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The US record in protecting our children is abysmal.
We try them as adults. Child marriages still exist. Likewise corporal punishment and child labor.
The United States is the only member country of the United Nations that has not ratified the International Treaty on the Rights of the Child. Most people might think that it’s not such a big deal because our country is good to children. But it turns out we’re not, and our state laws aren’t helping.
A new Human Rights Watch testimonial evaluates all 50 states for their laws regarding child marriage, child labor, juvenile justice and corporal punishment. We have given 20 states an “F” grade and 26 a “D” grade. Not a single country received an “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 ended up at the bottom of our ranking.
43 states still allow child marriages, 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 physically punished in schools each year, although extensive research has found that paddling children is ineffective at correcting their behavior, which in turn leads to increased aggression by children.
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 laborers. Half of all states allow children under the age of 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 some disproportionately affect children of color and children with disabilities. For example, 62% of those serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as children are Black, even though they represent only 14% of the total youth population in the United States. In some school districts, children with disabilities are more than five times more likely to be violently punished than other children.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the main international treaty on children’s rights, was adopted by the United Nations in 1989. It addresses children’s rights to education, health, a decent standard of living, freedom of expression, freedom from violence and exploitation, and a wide range of other rights. Our failure to ratify the Convention and live up to its principles not only harms our children, but also undermines our global impact as human rights leaders.
Some states have recently taken steps to improve child protection. Massachusetts outlawed child marriage this year and Maryland improved its juvenile justice system and improved its ranking on our scorecard.
To be fair to its children, the United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the state level, policymakers should look closely at their state’s testimony and take steps to improve child protections. Neither state nor federal politicians should tolerate laws that endanger children.
Jo Becker is the director of child rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch. Callie King-Guffey, a 2022 Harvard Kennedy School graduate, evaluated state laws for Human Rights Watch’s new US Children’s Rights Scorecard.