No US State Meets Child Rights Standards

(New York) – Legal protections for children in the United States and in every individual state fall short of international children’s rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. Children in the US can be legally married in 41 states, physically punished by school administrators in 47 states, sentenced to life without parole in 22 states, and work in hazardous agriculture conditions in all 50 states. As the only UN member state that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the US falls far below internationally adopted standards.

One year after the release of a scorecard that measures US compliance with key international child rights standards, 11 states have enacted reforms that improve their rankings. Absent federal ratification and federal laws regarding many of the issues the convention addresses, jurisdiction is left to individual states. As a result, the protection and advancement of child rights varies from state to state.

“It’s disappointing that so many states still fail to meet international children’s rights standards, but this progress shows that policymakers have the potential to bring about rapid change to protect children,” said Callie King-Guffey, lead researcher for the scorecard. “We must build on the momentum to protect children from child marriage, corporal punishment, hazardous child labor, and extreme prison sentences.”

© 2023 Human Rights Watch

While only seven states score higher than a “D” grade, four states shed their “F” grade, three moved up to a “C,” and several significantly improved their rankings. Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia showed improvement over the last year.

The policy changes that improved states’ grades were most frequently in the areas of banning sentencing children to life without parole, raising the minimum age of prosecuting children in the juvenile system, and limiting or prohibiting child marriage. Progress was limited on banning corporal punishment. On child labor, some states moved to roll back child labor protections.

Improvement from September 2022-23StateReform
Graduated to C gradeConnecticutBanned child marriage
New YorkRaised minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction
AlaskaLimited child marriage
Graduated to a D gradeNew MexicoBanned juvenile life without parole (JLWOP)
IllinoisBanned JLWOP
New HampshireRaised minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction
West VirginiaLimited child marriage
Other ranking improvements
Became the #2 ranked state (grade: C)MinnesotaBanned juvenile life without parole (JLWOP)
Became a top 10 state (grade: D)VermontBanned child marriage
ColoradoBanned corporal punishment in public schools
Moved from #21 to #14 (grade: D)MarylandBanned corporal punishment in private school settings (already banned in public schools)

Policymakers in several states introduced legislation that could further improve protection for children. These include:

Child Marriage

In July, Connecticut became the 9th US state to ban child marriage, following Vermont, which prohibited child marriage earlier in 2023. Alaska and West Virginia fell short of banning all child marriage but limited marriage to those 16 and older. International child rights standards and the US State Department urge prohibiting marriage for anyone under age 18, but child marriage remains legal in 41 states.

Corporal Punishment

Colorado enacted a ban on corporal punishment, the willful infliction of pain on a child, in public schools, though it didn’t extend the protection to private schools. Maryland banned corporal punishment in private school settings after previously banning the practice in public schools. Corporal punishment, recognized as a form of violence against children under international human rights standards, remains legal in multiple settings across most states.

Youth Justice

The scorecard assesses three youth justice issues, including whether a state prohibits juvenile life without parole, a sentence that no other country imposes. Just over a decade ago, only three US states had banned juvenile life without parole. In 2023 alone, three states – IllinoisNew Mexicoand Minnesota – banned the practice. With these reforms, 28 states now ban life without parole sentences for children.

International standards set the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction at 14, a policy recently endorsed by the American Medical Association. No US state meets this standard. In 2023, however, New York enacted a law raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from 7 to 12. New Hampshire became the second state to raise the minimum age to 13, along with Maryland.

Children under no circumstances should be transferred to adult court according to international standards, yet all 50 states continue to try children as adults.

Child Labor

On three of the four issues reviewed, at least one state made progress. But on the issue of child labor, the US threatens not only stagnation but regression, Human Rights Watch found.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, at least 14 states introduced legislation in the last two years to roll back child labor protections. While an essential national conversation unfolds about the realities of exploitative and hazardous child labor in a variety of industries in the US, hazardous child labor in the agriculture industry remains legal in all 50 states.

In every other workplace, children have to be 16 to work full time and 18 to do hazardous work. Longstanding exemptions in US labor law allow children as young as 12 to work legally as hired laborers on commercial farms for unlimited hours with a parent’s permission, as long as they do not miss school. At 16, children working on farms can do tasks considered particularly hazardous. This legalized child labor has been tragically deadly for children, a harrowing warning for states considering eroding the protections that keep children safe at work.

“The US has a long way to go to bring its laws and policies into alignment with international children’s rights standards, but some states are making progress,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “State and national policymakers should take urgent action to ensure that all children are protected from child marriage, violent treatment, exploitative and dangerous work, and unjust and extreme sentences.”

Source: Human Rights Watch

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