Skip to Content

With a Vision and a Gift, the Consortium for the Advancement of Children’s Rights Becomes a Reality

Back to News Listing


University of Denver

News  •
Ricketson Law Building

On the 30th anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the United Nations (UN) created the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international human rights treaty that outlines the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. To date, it is the largest human rights treaty in history and has been ratified by 196 countries.

The United States is the single member of the UN who has not ratified the CRC.

For three distinguished children’s law advocates, the situation is dire.

“Children,” they wrote, “are the invisible center of almost any debate.”

Gun violence is the leading cause of death among youth, often occurring in schools. Children face the most devastating consequences from the climate crisis and are being warehoused at our borders. Public schools are as racially segregated, and according to some studies, more racially segregated than they were in the late 1960s. The demographic disparities of those funneled into school-to-prison pipelines, via racially discriminatory disciplinary policies, mirror racialized incarceration rates; and, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, children are increasingly the unintended targets of legislation, or worse, used as political bargaining chips.

With an unrestricted gift of more than $2 million from an anonymous donor, and the support of their respective institutions, Professors Catherine Smith, University of Denver Sturm College of Law; Robin Walker Sterling, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law; and Tanya Washington Hicks, Georgia State University School of Law, have formed the Consortium for the Advancement of Children’s Constitutional Rights. Guided by a Nelson Mandela quote, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children,” their goal is to “reimagine the constitutional law canon through the lived experiences and perspectives of children, especially children in diverse and underserved communities.”

“Over thirty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declared that children should be raised ‘in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, and solidarity,’” noted Sturm College of Law Dean Bruce Smith. “But our legal system in the United States has too often failed to deliver on these noble aspirations. Professor Smith and her academic partners are uniquely positioned to advance the cause of children’s rights in this nation and across the world, and we applaud their important and timely work.”

“I met Catherine [Smith] nearly twenty years ago,” Washington Hicks, also a member of the Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice, explained. “We would see each other at different conferences, and our work was always aligned and complementary. My research and scholarship were focused on a substantive due process-based children’s rights framework, and Catherine’s was focused on an equal protection-based children’s rights framework. Both frameworks arise out of 14th Amendment protections and liberties.”

Smith and Washington Hicks collaborated on multiple noteworthy Supreme Court amicus briefs advancing children’s constitutional rights in the context of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor and in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark decision recognizing same-sex couples’ fundamental right to marry. 

Walker Sterling, a former Denver Law professor, is the associate dean for clinical education at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, currently visiting at Yale Law School, brings a different expertise to the Consortium and children’s rights, having spent her career representing young people in juvenile legal proceedings and researching and writing about juvenile defense and delinquency. A nationally recognized teacher and scholar, Walker Sterling has served as a public defender representing children accused of crime, as a guardian ad litem representing youths in dependency proceedings, and as Special Counsel at national juvenile justice policy organization.

In 2021, the three of them decided to work together to create space for children’s rights within the United States Constitution.

The gift gives the scholars “freedom and space,” Washington Hicks said, “to continue our innovative work advancing children’s constitutional rights across a continuum of legal contexts.”

The initial focus of the Consortium’s three-year project will focus on four areas, or pillars: climate change, education, families, and juvenile justice. 

Already, they would like to add a fifth focus area, based on an urgent need in the United States.

“Gun control,” Walker Sterling said, with Smith and Washington Hicks in absolute agreement.

The beauty of the gift is that, with its investment in developing something to stand the test of time, it allows for flexibility.

So, what comes next?

In addition to future research and scholarship, expect a children’s constitutional rights course and textbook, a key priority in shifting lawyers’ training to include children’s rights as a priority. Supporting scholars writing and practicing in the field, as well as establishing interdisciplinary collaborations, are other crucial objectives. And, in the 2023-24 academic year, a convening of leading children’s rights scholars at Georgia State University College of Law. They welcome collaborators, funders, and other children’s rights stakeholders to join in their cause. 

“We are developing the framework for change,” Smith said. “This is not a 10- or 20-year project; it is one that requires collaboration with those committed to changing how we see children and understand, approach, and enforce their rights. As we emphasized in our proposal, ‘Fifty years from now, we hope that society will look back on our current anachronistic framework for children’s rights and wonder how we ever justified its existence.’”