Five Decades of Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice and Party Platforms

In terms of forward movement of policy, the party convention platform has little political value. It is not binding in any way on the candidate of the party and his or her administration.

But they are interesting historical markers, a testament to the political zeitgeist every four years. Youth Services Insider dug into a couple of decades worth of Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention platform statements to see what the parties had to say about juvenile justice, child welfare, and services for disadvantaged youth over the years.

We found some pretty interesting statements from both parties. And as far as trends go, it will be pretty clear to the reader that recent platforms have paid far less attention to both issues than in past decades.

Following is a collection of youth services policies referenced in the past five decades. And in the interest of clarity: This is not meant to be exhaustive, there are many references to children, youth and families we aren’t including.



The platform touts support for preventing delinquency, noting that the party had “raised federal spending…from $15 million to more than $180 million.”

It also mentions “proposed legislation to launch a series of model youth service.” Two years later, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was passed.

The platform also makes quite the statement on college access:

“We have proposed legislation to ensure that no qualified student is denied a higher education by lack of funds, and have also moved to meet the often-overlooked concerns of the two-thirds of the college-age young not in school.”

Sounds a lot like “college for everyone,” no?


  • The Dems used the platform in 1972 to champion a broad increase in the federal role in child care and protection. The platform calls for the following:“The federal government to fund comprehensive development child care programs that will be family centered, locally controlled and universally available.”
  • “The establishment of a strong child advocacy program, financed by the federal government and other sources, with full ethnic, cultural, racial and sexual representation.”
  • “First priority for the needs of children, as we move toward a National Health Insurance Program,” including immediate implementation of “early and periodic screening, diagnosis and treatment of children’s health problems.”
  • Juvenile court revisions that mandated “dependency and neglect cases must be removed from the corrections system, and clear distinctions must be drawn between petty childhood offenses and the more serious crimes.”
  • “Allocation of funds to the states to provide counsel to children in juvenile proceedings, legal or administrative.”
  • “Creation by Congress of permanent standing committees on Children and Youth.”



In the wake of JJPDA passage, both parties weighed in on juvenile justice. From the Republican side:

“Juveniles now account for almost half the arrests for serious crimes—murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The cost of school violence and vandalism is estimated at $600 million annually, about what is spent on textbooks. Primary responsibility for raising our children, instilling proper values and thus preventing juvenile delinquency lies with the family, not the government. Yet when families fail, local law enforcement authorities must respond. Law enforcement block grant funds can be used by states in correcting and preventing juvenile delinquency. The LEAA should promote additional research in this area.

The structure of the family must be strengthened. All enterprises have to be encouraged to find more Jobs for young people. A youth differential must be included in the minimum wage law. Citizen action should let the television industry know that we want it to curb violence in programming because of its effect on our youth.”

The call for a lower minimum wage for teens, to incentivize their hiring, was repeated in several GOP platforms around this time.


The Democrats lamented the same statistic as the RNC, that “juveniles account for almost half of the serious crimes in the United State.” The platform pledges “pledge funding and implementation” of the JJDPA, “which has been ignored by the Republican Administration.”

The platform also says the following about gun crimes, which is important since the inclusion of a gun in the commission of a crime became a major issue within juvenile justice:

“Since people and not guns commit crimes, we support mandatory sentencing for individuals convicted of committing a felony with a gun.”



Not much on juvenile justice and child welfare from the Republicans in 1980. But check out this plank of the platform, about empowering girls and young women:

“One of the most critical problems in our nation today is that of inadequate child care for the working mother. As champions of the free enterprise system, of the individual, and of the idea that the best solutions to most problems rest at the community level, Republicans must find ways to meet this, the working woman’s need. The scope of this problem is fully realized only when it is understood that many female heads of households are at the poverty level and that they have a very large percentage of the nation’s children.

The platform also included the following statements about girls and women:

  • “Total integration of the work force (not separate but equal) is necessary to bring women equality in pay.”
  • “Girls and young women must be given improved early career counseling and job training to widen the opportunities for them in the world of work.”
  • “Women’s worth in the society and in the jobs they hold, at home or in the workplace, must be re-evaluated to improve the conditions of women workers concentrated in low-status, low-paying jobs.”


The platform voiced support for realignment of the juvenile justice system:

“In particular, we reaffirm our commitment to ending unnecessary institutionalization of young people who have not committed serious crimes and strengthening preventive efforts and other services at the community level to help young people and their families in the sometimes difficult transition to adulthood.

Equally important, we are committed to continuing reform in the juvenile courts to assure right of due process and adequate counsel to young people who become enmeshed in the juvenile justice system.”


The platform mentions child welfare in what appears to be an endorsement of community-based services:

“We must also recognize and stimulate the talents and energy of low-income neighborhoods. We must provide new incentives for self-help activities that flow naturally when people realize they can make a difference. This is especially critical in foster care and adoption.”


There appeared to be agreement on that notion from the DNC:

“Local, community-based child abuse prevention programs must be strengthened and expanded. A Child who learns first about the risks of sexual abuse in school will be less likely to become the target of repeated victimization. Federal challenge grants could encourage states to make local prevention efforts a real priority.”

The platform also calls for “prompt intervention efforts” for children in crisis, and states that “if we are to make any headway in breaking the cycle of child abuse, both victims and offenders must have access to treatment programs.”

YSI-MB-PageThe Dems also made interesting statements on both juvenile confinement and aging out of foster care.

Juvenile confinement: “Juvenile offenders must not be left in adult jails where the only skills they acquire are those of the career criminal.”

Aging out: “Children in foster care must not be allowed to graduate to the streets at age 18 without ever having known a permanent home.”



The platform notes the Reagan-Bush administration’s “unprecedented attention to adoption through a presidential task force,” and states that the party is “determined to cut through red tape” to make adoption easier for “those who can offer strong family life based on traditional values.”

The platform singles out two groups of kids most impacted by aforementioned red tape:

“Trapping minority and special needs children in the foster care system, when there are families ready to adopt these youngsters, is a national disgrace. We urge States to remove obstacles to the permanent placement of foster children and to reform antiquated regulations that make adoption needlessly difficult.”

A few years later, Congress would pass the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, which prohibits agencies from refusing or delaying foster or adoptive placements due to the race or national origin of the child, foster parent or adoptive parent.


The platform says that the “strength of our families is enhanced by programs” including “aggressive child support enforcement; and by emphasizing family preservation and quality foster care.”



The party used its platform to make two statements about child welfare services. The first is a hard criticism of foster care administration, particularly in cities:

“We abhor the disgraceful bureaucratic mismanagement of foster care. Big city mayors have spent billions on social service bureaucrats who have lost track of many children. Many have no health records, no real residence, not even the simplest personal possessions. Shuttled from house to house, they lack discipline and identity and are ripe for lives of crime. We are determined to reform this system to help these children.”

The second statement is an early salvo in the GOP fight to keep gay couples from being involved in child welfare:

“We oppose any legislation or law which legally recognizes same-sex marriages and allows such couples to adopt children or provide foster care.”


The Dems called for a “family preservation program to reduce child and spousal abuse by providing preventive services and foster care to families in crisis.”

Ten years later, President George W. Bush would sign the bipartisan Promoting Safe and Stable Families Act, which opened the door to family preservation funding under Title IV-B of the Social Security Act.

The platform also called for “a summer jobs initiative and training programs for inner-city youth” as part of its employment plank.



In several party platforms around this time, the GOP commits to promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

“Republicans in Congress took the lead in expanding assistance both for the costs of adoption and for the continuing care of adoptive children with special needs. Bill Clinton vetoed our adoption tax credit the first time around – and opposed our efforts to remove racial barriers to adoption – before joining in this long overdue measure of support for adoptive families.”

The party also takes a hard line in this platform on how juvenile offenders should be dealt with.

Juvenile crime, the platform decrees, “is one of the most difficult challenges facing our nation,” and the system designed to handle delinquents “fails to punish the minor crimes that lead to larger offenses, and lacks early intervention to keep delinquency from turning into violent crime. Truancy laws are not enforced, positive role models are lacking, and parental responsibility is overlooked.”

Among the policies espoused on this plank of the ’96 platform:

  • “We believe in tough law enforcement, especially against juvenile crime and the drug traffic, with stiff penalties, no loopholes, and judges who respect the rights of law-abiding Americans.”
  • “While we acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of single parents, we recognize that a generation of fatherless boys raises the prospect of soaring juvenile crime.”
  • “We will stress accountability at every step in the system and require adult trials for juveniles who commit adult crimes.”
  • “Recognizing that local jurisdictions have a clear and concise understanding of their problems, we encourage them to develop and enact innovative programs to address juvenile crime. We also encourage them to consider juvenile nocturnal curfews as an effective law enforcement tool in helping reduce juvenile crime and juvenile victimization.”
  • “Juvenile criminal proceedings should be open to victims and the public. Juvenile conviction records should not be sealed but made available to law enforcement agencies, the courts, and those who hire for sensitive work in schools and day-care centers.”


On the heels of a deal on welfare reform, the platform calls the deal “far from perfect” after slamming the original Republican plan:

“Republicans wanted to gut child abuse prevention and foster care. They were wrong, and we stopped them. Republicans wanted to cut off young, unwed mothers – because they actually thought their children would be better off living in an orphanage. They were dead wrong, and we stopped them.”

Juvenile justice advocates will always remember this period as the one in which Democrats embraced harsh punishments for juveniles all the way down the continuum, from status offenses to felonies. Here is what the platform had to say:

  • “Democrats fought to pass, and President Clinton ordered states to impose, zero tolerance for guns in school, requiring schools to expel for one year any student who brings a gun to school.”
  • “At the same time, when young people cross the line, they must be punished. When young people commit serious violent crimes, they should be prosecuted like adults. We established boot camps for young non-violent offenders.”
  • “…We support schools that adopt school uniform policies, to promote discipline and respect. We support community-based curfews to keep kids off the street after a certain time, so they’re safe from harm and away from trouble. We urge schools and communities to enforce truancy laws: Young people belong in school, not on the street.”



The platform suggests something that both President George Bush and Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) will take a crack at in coming years: block granting, and making more flexible, the federal funds going to states for child welfare services:

“While the largest federal effort is the open-ended entitlements aimed at foster care and adoption, very little is allotted to preventive and family support services. …We propose to restructure that system along the lines of our welfare reform success, by combining the separate and competing funding sources into a Child Protection Block Grant with guaranteed levels of funding. This will empower the states to respond more quickly, more flexibly, and with greater compassion to children in peril.”

On juvenile justice, the platform echoes the 1996 call for a tougher system of justice:

  • “We renew our call for a complete overhaul of the juvenile justice system that will punish juvenile offenders, open criminal proceedings to victims and the public, make conviction records more available, and enforce accountability for offenders, parents, and judges.”
  • “With regard to school safety, we encourage local school systems to develop a single system of discipline for all students who commit offenses involving drugs or violence in school, not the federally imposed dual system which leaves today’s teachers and students at risk from the behavior of others.”
  • “Any juvenile who commits any crime while carrying a gun should automatically be detained, not released to someone’s custody. We urge localities to consider zero-tolerance for juvenile drinking and driving and early intervention to keep delinquency from escalating to crime.”


The party credits its tough stance on crime for a number of successes, including the fact that “the number of juveniles committing homicides with guns is down by nearly 60 percent.”

The platform also calls for a policy that the Republican winner of this election used: harnessing faith-based support for youth services:

“Democrats believe it is time that government found ways to harness the power of faith-based organizations in tackling social ills such as drug addiction, juvenile violence, and homelessness.”

Bush would go on to establish the Office of Community and Faith-Based Services, and the Compassion Capital Fund.



Neither party had anything to say about juvenile justice or juvenile crime. The GOP platform supported “increasing tax incentives and bonuses” for states that increase the placement of “older children in permanent family homes.”


The platform says that “because children need safe, loving, and disciplined homes in order to learn, we will work on a bipartisan basis to reform foster care.”



Sixteen years after the 1992 platform supports a ban on gay adoptees and foster parents, the party’s 2008 platform reflects how much America has shifted on the issue. The party called for protection of agencies that do not wish to support gay adoptees and foster parents:

“We call upon the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to reverse its policy of blacklisting religious groups which decline to arrange adoptions by same-sex couples.”

The platform also supports government at all levels “working with faith-based institutions that have proven track records in diverting young and first offenders from criminal careers.”

Repeat offenders, including juveniles, it says, “need to be prosecuted and punished.”


The Democrats made no comment on juvenile justice, but espoused several policies on child welfare that the Republicans had championed in previous platforms.

“We must protect our most vulnerable children, by supporting and supplementing our struggling foster care system, enhancing adoption programs for all caring parents, and protecting children from violence and neglect. Online and on TV, we will give parents tools to block content they find objectionable.”



The party says that “a major problem of the [child welfare] system is its lack of support, financial and otherwise, for teens who age out of foster care and into a world in which many are not prepared to go it alone. We urge States to work with the faith-based and other community groups which reach out to these young people in need.”

It also removes its specific criticism of Massachusetts and condemns “the State blacklisting of religious groups which decline to arrange adoptions by same-sex couples.”


A vague reference to supporting the foster care system is the only trace of child welfare and juvenile justice. The platform does include a call for “expanding and reforming Head Start,” along with “grants to states to raise standards and improve instruction in their early learning programs.

A year later, President Obama would propose universal pre-K in his State of the Union address, and in 2014 the administration would start making low-performing Head Start sites compete for their grants.



No mention of juvenile justice, and a renewal of the call for states and local governments to do more to help youth aging out of foster care.

There was many a media reference to this platform’s opposition to the LGBTQ population, including support for the use of “conversion therapy” on youth, a process that has been categorically banned from federal support by the Obama administration.

The language on conversion therapy did not make the final document. It does include general “support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”

The platform endorses the the First Amendment Defense Act, which it says will “protect the non-profit tax status of faith-based adoption agencies, the accreditation of religious educational institutions, the grants and contracts of faith-based charities and small businesses, and the licensing of religious professions.”

The platform also supports the drafting of “legislation that requires financial responsibility for the child be equally borne by both the mother and father upon conception until the child reaches adulthood.” Youth Services Insider is not sure what that entails, but it is the first mention by either party of the issue outside of child support enforcement.

“Failure to require a father to be equally responsible for a child places an inequitable burden on the mother, creating a financial and social hardship on both mother and child,” the platform states.


The party makes no direct reference to juvenile justice, and references child welfare only in affirming that the “Indian Child Welfare Act is critical to the survival of Indian culture, government, and communities and must be enforced with the statutory intent of the law.”

The party also challenges something it once promoted: get-tough school discipline policies:

“We will end the school-to- prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT. We will support the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment.”

Two industries that the platform promises will be dealt with harshly: for-profit prisons and for-profit schools.

“We will continue to crack down on for-profit schools that take millions in federal financial aid—often as their principal source of revenue—and then exploit students and burden them with debt rather than educating them.”

Corrections gets it even worse. “We will fight to end federal, state, and municipal contracts with for-profit private prisons and private detention centers.” Many states contract with for-profit firms to handle some section of their juvenile population, though the bulk of for-profit contracts are forged to house adults.

The ban on for-profit prisons also appears on Hillary Clinton’s website as a core part of her campaign platform, which in YSI’s opinion does not get enough attention. Especially if you’ve read the recent feature article by a journalist who went undercover as a guard for a for-profit prison in Louisiana.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at