole individual, especially when it comes to mental health. The Global Declaration demands this simple principle as well as the protection of young people who are over 18 in the same way as children.

But the question is how? Many children face violence in everyday life. Violence affects marginalized children the most (Violence Against Children in the Criminal Justice System: Global Perspectives on Prevention (Wendy O’Brien & Cédric Foussard eds., 2020)), so they are more likely to come into contact with the law. While it is certainly no more likely for children in poverty to commit crimes under equal circumstances with other children, the circumstances children experience in poverty end up increasing the likelihood of involvement with the child justice systems.

The World Congress also included sessions focused on traumatic brain injury, a more common occurrence than is known to most, one that causes children to function in a way that increases their likelihood of criminal involvement and decreases the likelihood of school and other success. (For more insights on traumatic brain injury, see the work of Professor Huw Williams.) Systems must detect problems early and use social services to support a child’s whole family. Preventing children from coming into contact with the law at first or continually is an essential way to secure ordinary childhoods without violence.

This need for mental health services becomes even more acute in the context of crises like the pandemic. Due to the unique circumstances of 2021, the World Congress was full of discussions about just what the pandemic has done to children uniquely and tragically. The pandemic is just one crisis that child justice systems have and will endure. COVID-19 increased inequality and damaged child justice and protection services. Other crises make this worse, including the climate crisis, wars, economic crises, and other emergencies that mandate stronger systems and organizations so children can always access justice.

Crises drive the demand for systems to create flexible policies and laws to address emergencies, including digital tools where appropriate and trained justice professionals for adaptable practice for emergencies. In the Global Declaration and work of youth advisors, there is a cry for clear rules for cooperation in crises especially where parts of the system must remain working even in a crisis. And there is a mandate for clear, accessible resources for everyone that explain how to protect children’s rights and access to justice in a crisis. Examples include demands like these:

  • Mandate child participation in the law and enforce this law to ensure that children are seated at the table, rather than merely encouraging child participation and engaging with children passively and solely as subjects of consultations.
  • Center the concepts of pervasive inequality and discrimination in any discussions and reforms concerning child justice, and institute practical solutions.
  • Develop and make use of age-appropriate, disability-inclusive, gender-responsive, and needs-and-rights-based justice procedures and facilities for all children in contact with the law that are contextualized and based on neuro-, developmental, and behavioral science.
  • Establish community-based services and noncustodial measures that are creatively implemented with communities themselves.
  • Develop child-friendly, gender-sensitive, and disability-inclusive informational materials about methods of coping with the impact and uncertainties of crises and pandemics.
  • Ensure the provision of accessible mental health and psychosocial support to help children in contact with the law and their families.
  • Identify and implement effective methods for early intervention, holistic and comprehensive family support and strengthening, and community building.
  • Decriminalize child behavior that should and can be more effectively addressed by systems involved in child protection, social protection, healthcare, and mental health and psychosocial support, among others.

Police and Courts: Ensuring Equal, Fair, and Nondiscriminatory Access to Justice

Children often feel hurt or ignored by the police and courts, who do not value our rights and concentrate on punishment. They should restore peace and help us to get better instead.
          —Youth Advisory Demands in the Declaration of the World Congress

The youth advisors to the World Congress made one simple demand: Give all children equal access to justice.

International agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protect all children equally. Everyone has the right to have the police, courts, or judges help them to protect their own rights. But that requires that our systems train people who work in child justice and child protection better, and encourage them to use creative approaches to deal with current issues. Training them about children’s psychological development, interviewing children, and reducing implicit bias will help ensure that children in contact with the law have the same rights as other children to respect and protection. The police, courts, and everyone who works with children must work closely together to protect children who come into contact with the law. We must be inspired by multiagency programs, such as the Barnahus model, which develops more integrated and child-centered services for children.

Part of ensuring equal justice is understanding and responding to the reasons why indigenous, minority, and marginalized children have more contact with police and why it is more difficult for them to access justice. Recent events all over the world illustrate the need for child-friendly policing practices that ensure that when children come into contact with the police and the justice system, they are treated in a manner that is fair, appropriate, and not harmful. (See Justice with Children, Policing of Children and Young People: A Case for Child-Friendly Police (Oct. 2021).) Challenges to ensuring equal treatment of children by a justice system change based on whether it is criminal, civil, administrative, traditional/customary/indigenous, or transitional. For instance, a traditional justice system may not have professionally trained authorities at all.

The Global Declaration acknowledges that training must also include children themselves to help them understand their rights so they can trust the police and courts. This includes teaching children about “restorative processes” so they can repair relationships with their communities. The bottom line is that children and youth must lead right alongside advocates and other stakeholders.

Civic Education, Empowerment, and Leadership: Ensuring A Child-Systemic Justice Approach

Children are citizens of today and leaders of tomorrow. We want adults to teach us about our rights. Governments and society must respect our rights if they want real change.
          —Youth Advisory Demands in the Declaration of the World Congress

The Global Declaration enunciates what youth have emphasized in many settings of public discourse: Take children’s opinions seriously. This sounds simple, yet it is more often ignored than followed in justice systems. To take a child’s opinion seriously requires systems to let children make decisions and support them. (See C. Foussard & H.R. Jyong, “Towards a Holistic Approach to Systemic Child Participation for Child-Friendly Justice,” in Incarceration and Generation, vol. II (Silvia Gomes et al. eds., 2022) (Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology)).

One can see many examples in world media of children and young people changing how laws and the police justice systems are reformed. They are leading movements for social, gender, racial, climate, and political justice, and climate justice.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child does not use the words “access to justice” or “remedies,” but these ideas are an important part of the convention. It includes some of the rights children have to receive information, express their opinions, and be protected from violence. The convention also covers how the police and courts should treat children, including in detention. Finally, it discusses how to help children who are victims of a crime.

Certainly, the World Congress was focused more on children who are more vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged than others. But one lesson of the congress was that, until we consider all children as the rights-bearing individuals they are, we will never realize the rights of ones who need the most attention.

All children will benefit if we end discrimination and inequality in the child justice system and ensure access to justice.

For more information on the declaration and the World Congress on Justice With Children, visit And stay tuned for the next World Congress on Justice With Children in 2024!