How Do US States Measure Up on Child Rights?
Challenging US States to Meet International Child Rights Standards for Child Marriage, Corporal Punishment, Child Labor, and Juvenile Justice
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most ratified international human rights treaty to date. Since its adoption in 1989, 196 countries have ratified the CRC, committing to protect children from violence and exploitation, and ensure their education and healthy development.
The United States is the only UN member state that has not yet ratified the Convention.
Many people in the United States assume that, even without ratification of the CRC, the US upholds international child rights principles. This assessment calls that assumption into question. On a state-by-state basis, we assessed how state laws meet international standards regarding four core child rights issues: child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice. We found that most US states are overwhelmingly noncompliant with international child rights standards on these four issues.
US History with the CRC
The US government and US child rights experts were instrumental contributors to the ideals and text of the Convention. Officials from the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan were very active during the CRC negotiations and proposed many of its provisions. A diverse network of US advocates and psychologists collaborated with experts from around the world to provide input, culminating in the Convention’s adoption in 1989.
Many people in the United States value the protections offered by the CRC, including the protection of children from violence and exploitation, and children’s rights to education, health care, and an adequate standard of living.
Not only did US officials, experts, and advocates contribute to the development of the CRC, but polling data has found that across party lines, four out of five people in the United States favor the ratification of the CRC.
Why a focus on individual US states?
In the United States, many of the issues addressed by the Convention are left to the jurisdiction of individual states, not the federal government. As a result, the protection and advancement of child rights varies from state to state.
In recognition that state-level reform is an important channel for improving the US’s child rights record, this assessment grades and ranks US states on the legal protections they extend to their children on four key issues—child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice—and offers a blueprint for reform. All 50 states are measured on these four categories through an assessment of 12 specific state-level laws. See more about our methodology here.
This report does not attempt to assess states’ performance on all children’s rights enshrined in the CRC, which includes the right to education, to health, to an adequate standard of living, to freedom of expression, and a broad array of other rights.
The conclusion is alarming: US states overwhelmingly fail to live up to key standards set by the CRC.
Overall, 20 states receive an F grade. Of the remaining states, 26 receive a D grade, 4 receive a C grade, and not a single state receives a B or an A.
A (0 States) B (0 States) C (4 States) D (26 States) F (20 States)
The numbers to the right of the bars reflect the “raw state score” which loosely communicates a “percentage of compliance with the CRC” on the issues of child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice. For instance, a state that complied with child rights standards on all four issues would have been awarded a raw score of 100 percent.
CHILD MARRIAGE is defined as a marriage in which one or both parties is under the age of 18.
INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS SET BY THE CRC: The Committee on the Rights of the Child “reminds States parties of the obligation to recognize that persons up to the age of 18 years are entitled to continuing protection from all forms of exploitation and abuse. It reaffirms that the minimum age limit should be 18 years for marriage.” 
THE MINIMUM AGE FOR MARRIAGE SHOULD BE 18 YEARS OLD
Research by Unchained at Last finds that over a quarter million children, some as young as 10, were married in the US between the years 2000-2018. Most child marriages in the US are girls marrying adult men. In fact, many of these marriages occurred at an age or with a spousal age difference that would typically be considered sexual violence.
Child marriage is legal in 43 states. It was legal in all 50 until states began to change their laws, starting with Delaware in 2018.
Quick tips for interacting with these visuals:
Hover over the key to filter each map by category. Hover over each state for details on its child rights laws and compliance with the CRC.
✅ = complies with the CRC
🚫 = does not comply with the CRC
Child Marriage in the U.S.
Minimum age for marriage:
18 years old (CRC compliant - 7 States) 17 years old (9 States) 16 years old (23 States) 15 years old (2 States) 14 years old (1 state) No minimum age for marriage (8 States)
Source: Unchained at Last
CORPORAL PUNISHMENT is defined as any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.
INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS SET BY THE CRC: Article 19 of the CRC requires states to protect children “from all forms of physical and mental violence.” The Committee on the Rights of the Child affirms that the CRC “does not leave room for any level of legalized violence against children” and that “corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence and States must take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to eliminate them.” 
Drawing on these international standards, this section reviews the legality of corporal punishment across all 50 US states in four main settings:
I. Schools (public and private);
III. Alternative care settings; and
IV. Penal institutions
In 2014, the Human Rights Committee reviewed US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US ratified in 1992, stating that it “is concerned about corporal punishment of children in schools, penal institutions, the home and all forms of childcare at federal, state and local levels.” The committee advised the US to legally end corporal punishment and “conduct public information campaigns to raise awareness about its harmful effects.”
I. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT SHOULD BE PROHIBITED IN SCHOOLS
Approximately 160,000 children are subjected to corporal punishment in schools each year. This practice has been found to be both ineffective in correcting the behavior of children and harmful to child development. Corporal punishment is linked to numerous negative impacts to a child’s emotional and physical health as well as their ability to form and manage positive relationships. Corporal punishment is also associated with higher rates of aggression and lower educational achievement. Black children and children with disabilities are significantly more likely to experience corporal punishment in schools. This is an additional violation of the CRC as Article 2 prohibits discrimination of any kind, including based on race or disability status.
Only two states have prohibited corporal punishment in both public and private schools, complying with the CRC. Twenty-five states have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools only, meaning children who attend private schools may still be subject to corporal punishment at school. Meanwhile, in 23 states, corporal punishment is not prohibited in either public nor private schools.
Corporal Punishment in Public and Private Schools
Prohibited in public and private schools (CRC compliant - 2 states) Prohibited in public, not private schools (25 states) Not prohibited in public or private schools (23 states)
Source: Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children
Corporal punishment as a form of school discipline “directly conflicts with the equal and inalienable rights of children.” – The Committee on the Rights of the Child
II. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT SHOULD BE PROHIBITED IN THE HOME
Reportedly, 49 percent of all children aged 0-9 years old in the US are subjected to corporal punishment in the home. Not a single US state has banned corporal punishment in the home setting.
Some states list certain types of extreme force that are not permissible, such as force that results in death or disfigurement, whereas others draw the line at “reasonable” force. The result of these systems can be immunity for child abuse veiled as discipline.
Corporal Punishment in the Home
Prohibited (CRC compliant - 0 states) Not prohibited (50 states)
III. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT SHOULD BE PROHIBITED IN ALTERNATIVE CARE SETTINGS
In the US, the use of corporal punishment in alternative care settings—such as foster care and group homes—has historically been widespread and severe, particularly against children with disabilities. Investigations have suggested that the scale of abuse in alternative care settings has been severely underreported and particularly egregious, by some accounts amounting to torture.
Most US states have banned corporal punishment in alternative care settings. Ten states fall short by simply restricting corporal punishment. South Carolina stands alone in issuing no legal guidelines on corporal punishment in alternative care settings.
Corporal Punishment in Alternative Care Settings
Prohibited (CRC compliant - 39 states) Restricted (10 states) Not prohibited (1 state)
Source: Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children
IV. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT SHOULD BE PROHIBITED IN PENAL INSTITUTIONS
Maltreatment of children in juvenile detention centers has been documented in nearly every US state. One study found that “systematic or recurring” maltreatment had been documented in juvenile correctional facilities in at least 14 states after 2011. A national survey of youth in correctional facilities found that 45 percent said that staff “use force when they don’t really need to.” Corporal punishment in penal institutions remains legal in 16 states.
Corporal Punishment in Penal Institutions
Prohibited (CRC compliant - 33 states) Not prohibited (16 states) Unknown (1 state)
CHILD LABOR is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. Whether or not particular forms of “work” can be called “child labor” depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, and the conditions under which it is performed.
INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS SET BY THE CRC: CRC Article 32 protects children from work that is hazardous or harmful to their health, safety, education, and moral development and requires states parties to set a minimum age for employment. In General Comment No. 20, the Committee on the Rights of the Child reaffirms the principles in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention (Convention No. 138) which declares that the minimum age for employment is 15 and that the minimum age for employment in hazardous conditions is 18. Article 5 of Convention No. 138 explicitly states that its principles apply to the agriculture sector.
CHILD LABOR IN THE US CONTEXT: EXEMPTIONS FOR THE AGRICULTURE SECTOR
Federal child labor provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) align with these international standards to prohibit child labor in most sectors. Yet these laws explicitly exempt agriculture, the most dangerous industry for child workers. Weak protections subject children across the country to conditions that threaten their health, safety, and education – violating international law.
Under federal law children under 18 can work for hire in agriculture at younger ages, for longer hours, and in more hazardous conditions than in any other sector. In agriculture, a 12-year-old may work full-time, and a child of any age may work on a farm part-time. On a family farm, there is no minimum age for the full-time employment of children. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are allowed to work in hazardous conditions in agriculture; in other industries, hazardous work is prohibited until age 18.
Federal child labor standards
Minimum age for full time employment
16 years old
12 years old
0 for family farms
Minimum age for employment in hazardous conditions
18 years old
16 years old
0 for family farms
Without federal leadership to correct these child rights violations, child laborers depend on state action. A state can exceed federal standards, but few do.
This section compares state laws on child labor in the agriculture sector with the following international standards:
I. The minimum age for employment (15 years old)
II. The minimum age for employment in hazardous conditions (18 years old)
More about agriculture exemptions in the US: A federal list of hazardous occupations identifies specific work that is prohibited for hired workers under 16 in agriculture. However, the list is far too narrow and has not been updated for four decades. For example, the list does not prohibit children from operating some heavy machinery or working in tobacco fields, although child tobacco workers risk acute nicotine poisoning from contact with tobacco plants. To better protect children from hazardous conditions, states should update their list of hazardous occupations to reflect modern realities in agriculture – see Model Policy published by Lawyers for Good Government.
When is it okay for children to work? A common misunderstanding of international child labor standards is that they prohibit children from doing household chores or engaging in safe work activities that allow them to gain skills and a sense of responsibility. International Labor Organization conventions on child labor, for example, allows children many opportunities to gain skills and earn income, and allow children as young as 12 to perform light work for limited hours. The goal of international standards is to prevent children from working at ages that are too young, in harmful conditions, or for hours that can harm their development or schooling.
I. THE MINIMUM AGE FOR EMPLOYMENT IN THE AGRICULTURE SECTOR SHOULD BE 15 YEARS OLD
Thousands of children work in US agriculture at an age that is prohibited in every other sector.
Child farmworkers often begin working in the fields at age 11 or 12, and Human Rights Watch has interviewed child farmworkers as young as 7.
Not a single state complies with the CRC by setting the minimum age of employment to 15 years old in the agriculture sector.
Minimum Age for Employment in the Agriculture Sector
The minimum age for employment in the agriculture industry is:
15 years old (CRC compliant - 0 states) 14 years old (12 states) 13 years old (1 state) 12 years old (11 states) 10 years old (2 states) 9 years old (1 state) No minimum age (23 states)
Source: Lawyers for Good Government
II. THE MINIMUM AGE FOR HAZARDOUS EMPLOYMENT IN THE AGRICULTURE SECTOR SHOULD BE 18 YEARS OLD
More US child workers die in agriculture than in any other industry. A child dies in a farm accident once every three days in the United States,  and every day, at least 33 children are injured while working on US farms although there may be over four times more injuries than are reported given inadequate surveillance and reporting methods. As documented by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many fatalities involve power machinery from which, in any industry besides farming, children would be protected. Dangerous farming conditions and their impacts disproportionately affect migrant children and children of color.
Not a single state complies with the CRC by setting the minimum age of work in hazardous conditions in agriculture to 18 years old.
Twelve states have stronger protections than the federal standard. The details of these standards vary – for example California has stronger protections for children under 12 working on family farms. Massachusetts is the only state to prohibit minors under 16 from working in tobacco fields. Oregon prohibits all minors from operating power machinery. Of all states, Florida has the strongest standard, setting a minimum age of 16 and also further prohibiting all minors under 18 from work in certain hazardous agriculture conditions.
Protecting Child Workers From Hazardous Conditions in the Agriculture Industry
Minimum age for hazardous labor in agriculture industry is:
18 with no exceptions (CRC compliant - 0 States) 16 but with additional protections for all minors 18 and under (1 state) 16 with limited additional protections for certain child farmworkers (11 States) 16 with no additional protections (Federal standard - 38 States) No minimum age for hazardous labor (0 States)
JUVENILE JUSTICE refers to the treatment of children in conflict with the law.
INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS SET BY THE CRC: The CRC establishes a robust set of international standards “to prevent children and young people from engaging in criminal activities as well as to protect the human rights of youth already found to have broken the law.”
This section reviews the international standards regarding:
I. Minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction
II. Trying children as adults
III. Juvenile life without parole sentences
THE MINIMUM AGE OF JUVENILE JURISDICTION SHOULD BE AT LEAST 14 YEARS OLD
Article 40 of the CRC calls on nation states to establish “a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law.” The Committee on the Rights of the Child has clarified that the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction should be at least 14 years old and encourages states to set it at 16.
NO CHILD SHOULD BE PROSECUTED AS AN ADULT
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has reiterated that no child is to be tried in the adult criminal justice system, no matter what category of offense.
JUVENILE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE (JLWOP) SENTENCES SHOULD BE PROHIBITED
Article 37 of the CRC prohibits sentencing children to life imprisonment without possibility of release.
I. THE MINIMUM AGE OF JUVENILE JURISDICTION SHOULD BE 14 YEARS OLD
In the US, more than 30,000 children under the age of 12 are referred to juvenile court annually. Not a single state meets the international standard to set the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction to at least 14. Only five states set a minimum age higher than 10 years old. The majority have no minimum age.
Minimum Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction14 years old (Compliant with the CRC - 0 state) 13 years old (1 state) 12 years old (2 states) 11 years old (1 state) 10 years old (14 states) 8 years old (1 state) 7 years old (2 states) No minimum age (29 states)
Source: The Gault Center
II. NO CHILD SHOULD BE PROSECUTED AS AN ADULT
In the US, over 50,000 children are tried in adult courts each year.
Many states formerly prosecuted all 17-(or in some cases 16-) year-olds in adult court for all crimes. In the last decade, most states have limited the practice of trying 17-year-olds as adults through “Raise the Age” legislation. Only three states still try all 17-year-olds as adults for all crimes.
However, despite “Raising the Age,” all states maintain legal processes for transferring children to adult courts under certain circumstances. Transfer processes can take different forms: judges can waive children to adult court, prosecutors can decide to prosecute children in adult court, or in some states children are transferred to adult courts if accused of specific crimes. Only 28 states have some form of age limit on these transfer processes – 22 states let these processes apply to children of any age. The CRC makes clear that no child should be prosecuted as an adult at any age nor for any crime.
As can be seen in the chart below, not a single state complies with the CRC in ending the practice of transferring children to adult court.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child condemns the practice of trying children as adults. It has urged nations that allow children to be treated as adult offenders to “change their laws with a view to achieving a non-discriminatory full application of their juvenile justice rules to all persons under the age of 18.”
No Child Should Be Tried as an Adult
At what age can children be transferred to adult court?
No child under 18 can be tried as an adult (CRC compliant - 0 States) 16 and older under certain circumstances (1 state) 15 and older under certain circumstances (2 States) 14 and older under certain circumstances (16 States) 13 and older under certain circumstances (4 States) 12 and old under certain circumstances (4 States) Children of all ages under certain circumstances (20 States) 17 year olds are automatically tried as adults. Children 14 and older can be transferred under certain circumstances(1 state) 17 year olds are automatically tried as adults. Children of all ages can be transferred to adult court under certain circumstances (2 States)
Source: Sentencing Project & Human Rights for Kids & Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth
III. NO CHILD SHOULD BE SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
At the beginning of 2020, approximately 1,465 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole sentences for offenses committed as children. Children as young as 13-years-old have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without possibility of release.
Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C, prohibit juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole (JLWOP) while the other 25 states permit children to be sentenced to JLWOP.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has urged the US to end the use of life without parole as a sentence for child offenders, noting its disproportionate impact on racial, ethnic, and national minorities. Sixty-two percent of people serving JLWOP and for whom racial data are available are African-American despite making up only 14 percent of the total youth population in the US.
Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences
Prohibited (CRC compliant - 25 States) Not prohibited (25 States)
Source: Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth
STATE REPORT CARDS:
Click on the below links to access your state’s report card.
These report cards provide a checklist of reforms for each state to improve its child rights record and come closer into compliance on the four key CRC issues analyzed. Where available, state statute citations are provided.
We encourage concerned citizens to share these report cards with your fellow constituents and elected representatives.