The Invisibility of Children: The Other Form of Neglect

Bruce Lesley
10 min readDec 10, 2023

The kids are not alright.

Having a real, civil, and national public debate over the concerns, needs, and best interests of children is so desperately needed. Child mortality in this country rose by an astounding 20% between 2019 and 2021 and was led by rising homicide and suicide rates in children.

Compounding the bad news, it was just reported that infant mortality is also rising for the first time in decades.

Kids are needlessly dying. Literally dying.

This is shocking and horrifying.

But where is the outrage? Where is the action? Where are the statements from our nation’s leaders committing to action?

Unfortunately, the best interests, needs, and concerns of children are an afterthought.

On our most recent Speaking of Kids podcast episode, guest Professor Adam Benforado spoke about how our nation’s leaders have failed to take action to address the “leading causes of childhood deaths…often because we’re focused on other people’s rights, other people’s interests and not on children’s rights.”

Beyond the inaction toward preventing gun violence and other critical threats and challenges facing children, some actions are actually compounding the harm. For example, Medicaid is a critical health coverage program for our nation’s children, but the health protections to prevent the loss of coverage during COVID have expired and now states are in the process of disenrolling millions of children from Medicaid coverage.

Unfortunately, many of these disenrollments of children are taking place because, even though the adults in a household might no longer be eligible for Medicaid, the children in those families are wrongly being kicked off as well even though many kids are still eligible for coverage.

When states created their Medicaid disenrollment (aka, “unwinding”) mechanisms, kids were, yet again, the afterthought. Their invisibility and this failure can have tragic implications.

Rather than addressing these and other very serious and fundamental problems facing our children, Congress took nearly a month off of work to elect a new Speaker, just so it could even conduct business. And after finally doing that, they are now preparing to vote on amendments to the appropriations bills, such as those offered by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Greg Murphy (R-NC) to cut the pay of our public servants to $1 out of spite, rather than voting on funding to give leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the resources and support needed to address the tragic and urgent problems of children losing health care coverage and dying at increasing rates across our country.

In the recent release of Children’s Budget 2023, we show a severe drop in the federal share of funding to children from 11.97% in 2021 to just 9.89% in FY 2023 — a nearly 18% decline. When kids need it the most, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Sadly, to lawmakers, kids often do not register, even though they are nearly a quarter of the population and are, by definition, dependent on both parents and government to do right by them. As academics Rebecca Neel and Bethany Lassetter explain, their invisibility leads to negative consequences, including “indifference” and “passive neglect.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) once told a group of child advocates, including myself, that she could walk the halls of Congress for weeks or even months and not hear lawmakers even utter the words “children” or “kids.”

And even when the issue being discussed should be all about children, such as education, the debate in Congress earlier this year was all about the adults and not the kids.

As Michael Freeman, author of The Moral Status of Children, writes:

All too rarely is consideration given to what policies. . .do to children. This is all the more the case where the immediate focus of the policy is not children. But even in children’s legislation the unintended or indirect effects of changes are not given the critical attention they demand…

But where the policy is not “headlined” children…, the impact on the lives of children is all too readily glossed over.

Children are marginalized because they lack political power, as they do not vote, do not have Political Action Committees (PACs), and do not have lobbyists to demand attention to their interests. On the other hand, children are viewed by politicians with empathy and without all the baggage that they place on parents.

For example, during consideration of an extension of the Child Tax Credit, politicians could not and would not argue that it was in the best interests of children to let the credit expire and for millions of children to be pushed back into poverty. However, that is exactly what they did, and child poverty more than doubled between 2021 and 2022 (from 5.2% to 12.4%).

The rationale was based on the perceived “deservingness” of parents, as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) demonstrated when he expressed concerns about how they might spend the money or whether parents might stop working (by the way, they spent the money on supporting their children and they didn’t stop working).

Thus, as is often the case, concerns about parents create a barrier to inaction for kids.

The media does not help. As communications experts Bruce W. Hardy and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explain, the media is influential in “setting the public agenda” through the attention they provide to issues and how they prime or make “certain issues and not others salient.” Often kids are treated as “soft” rather than “hard” news, so the media fails to focus on their needs and concerns.

Back to Freeman, who argues:

More attention is paid to animal rights, even to the rights of rivers and rocks, than is paid to children’s rights.

In an analysis of media coverage of children’s issues by FrameWorks Institute, the researchers point out that the media, once again, often analyzes the effects of policy on parents rather than children. They cite child care as an example where media coverage is often focused on how child care affects the ability of parents to work rather than its effect on the health, learning, and development of the children themselves.

As the report points out:

…the focus on parents leaves children in the background. Media coverage in which children are invisible undermines collective concern about children themselves. In addition, people are more likely to apply judgments of deservingness to parents than children — to think that parents may not deserve support because they have, people think, made bad choices that have led to their situation. In these ways, parent-focused framing could potentially undercut support for policies that provide benefits to families.

In the case of the failed extensions of the Child Tax Credit, that was undoubtedly the case.

The crises harming our children are also being ignored and exacerbated by groups like Moms for Liberty.

Actually Moms for Liberty, mental health care is health care and that is exactly what many kids need right now. According to Washington Post reporter Donna St. George:

Seventy percent of schools have reported an uptick in students asking for mental health services since the pandemic started. Teenage girls reported record levels of sadness and hopelessness in the most recent surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barriers and restrictions are not an answer for kids “asking” for care.

Rather than pushing for a focus on the best interests and well-being of children and teens, including their mental health, the Moms for Liberty priority is one of self-absorption about “their liberty.” In promoting themselves, they seek to promote parental dominance and diminish or eliminate the role of both government and children, which includes the protection of children from forms of child abuse and neglect.

In fact, due to the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation passed in North Carolina, a child abuse prevention program in North Carolina schools called Safe Touch that provides “children information to help keep them safe from sexual abuse” has been eliminated. As Sinclair Holian reports:

Catching child sexual abuse early can be life-saving. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), experiencing sexual abuse during childhood can result in various short- and long-term physical, mental and behavioral health consequences, ranging from physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, to depression and increased risk of suicide.

If everything is about parental rights, then children lack fundamental protections and human rights.

Moreover, rather than focusing on the needs and concerns of students, such as full funding for public schools, health care, and other supports, Moms for Liberty is staging a cultural war over book bans, the whitewashing of history and literature, a ban on health care services in schools, the imposition of speech codes, the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, the privatization of public schools, and a ban on even the acknowledgment or existence of LGBTQ kids and families under the guise of “parental rights.”

Their divisive and uncivil cultural agenda is being thrust upon our schools and children and often includes the promotion of misinformation, false outrages, lies, and conspiracy theories often spread by people who do not even have children in school or people who often are not even from the community.

And it is quite intentional.

Chaos, distrust, and disorder is the goal.

In Glendale Unified School District (CA) this summer, a simple resolution over Pride Month caused adults — many of whom were outsiders to the community — to engage in street fighting and vulgarity toward the school board and educators in the district.

While our public schools should be places that are focused on teaching about the future of our democracy, including tolerance, civility, respect, dialogue, understanding, and thought, these were not the actions of far too many adults that sparked riots in Glendale.

Some might would say these adults were “acting childish” but kids do not act this poorly. In fact, the vast majority of kids are embarrassed by the incivility that adults are engaging in.

Former Glendale Superintendent Vivian Ekchian writes:

…what played out in Glendale reminds us that we must step back and ask what lessons we teach our children. How do they make sense of the rhetoric that adults model for them? What does this mean in a nation committed to respect for the individual’s rights and commitment to the common good?

Meanwhile, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has held school funding hostage to demand the passage of education vouchers in a special session of the Texas Legislature. No surprise, but kids are the afterthought — once again.

As reporter Josephine Lee explains in her Texas Observer article about the school wars in the Lone Star State:

Abbott’s special session on school vouchers is not about kids, parents, or schools. It is about money, politics, and religion.

Unfortunately, this battle in Texas is similar to those in Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, and other states and local communities across this country. In this fight over a set of cultural, economic, social, religious, and political wars, children are either completely ignored or are being used as instruments for political gain.

As has been so well demonstrated in the outstanding Grapevine podcast hosted by NBC News reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hlyton, there are significant heroes and villains in this ongoing tragedy. Those pushing the agenda of distrust and discord or white Christian nationalism or dominionism are often people who do not have children in the schools or any relationship to the communities under attack. What I appreciate most about the podcast is they give voice to students, who are being attacked just for being who they are.

This must stop.

Unfortunately, out of necessity and due to the failure of far too many adults, students are increasingly taking action to protect their schools, their education, and their future in school districts across the country.

As Superintendent Ekchian says:

Students, listen up. Here is a final message from your superintendent: You have a voice and you have agency. Schools belong to you, so be thoughtful and organized, engage in civil discourse to improve conditions for learning and teaching. These words stand in sharp contrast to the lesson played out at the Glendale board meetings. What students observed was far from the civil discourse I encouraged Glendale students to practice.

Practice civil discourse and engage in dialogue, not just with those who are alike in their thinking, and always show courage. Finding common ground makes us a more united and powerful community.

Our kids are not alright.

Our kids are in crisis.

Our kids are speaking up.

It is time for the adults to listen and do something.

*****

If you are someone concerned about helping to ensure that children and their needs, concerns, and best interests are no longer ignored by policymakers, please join First Focus on Children as an “Ambassador for Children”.

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Bruce Lesley

@BruceLesley — President of @First_Focus & @Campaign4Kids. Child advocate, husband & father of 4. Basketball fanatic. Follow on Twitter: @BruceLesley.