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US States Fail to Protect Children’s Rights 2022

New Scorecard Gives Only 4 a ‘C’ Grade; 46 Get ‘D’ or ‘F’

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US States Fail to Protect Children’s Rights

Human Rights Watch said today that U.S. state laws overwhelmingly fail to meet international standards for children’s rights, and the vast majority fail to protect children from child marriage, dangerous child labor, extreme incarceration and violence. Human Rights Watch gave 20 states a failing “F” and 26 a “D”. None of the states got a “B” or an “A.” New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota were the only states to receive a “C” grade.

A new Human Rights Watch interactive scorecard assesses 12 specific state laws in all 50 states against criteria set by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the main international treaty on children’s rights. These laws address four issues: child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor and juvenile justice. The United States is the only country that has not ratified the convention, with 196 countries ratifying it.


For those who think America treats its children well, this assessment is a rude awakening- said Joe Becker, director of children’s rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch. When it comes to child marriage, dangerous child labor, extreme incarceration, and violence against children, the vast majority of U.S. states have terrible laws. National policymakers should act quickly to better protect their children.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1989, addresses children’s education, health, adequate living standards, freedom of expression, protection from violence and exploitation, and a wide range of other rights.

In the United States, many of the issues covered by the convention are governed by the states, not the federal government, and vary widely from state to state. The worst-performing states included Mississippi, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Georgia and Washington.

Child marriage is legal in 43 states. According to Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending child and forced marriage, more than 250,000 children, some as young as 10, were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, the year Delaware became the U.S. The first state to ban child marriage. Child marriage. On July 28, 2022, Massachusetts became the seventh state, without exception, to set a minimum age of 18 by international standards. Child marriage is associated with early pregnancy, low educational achievement, and an increased risk of domestic violence and poverty.

No state in the United States prohibits all corporal punishment of children, and 23 states allow corporal punishment in public and private schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 160,000 children are subjected to corporal punishment in schools each year. Black children and children with disabilities are far more likely to experience corporal punishment in school. Only two states, New Jersey and Iowa, prohibit corporal punishment in public and private schools.

Corporal punishment in children’s penal institutions remains legal in 16 states. The pact, which calls for the protection of children “from all forms of physical and psychological violence”, “leaves no room for any level of lawful violence against children”, UN experts said. Corporal punishment has been found to neither correct the child’s behavior nor contribute to the child’s development.

The United States remains the only country in the world to sentence children under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole, which is strictly prohibited by the convention. These sentences are banned in 25 states, according to the Youth Fair Sentencing Campaign. In early 2020, more than 1,400 people in the United States were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as children, some as young as 13. Sixty-two percent of those who were sentenced to life in prison without parole as children were black, even though they made up only 14 percent of the U.S. youth population.

International Child Rights Standards state that no child should be prosecuted as an adult. Teens who are not tried as adults are less likely to commit new crimes, research shows. In the United States, however, an estimated 53,000 children are tried in adult courts each year.

No U.S. state prohibits the prosecution of children in adult court, and only 28 states have any age limit for transferring children to adult court. No state sets the minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction at at least 14 (international standard), and more than 30,000 children under the age of 12 are brought before juvenile court each year. Only five states, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland and Nebraska, set the minimum age above 10.


Weak protections in U.S. federal child labor laws and regulations fail to protect children working in agriculture, the most dangerous industry for child labor. Federal law allows children to work in agriculture at a younger age, longer hours and in more dangerous conditions than in any other sector. A 2018 U.S. government study found that children working in agriculture account for more than half of work-related deaths, even though they account for only 3 percent of child labor.

For the scorecard, Human Rights Watch chose to focus on four issues: child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice. The four categories were selected based on an initial review of areas where the United States does not comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the federal level, as well as areas where the Convention has established objections to compare specific state laws based on age or other measurable indicators. The assessment did not attempt to provide a comprehensive review of all the rights covered by the Covenant.

Human Rights Watch worked with several partner organizations to develop the scorecard, including Unchained at Last, which focuses on child marriage; the End Violence Partnership, which tracks corporal punishment laws; the Youth Fair Sentencing Campaign, which aims to end parole-free life for child offenders; Human Rights for Kids, dedicated to juvenile justice in America; Good Government Lawyers and Coalition for Child Labor, both dedicated to child labor.

State laws leave millions of children vulnerable to child marriage, violence and exploitation- Becker said. While some states are doing better than others, all states can improve their laws to keep children safe and help them thrive.  (Human Rights Watch)

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