The U.S. record on protecting our children is abysmal. We try them as adults. Child marriage is still happening. So is corporal punishment and child labor.
The United States is the only United Nations member country that has not ratified the international treaty on children’s rights. Most people might think this isn’t such a big deal because our country is good to children. But it turns out we aren’t, and our state laws don’t help.
A new Human Rights Watch report card grades all 50 states on their laws related to child marriage, child labor, juvenile justice and corporal punishment. We gave 20 states a failing “F” grade, and 26 a “D.” Not a single state received a “A” or even a “B.” New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota were the only states to receive a “C” grade. Mississippi, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Georgia and Washington came out at the bottom of our ranking.
Forty-three states still allow child marriage, with more than a quarter-million children, some as young as 10, married in the United States between 2000 and 2018. No state prohibits violence in disciplining children. Approximately 160,000 children are subjected to corporal punishment in schools each year, despite extensive research finding that paddling children is ineffective in correcting their behavior, conversely resulting in increased child aggression.
Weak child labor laws allow children as young as 12 to work 50 or 60 hours a week in agriculture, the most dangerous industry in the United States for child workers. Half of all states allow children under 18 to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and more than 50,000 children are tried in adult courts each year, often resulting in extreme and punitive prison sentences and higher recidivism rates.
All of these practices violate international standards, and several disproportionately affect children of color and children with disabilities. For example, 62% of those serving sentences of life without parole for offenses committed as children are Black, even though they make up only 14% of the total youth population in the United States. In some school districts, children with disabilities are more than five times as likely to experience violent punishment than other children.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the primary international treaty on the rights of children, was adopted by the United Nations in 1989. It addresses children’s rights to education, to health, to an adequate standard of living, to freedom of expression, protection from violence and exploitation and a broad array of other rights. Our failure to ratify the Convention and live up to its principles not only harms our children, but also undermines our influence globally as a leader on human rights.
Some states have taken recent action to improve their protection of children. Massachusetts banned child marriage this year and Maryland improved its juvenile justice laws, raising their rankings on our scorecard.
To do right by its children, the United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the state level, policymakers should take a hard look at the report card for their state and take action to improve legal protections for children. Neither state nor federal policymakers should tolerate laws that put children at risk.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Jo Becker is the children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Callie King-Guffey, a 2022 graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School, assessed state laws for Human Rights Watch’s new U.S. child rights scorecard. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.