What are the specific challenges children and teens face when accessing justice?

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What are the specific challenges children and teens face when accessing justice?

Despite significant advancements in the recognition of childrens’ rights, children often face additional obstacles to those encountered by adults because of their dependent status and lack of standing, the potential conflict of interest with their legal representative(s), the lack of information that is available to them, or simply because they are not taken seriously when they need to seek remedies because their rights are violated.

In this discussion topic, we are asking that participants share specific challenges faced by children and teens in accessing justice, and if possible to also share examples. We would also like to collect tactics that were used to overcome these challenges, such as:

  • examples of how children’s and teens’ right to be heard can be respected in judicial proceedings, and
  • examples of effective dissemination of information on the rights of children and teens to them and the persons that are closest to them (e.g. parents, guardians, teachers)

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.


As an opening comment, I'd like to suggest that the greatest challenge facing children in getting access to justice is adults; in particular children's experience of adults.

As difficult as it may be for us caring and committed adults to hear, the day-to-day experience of most children gives them no particular confidence that adults will give them the space to change or challenge a decision to achieve an outcome considered fair by a child. Why should children trust adults when invariably it is adults that have denied them a fair outcome in the first place?

The rules are made by adults. The avenues of challenge are provided by adults. Most of the time adults will run or at least be required when a brave child wants to change a decision that has been made.

So I wonder what a justice system designed by children for children would look like.

A Foundational Element of that System Would Be Honesty

What a great question!

I think a foundational  element of a justice system designed by children would be adults always telling children the truth - and the whole truth - about their rights, the law, processes, timeframes, and possible and probable outcomes.  

In my experience in the Northern Rockies of the United States (mostly Montana) it is important to be honest, candid, and complete with children when explaining things to them and in response to their questions.  Yes, of course information should be appropriately adjusted for the child’s age and/or mental capacity.

I’ve seen and heard of cases where someone argues for not telling a child the truth or the whole truth and in the long run it does significant harm and none or little good.  To quote Shakespeare, "at the length truth will out."  I believe not being honest does the child a personal disservice (and disrespect) and degrades his or her trust, sense of justice, and expectations in the process (and opinions about adults).



I think that you're right. Honesty + Access to Accurate Information would be essential elements of a justice system designed by children.

And I think that many adults would struggle with that.

Here in Australia our family law system does not operate on a direct representation model for children and one of the justifications is that children will be harmed by exposure to the truth about their parents' relationship. And so all too often children's views are not sought or heard. Profoundly disrespectful.

I'm excited by the recent news that our National Children's Commissioner is now calling for changes to the representation of children in the Family Court (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/legal-affairs/let-kids-be-heard...)

Justice for children

I agree with you. Not many children have role models in their direct environment. Maybe the question should be what adults may do to improve the  society and then we may speak about children. As they are not allowed to make any decision, adults need to realize that they are the problems and they need to fix the society.

Knowledge Is a (the most?) Powerful Tool

To start the conversation - I’d like to suggest that one of the most important tools for advocating childrens’ rights is knowing what those rights actually are.  This is not an obtuse concept - it is being familiar in with the law and regulations that directly pertain to children and also those that pertain to others (including enforcement and protection agencies) who are involved with children.  As an advocate and as a guardian ad litem I have worked with - and against - many people who do not really know a child’s rights, rights to process, and rights to access to courts.  Further, many child welfare governmental agencies do not know or exercise their actual obligations to protect children or ensure that those children are represented, etc.

As both an attorney and an advocate I think that knowing this basic, though admittedly not always simple, information is the foundation to determining and advocating a child’s interests.

Another element to this is ensuring that all of the people involved also know this information.  That is a matter of accuracy and dissemination.   The most simple tools are summaries and citations to law (and norms and customs, where appropriate) - but even the ability to reference and argue these points is important.  People misrepresent, misstate, or avoid the law for many reasons.  I have been in meetings and courts where people asserted incorrect requirements or obligations.  Without being corrected, these can become the practice for that case or even other cases.

Knowledge about applicable law, standards, application, and obligations is therefore a powerful (if not the most important) tool and cannot be understated.  Thoughts?

Tactics for educating people on children's rights

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stu! I'm curious to learn about any examples of countries or practitioners who have done this well - educating children (and adults) on children's rights. We have a few interesting tactics on our website:

The Albanian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) collaborated with the Albanian Ministry of Education to bring human rights education into all public schools in the country. The group took advantage of the post-communist transition period, negotiating with officials in the new democratic government to launch a long-term and ambi­tious process in which they would prepare young Albanian citizens to participate fully in a democracy. https://www.newtactics.org/tactic/collaborating-government-incorporate-h...

The Arab Penal Reform Organization (APRO) publishes a series of illustrated children’s books called Activist Ali’s Team to educate children and adults of their civil and legal rights as well as to foster a culture of human rights in Egypt. The book series follows a curious ten-year-old named Ali and his male and female companions. Each book – in the series of 36 – focuses on a specific civil or human rights topic. APRO highlights Ali being concerned with the protection of society by the rights and duties guaranteed by law – national laws and international covenants ratified by his country. https://www.newtactics.org/tactic/using-illustrated-children%E2%80%99s-l...

The Culture and Free Thought Association has established youth centers, run by youth parliaments, to teach adolescents about the democratic process and provide them with positive life experiences. The youth centers are now governed by the elected members of the youth parliaments. This program for youth sprung out of a need to illustrate the democratic process for young people who had never witnessed it. Many youth in Palestine had witnessed or been subjected to violence. The youth centers and parliaments are meant to help combat the feeling of helplessness which may come with being in a society experiencing such turmoil. https://www.newtactics.org/tactic/developing-youth-parliaments-teach-you...

At the beginning of 2005, Enfants & Developpement (E&D) set up a Participatory Child Protection Project in 6 communes covering 126 villages. The project pilots a new initiative in combating child trafficking issues through the establishment of Child Boards at the district level. https://www.newtactics.org/tactic/creating-child-board-and-village-child...

What other tactics have you seen?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Challenges facing children in conflict with the law

Children in conflict with the law are exposed to a myriad of challenges within the criminal justice system..The rigid nature of the system coupled with the intimidating nature of the courts does nothing to advance access to justice for children. In Kenya for example, such children are entitled to free legal representation, however there are no laid down rules governing this and the court has to rely on pro bono advocates to take up such matters, in the absence of an advocate, then the child will have to apppear in person.

In addition,  the stigma attached to children in conflict with the law is a key draw back when reintegrating these children into thier communities.  More often than not, the aforementioned children are exposed to public stigma, stigma by association and self stigma. They are labelled "criminals" for the rest of their lives and in extreme cases they are ex-communicated.




You touched an important point: the stigma. Especially in Africa, children don't have a lot of opportunities to be accepted back into the community after having had some issues. The matter asks for the entire community to understand what is at stake and to participate fully in the process.

Foundational steps


I agree with the early comments. Knowledge of one's rights is a critical threshold issue. Most countries do very little to educate children and adolescents about human rights (even though the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states parties make children's rights known to both adults and children). Children need to understand what rights they have. Then, as others have noted, they need a system that is responsive to their particular needs and is one they can trust.

One significant challenge is the lack of time that most criminal justice systems give to each case. Children who have come into conflict with the law are often kids who have been burned by adults repeatedly. Building trust in that context takes time, which many criminal justice systems just do not provide (or are so overwhelmed, they cannot provide ... without significant changes).

Last thought for the moment: There's a need for a mindset shift from punishment only to restorative approaches. Unfortunately in the U.S. and in many other countries, we appear to give up way too early on many children.

Knowledge is important. What is the best way to share it?

I agree that knowledge of rights is critical for kids. But in my personal and work experience, it's not always easy to share information with teens, even when it's information they need.  If a child is living on the streets and has been "burned" over and over again by adults, how do we talk to him or her about rights? Many of these children don't even view themselves as victims whose rights have been abused.

Does outreach by someone other than adults --  peers and survivors -- work?  What about providing kids with human rights education starting from a young age? Many countries teach kids about their rights in schools, kids' clubs and other places where kids gather, though I've never come across it myself in the U.S.

Finally, I agree that we not only think too little about children's rights,  we think too much about their punishment.  Restorative approaches are the way forward.



Consultation WITH versus Discussion ABOUT

In law school the tax law professor, who was an amazing teacher (thanks Martin Burke if you’re out there) frequently responded to our perspectives and conundrums with the phrase “let’s turn the crystal” - meaning that each facet and perspective was different and by looking from a different angle the whole picture changes.  That seems the case on just a small number of comments so far.

The Australian National Children's Commissioner's call for changes sounds like a great opportunity.  Here in the US, on paper the suggestion is truth and candor but in practice it is often largely up to the individuals involved to decide what to say and how.

A lot of this is tied to many of the laws protecting children making the children subjects of the law, rather than being part of the solution! 

I suspect a second element of the Justice System Designed by Children (in James’ question) would include consultation WITH children instead of just discussions ABOUT them (by adults, alone).  Seems that might also help a little bit of the communication problem descrubed by Darlene.

But that does nothing for the punishment that Jonathan describes or the social problems raised by Naomi.

Many countries’ focus on punishment (prisons) seems significantly driven by political and economic factors far, far removed from justice and particularly inapplicable to children.  In the US some states are moving away from prison/punishment and slowly towards rehabilitation (or simply focusing less on drug offenses, reducing crowding and freeing budgets).  But it is a long social and political process before it’s likely to focus on rehabilitation as the rule - and punishment as the secondary option.  Maybe the Justice System Designed by Children will therefore prioritize and focus on rehabilitation and reintroduction to society (or better still, never being removed from society in the first place!).

Its interesting that while working on or discussing an individual case it is easy to focus on the individual facts and problems of the individual child in the case.  The discussion, particularly about societal elements underscores the need for larger social (and then political and economic) changes - about how we view and treat children, etc (turn the crystal?).

Rights education ... short- and long-term


Thank you, Kristin, for sharing the resources. I agree, Darlene, that one challenge with vulnerable populations of children is that the children may not see themselves as victims, or at least they don't self-identify initially (e.g., child victims of commercial sexual exploitation commonly don't self-identify as victims). 

I think there are two overlapping but distinct issues -- how to help children become aware of their rights in the midst of rights violations and building a deeper human rights culture in which children grow up understanding their rights and the rights of others and feel empowered.

Both are challenging. To Darlene's point, I think peer- and survivor-led efforts can help address some of the mistrust and other barriers in the immediate siutations. 

I think for the longterm we have to recognize that a lot of the child-friendly human rights books have such limited print runs that most children do not read them. There are some great resources, but we need to make sure children access them. A colleague and I are examining what human rights lessons are in children's literature (which most kids read or have read to them at some point). Here's a link to an article we did (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2234163), and we are doing a book for Oxford University Press that explores this in more detail. Brian Howe and Katherine Covell have done a great deal of work on human rights education and what works to empower children.

The longterm project of teaching children about human rights will require that we meet children where they are. That means, engaging them through a variety of media and tailoring human rights education efforts to the particular locale.


Reaching out to children and teaching parents and carers!

Totally agree with you Jonathan, especially we meeting children where they are.

In terms of media tools, children consulted in our survey on "Access to Justice (310 children from all regions between 11 and 17) showed a strong preference for information to be sent directly to them as well as for information to be provided at school and online. The least favoured options were to receive information via traditional media such as magazines, newspapers, the radio or in the community. But a number of children also highlighted that it was hard for them to access the internet and some also had concerns about maintaining their privacy if accssing information online.

Overwhelmingly (88%) children stated that the main source of information about their rights and remedies would come from parents or carers, or family members (70%). Yet, so far I only know about rights education programmes targeting professionals, schools and children, but what is done to reach out to parents/carers? Not only in the framework of programmes to prevent violence against children/neglect but also so that parents/carers can also identify rights violations, know where their child could ask for help, feel empowered to assist the children and empower the children themselves?

What do you guys think?

education is the most important element

      Education including human rights education is really very important for childern's accessing justice. For in some society, not only the state government does not know too much about children's rights, but also the whole individuals do not understand. If the government know, then relating laws will be there. If most individuals know, then they will claim for them. Rights are based on human dignity, but in fact,  too many regions' culture can not respect the human dignity.


Thanks for these great

Thanks for these great resources on human rights education.  Living in Geneva, I hear a lot of discussion about human rights education at the Human Rights Council and before the various U.N. treaty bodies.  It's great to hear about efforts, such as the ones that Kristin and Jonathan highlighted.

As you probably know, UNICEF recently released a statistical analysis of violence against children called Hidden In Plain Sight.  (Jonathan, you may recall a CSEC report that went by the same name in Atlanta. Funny coincidence.)  The report is a great resource for quantitative data, which is so hard to come by in this field.  

It also has a chapter that's particularly relevant to our discussion here called Disclosing Experiences of Violence and Seeking Help.  Not surprisingly, the studies showed that most kids don't disclose, and one of the top reasons is there lack of understanding that they had experienced abuse or that they have a right to be free from violence.  Disclosure rates were lower for boys than girls, and lower for sexual abuse than physical abuse.  www.unicef.org/publications/index_74865.html Again, this points to the need for education at an early age -- but also for the need for significant cultural shifts. 

The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Children also recently released her Global Survey on Violence Against Children.  Another really useful resource. http://srsg.violenceagainstchildren.org/page/920

In addition to education, the SRs' report also emphasizes the need for "child-friendly complaint and reporting mechanisms" or hotlines.  This is another frequently discussed idea around Geneva, but I've always wondered if these are really a useful tool for children.  Do kids use them?  Are there any innovative hotlines out there that are geared specifically toward children?



Re: child-friendly complaint mechanisms. I think one of the challenges is awareness and access (which brings us right back to the topic for the week). I support the idea of creating more child-friendly mechanisms. The question is whether the most vulnerable children and adolescents are aware they exist and have access to them. I worry that many of the most vulnerable do not.

We talked yesterday about human rights education, which I still think is critical, but we have to look at structural issues. The child exposed to human rights education may still end up in difficult circumstances if he/she doesn't have access to meaningful opportunties to exercise his/her rights. That presents a big challenge for all of us.

I think technology and social media present the opportunity to reach more kids and give them access to complaint mechanisms, but we know a substantial percentage of vulnerable kids have limited access to technology.  Are national ombudspersons using technology to reach vulnerable children? Has this been successful?

Last, it's an older publication, but Gerison Lansdown's report on child participation for UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre provides some excellent information on challenges to child participation and a host of interesting examples:  http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/insight6.pdf 


Tactics that use info communications tech to protect children

Interesting questions, Jonathan and Darlene! Regarding the role of technology and social media, and Darlene's question:

In addition to education, the SRs' report also emphasizes the need for "child-friendly complaint and reporting mechanisms" or hotlines.  This is another frequently discussed idea around Geneva, but I've always wondered if these are really a useful tool for children.  Do kids use them?  Are there any innovative hotlines out there that are geared specifically toward children?

I wanted to share some tactics that came out of an online discussion we hosted with Linda Raftree a few years ago on the topic Empowering communities with technology tools to protect children. Here are a few of the examples that came out of this discussion:

I hope these examples spark some ideas!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Child helplines

Hi all,

Re hotlines and innovative ways, child helplines supported by our member Child Helpline International, which dedicates its work to support the creation and strengthening of national toll-free child helplines worldwide, use

  • mobile phone SMS/text messaging
  • online services such as email, chat rooms and online bulletin boards,
  • letter 'drop boxes' in schools, community centre and other public spaces,
  • postal services
  • radio programmes
  • mobile outreach units

While it is of course very important to both keep up with the new communications methods used by children, reaching out to marginalised children or children living in remote communities is essential too, as are very practical considerations too, such as providing free of charge numbers both for the caller and the helpline (to ensure that phone calls they can receive are not limited for financial reasons) and ensuring that helpline numbers are not apparent in telephone bills...


Property Rights in Urban Areas

One of the challenges young people face in urban areas, particularly in slums and informal settlements, is the inability to access secure land tenure. Due to limited employment opportunities in rural areas, many young people are migrating to urban areas, where they face a range of legal barriers that can hinder their property rights. In Rwanda, Care International helps child-headed households with land and property rights issues. They organize community awareness sessions and train community members to advocate for orphans' land rights. In Indonesia, Lembaga Bantuan Hukum holds paralegal trainings for street children to help them lobby for the application of legal norms to improve their communities. 



Distrust in adults and concerns for their family

Children we consulted for the UN Human Rights Council's annual day on the rights of the child on "Access to Justice" last March raised some other very relevant points:

- 6% of the 310 children we consulted said they did not feel comfortable to raise problems they face with others: nearly half of them throught they would be able to deal with the problem themeselves whilst 44% said they would be scared of what might happen to their family and over a quarter had asked for help before and it hadn't turned out well.  Other frequent answers were that they had no one to talk to or that no one would listen to them or believe them.

Does anyone have examples about child rights/human rights education programmes/projects that include a counselling service or at least redirects children to relevant professionals in case of need? This would be especially relevant and useful where there is distrust in the authorities/police force, etc.

Children sharing key obstacles and what they need

As I have been mentioning it a couple of times in my posts, I thought I'd share the outcome report of our survey with children on "Access to Justice" as well as the Prezi presentation that was shown at the UN Human Rights Council which highlights the key obstacles they had identified and what they said they needed to access justice. Maybe their views will inspire you some new tactics ;) !

Trust & some interesting outreach efforts in the US

The US Department of Justice has an Access To Justice Initiative.  It recently published a report on outreach projects for the homeless, which provides interesting insights for children living on the streets.   http://usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/RPT_SoS_March2012.pdf

In many cities, police and service providers are collaborating on outreach efforts so that police do not initially approach homeless individuals alone, but in the company of a specially-trained provider from a local NGO.  The service provider can better communicate with the individual, assess his/her needs, and assist them in interacting with the police, including helping them work out small criminal infractions.  This helps overcome the trust issues and should help the police be more responsive.  The difficulty is building the collaboration between the police and NGOs in the first place, because there are trust issues there, as well.  I believe there are similar collaborations between police and representatives from local children's rights/services NGOs.  Does anyone know more about these?

In another interesting strategy, the city of San Diego operates a special court out of local shelters, which resolves minor, nonviolent infractions for homeless individuals and links them to services.  The court is held at different shelters on different dates.  In this way, people avoid moving through the revolving door of the criminal justice system. I wonder if something similar could be used for children on the streets.  It's much more complicated, of course, for children. You would probably have to have some sort of multi-disciplinary team in the shelter (juvenile judge, probation officer, social worker, etc.) in order to dispose of the child's outstanding warrants and start the process of getting the child the services he/she needs.  Is anyone aware of anything like this -- essentially moving the juvenile court or the child advocacy center to the streets?


Thank you for participating in this conversation!

This has been such an interesting conversation on how practitioners are working to improve access to justice for children and teens around the world.  I can't thank you enough for participating in this discussion and thus creating such a great resource! I especially want to thank Anita Goh for helping to facilitate this dialogue and engaging Child Rights Connect's network of practitioners to participate.

I hope you found it helpful to reflect on your own experiences as well as learn from the experiences of others as we discussed how practitioners improve access to justice for children and teens by:

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Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder