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Protecting The Best Interests Of Our Children: A Law Day Challenge

Protecting The Best Interests Of Our Children: A Law Day Challenge

Martha Barnett, President
American Bar Association

For more than 100 years, American law has focused on the "best interests of the child" in deciding cases affecting young people. That guiding principle is the American Bar Association's theme for our nation's May 1 commemoration of Law Day.

Every day, ABA members and staff help the courts and child protection authorities work more effectively for the best interests of children. We help lawyers handling child welfare cases sharpen their trial skills, and offer technical assistance - most of it free - to the courts and child welfare authorities to improve their case-handling. Our volunteer lawyers also work to improve the laws affecting children.

But protecting the best interests of our children will require efforts beyond those of the legal community. It remains vital that business executives, political leaders, and indeed all citizens pay attention to the needs of children involved in the courts.

Children collide with the legal system for a variety of reasons - some beyond their control. They are often in court as victims of crime or the unhappy subjects of custody disputes. Yet these children may be the most ignored in legal proceedings.

More than a half-million children each year are involved in judicial proceedings related to their abuse, neglect or abandonment. Yet the nation's courts are funded inadequately to meet their needs, promptly resolve their cases, or provide them-and their often indigent parents-with quality legal representation.

And despite sharp declines in youth crime, juveniles are still likely to face punitive over-reactions such as "zero tolerance" school policies. Too frequently, the law ill serves troubled teenagers whose lives are chaotic and who need alternatives, not punishment. Quality legal representation is often unavailable to them as well.

All children involved in the legal system have one thing in common - they need the law's help to ensure not only their health and safety, but their futures. Otherwise, their early experiences of crime, neglect, or violence at home may make them lifelong clients of the criminal justice, welfare or health care systems. Our crime victim and domestic relations laws, practices, and policies must be revamped to assist these children better. We need stronger laws and tougher enforcement of existing laws to protect children from violence, including gun violence, in the home, at school, and in the community.

"Protecting the Best Interests of Our Children" - our theme for Law Day - should be among the highest goals of America's legal profession. I urge those representing litigants in court, enforcing our laws, or serving as judges and court administrators, to take time on May 1 to consider how we might better serve children throughout our justice system. I hope, too, that more new lawyers and others outside the legal profession will see the importance of working on behalf of children.

In the words of Charles Dickens, "In the little world in which children have their existence…there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice." Our profession will fight those injustices, but we need your help.

Visit to learn more about ABA's work on issues affecting children.