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Marci A. Hamilton

Why Oprah Should Be Obama's Children's Czar - and the Priorities She Should Set


Thursday, October 15, 2009

There have been some rumors that Oprah Winfrey may be looking at horizons beyond her hugely successful television show. Before too many offers arrive at her door, I would like to suggest to President Obama that he offer to make her the nation's first Children's Czar.

No one in the federal government actually has the title "czar" (I am relieved to report) but that is how single-issue executive branch officials have been identified since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Administration. Today, the Obama Administration has appointed a slightly larger contingent of czars than the Bush Administration did, with an AIDS czar, bank bailout czar, border czar, climate czar, cybersecurity czar, compensation czar, drug czar, energy czar, green-jobs czar, and health czar -- among dozens of others.

While I am no fan of increasing the size of the federal government, I do think that children's needs often fail to get the attention they deserve at the federal level. In particular, there are a number of pressing issues for which it would be helpful to have one person in Washington acting as the federal guardian ad litem for the children of America.

There is no one more qualified to hold this post. Without a doubt, Oprah is deeply educated on many of these issues, through her show and her media empire, as well as her own experiences growing up and running a school for girls in Africa. Moreover, she has the management acumen, quick-study skills, and unparalleled charm that would make her an effective advocate for children.

Were she to be chosen, a host of issues would await her. Here are a few I would put at the top of the to-do list for any Children's Czar's ("CC"):

Sex-trafficking and Sex Abuse

Normally, when one hears the terms "sex abuse" and "sex trafficking" these days, one assumes that they refer to international sex-trafficking. While that is an important arena for the CC to enter, someone in the federal government must also start paying more attention to sex-trafficking in the United States, and especially to the woeful underenforcement of the Mann Act, which prohibits adults from taking children across state and international borders for sex.

As readers will likely recall, Warren Jeffs was arrested by the FBI for the sex-trafficking of girls in the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints community. Notably, that particular community has frequently transported underage girls across state (and Canadian) borders for sex and for illegal plural marriages. A number of the girls at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, were not the children of the adults there, but instead had been specially "chosen" and sent there. Formerly polygamous wives have begged FBI agents to pay more attention to the facts of cases involving the transportation of adolescent girls for middle-aged men, but they have either not been interested in pursing, or not been permitted to pursue, the leads. As Children's Czar, Oprah could change that.

I would also suggest that a CC look into how the federal government can spur states to create better legal regimes for child sex abuse victims. We need reforms that would encourage the liberalization of statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, so that hidden predators can be identified and victims helped; increase public education regarding the scourge of child sex abuse; and examine state tort and criminal laws related to child sex abuse. No one could do a better job of bringing the best minds from around the country on these issues together than Oprah in the role of CC.

Health Care and Review of All Pending Legislation

Even though I track these issues as part of my scholarship and public advocacy, until fairly recently I had no idea that the health care reform bills included tax exemptions for faith-healing parents who would otherwise be required to have health insurance for their children. Fortunately, I received an email directing me to provisions buried deep in the 1,000-page draft House bill – which led me to write a column on the subject.

A Children's Czar could screen all pending legislation with an eye to whether children's interests are being affected. It would have been a very good thing for children, for example, if there had been a CC around when the Nixon Administration instituted a system that required states to create exemptions from medical neglect laws for faith-healing parents in order for states to obtain medical funding. Had a CC managed to block Nixon's shameful system – which would predictably lead to children's avoidable deaths, children's welfare would have been significantly increased. Moreover, we would have significantly fewer such exemptions today, and more robust means of ensuring that children do not die or become disabled from treatable medical ailments merely because they happen to live in faith-healing homes. Parents may choose faith healing for themselves; but children deserve medical care until such time that they, too, can choose.

Focusing on America's Children.

Many have taken up the cause of children around the world, and there is no question that there is great suffering to be redressed. A Children's Czar could ensure, though, that the federal government remembers to address the needs of American children, as well.

The federal government should surely be spending at least as much effort on American children who are not receiving, for instance, adequate dental care as it does on improving disease treatment for children in other countries. And medical care is only one issue; others, like improving children's science education, also need a strong voice behind them. A CC could be that voice, the one that keeps American children on the agenda.

In sum, Oprah would be the dream Children's Czar. Though the fit may be obvious, I wanted to be the first to suggest an appointment that I believe and hope would draw widespread support, and that I am confident would do tremendous good for some of our nation's most vulnerable. In the event that Oprah is unavailable, children still deserve a czar in the federal government.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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