We thought it might be interesting to see what Jonathan Todres has been up to since we last discussed his book Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, co-authored with Sarah Higinbotham. He was kind enough to answer a few questions over email. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell me a little bit about your work; what’s your “elevator pitch”?
My work continues to focus on issues that affect the rights and well-being of children. When we last spoke, I had just finished Human Rights in Children’s Literature. That grew out of my prior work which had focused on exploring ways to prevent harm from occurring to children. I had worked for many years on child trafficking (and related issues), focusing on prevention. The years I spent researching strategies for preventing child trafficking – plus an accidental encounter with Horton Hears a Who! – spurred my project on human rights in children’s literature. I wanted to explore how children learn about and understand their rights and the rights of others. The bigger picture was thinking about how we build rights respecting communities in the long run, so that rights violations no longer occur. So that longer-term project still drives my thinking, but I am also working on more immediate threats to child wellbeing, including child trafficking still as well as other issues, like family separations and child detentions at the US southern border.
Are you still working on the human rights and children’s literature project?
Yes, I’ve continued with that project, writing about how important human rights education is in the Trump era. For example, in one article, “The Trump Effect, Children, and the Value of Human Rights Education,” I examined how human rights education might help counter the rise in hate incidents during the Trump administration. My work in this area also led to a Fulbright in Ireland in spring 2018.
What specifically were you working on in Ireland? (And how was your experience there?)
During my Fulbright in Ireland, I was focused primarily on extending work from my book on human rights in children’s literature. That book had focused largely on U.S. literature. And since its publication, I had been interested in building out a project exploring global perspectives on these issues. That is, what stories – written and oral – are children exposed to and what human rights themes, positive or negative, are conveyed in those stories? Related to that, I wanted to explore human rights education and ways to engage with young people on various children’s rights issues. How do we meet children where they are, to explore human rights together? One of the exciting developments of my time in Ireland was that the Glucksman Gallery of University College Cork, where I did my Fulbright, took up the idea of exploring human rights through children’s literature. They translated that idea into a visual arts project, an exhibition of human rights-themed images by children’s book illustrators. I also was able to connect with various other professionals interested in human rights education. Last, one of the most wonderful aspects of my time there professionally was that I was based at the law school at UCC, where there is a fabulous group of children’s rights scholars. Not only did I have the chance to co-teach a children’s rights course with Prof. Ursula Kilkelly, but being in an environment with such activity around children’s rights issues reenergized my interest in some of the core aspects of children’s rights law. So there are projects that have come out of that too, including a project that is using data analytics to help evaluate progress on children’s rights.
Beyond the professional, living in Ireland was wonderful. The whole family was able to go. It was such an enriching experience. First, you often hear things like “Irish people are so friendly.” For us, the reality blew that away. The kindness we encountered was really amazing. And it was from everyon–from colleagues, to our kids’ teachers, to bus drivers, to random people on the street. Our time in Cork was marked by so many wonderful moments of human interaction. It’s such a family-friendly place. And we also loved exploring Ireland. Cliff walks on the rugged but stunning coast were a highlight.
In my brief travels in Ireland, I was very impressed with the kindness and friendliness that I encountered. I would love to go back, when at some point we can travel again, What were the best things you encountered during your stay in Ireland that you’d recommend to a visitor?
Cliff walks! We loved them. The coast is so beautiful, although sometimes it was so windy on the coast – we were there in the winter and into spring – that we wondered if one of our kids could be swept into the sea. I know everyone likes to travel there in the summer, and there are valid reasons for doing so, but the winter light is amazing. In terms of favorite spots, we loved the Dingle Peninsula. Such beautiful coastline, and none of the overdevelopment you typically see in coastal areas. It’s so picturesque. And we loved Cork. Lots of gems. I could talk about Ireland travel endlessly.
What else are you working on now?
I’ve continued to stay connected to work on child trafficking. And now I’ve just published a book: Preventing Child Trafficking: A Public Health Approach (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2019). The book, which came out in print in December 2019, was done with Dr. Angela Diaz, who is the director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City. Given my focus on prevention and my prior work and teaching in public health (I worked in global health before law school; I teach Public Health Law at GSU), about a decade ago, I started thinking about the application of public health methods to human trafficking. I published an article on this in 2011. I believe it was the first in-depth look at a public health approach to human trafficking. So that’s been a parallel project for years. I had the privilege of serving on a study committee of the National Academies on child sex trafficking, which is where I first met Angela. We eventually decided to do a book, which became the book that JHU Press published. In it, we map how public health methods can help advance efforts to prevent the trafficking of children (and adults). Angela brings the on-the-ground clinician’s perspective as well as public health expertise, and she’s developed a really innovative model program at Mt. Sinai. And I bring public health and law elements.
So while I’m sure there are some who see these two books and think these are totally different worlds, for me human rights education (and children’s literature elements) and preventing child trafficking are all points on the same spectrum, which aims to figure out how we build structures in the short-term and long-term that can prevent harm from occurring to children.
I like what you wrote on the JHU Press Blog about your new book and child trafficking, particularly this:
Responses to date have been largely reactive, often over-relying on law enforcement. Law enforcement plays a critical role, but as we know from other public health issues, we cannot prosecute our way out of the problem. In recent years, the number of sectors involved in antitrafficking work has grown. Today, in addition to law enforcement and social services, entities in health care, education, the media, transportation, and other sectors are engaged. These developments are encouraging, but improving outcomes is not only about involving more sectors. It is also about adopting more effective strategies to address the issue.
Public health methodologies offer important insights into how we can “move upstream” and develop better responses that prevent harm from occurring in the first place. A public health perspective helps us to understand and focus on the underlying attitudes and behaviors that both drive demand for the goods and services produced by exploited individuals and heighten the vulnerability of certain populations. Using the socioecological model, a public health approach can help identify the root causes of child trafficking—at the individual, relationship, community, and society levels—so that we can begin to build long-term solutions.
And, we see now of course, that neglecting public health measures leads to some very bad outcomes–for medical professionals, and for their patients. In this new world of COVID-19, I know that many people working in public policy were very concerned about children during this crisis–not the obvious medical concerns, but the perhaps less immediately obvious concerns–closing schools can lead to social isolation and can put children who are suffering from abuse or neglect in greater harm; schools also provide meals and an opportunity for parents to work and taking away that structure can lead to kids going hungry or being unsupervised. Can you speak to how this current crisis is having an impact on our youth?
The impact of COVID-19 on children is really significant, and those effects will continue to have adverse consequences beyond the time when this pandemic ends. (As you note.) We know that child abuse is increasing, even though reporting has declined. Reporting has declined because mandatory reporters (most notably, teachers but also pediatricians and others) aren’t seeing kids anymore. But according to some hospitals, more kids are presenting with abuse-related injuries. The social isolation is having a significant impact on social and emotional wellbeing. On the education front, learning loss is significant for many kids, in particular children in low income families who are not in a position to have a parent homeschool their children. Financial stress on families has left many children in more vulnerable situations. Food insecurity is a problem. Reports of online exploitation activity have increased. In short, children are feeling the effects in numerous ways. And often it is the most vulnerable children who are confronting multiple harms simultaneously. The pandemic has not only revealed inequities, it has exacerbated them.
Is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss for our readers?
Sometimes people ask me why I write and research on what are seemingly very different topics. In the last four years, I’ve published three books – on human rights in children’s literature, on a public health approach to child trafficking, and then an edited volume on children’s rights law. Some see this as jumping from topic to topic. For me, it is all connected. I care about the lived experience of children, particularly vulnerable children. And I’m interested in thinking about how the law and other disciplines can help foster better outcomes for children, so they can realize their rights and develop to their fullest potential. So interventions to prevent human trafficking and human rights education programs can both achieve the same goal – preventing harm from occurring. They just operate at different stages, with the latter being a larger, more long term project. But the goal is consistent: to prevent harm from occurring in the immediate term and ultimately help support the development of rights respecting communities so that we see better outcomes for all children. I know that’s a lofty goal. I don’t have grand illusions about what I can accomplish. But I know that I want to be part of the effort to make that happen, whatever small role I can play.
Thank you so much for your time and for all of the work that you do!
Book Cover Courtesy of Jonathan Todres, Angela Diaz, and Johns Hopkins Univ. Press
More Catching Up by Laura LaVelle
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org