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© 2022 Ben Wiseman for Human Rights Watch

The U.S. does a surprisingly poor job of protecting its children. Over a quarter million children have been married in the U.S. in the last two decades, even though we know that child marriage has deeply harmful consequences. Additionally, 160,000 children experience physical punishment in U.S. schools each year. Thousands of children have been condemned to die in prison through life without parole sentences. And children are exposed to dangerous conditions while working in agriculture, sometimes with deadly consequences.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The treaty addresses children's rights to education, health, protection from violence and exploitation, and a broad array of other rights. Ratification would require the U.S. to strengthen its protection of children. But in the U.S., many of these rights are left up to individual states, not the federal government.

Last year, Human Rights Watch published a scorecard that measured U.S. state compliance with key children's rights established in international law. We looked at child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice because these key measures can affect a child for the rest of their lives.

Not a single U.S. state got an A or B when assessed on these issues. Only four states—New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota—managed a C grade. Every other state got a D or F.

We just updated that scorecard, and are pleased to report marginal improvement. Over the past year, Alaska and West Virginia enacted laws to limit child marriage, and Connecticut and Vermont fully banned the practice. New York and New Hampshire raised the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction closer to the international standard of 14. New Mexico, Illinois, and Minnesota banned sentencing children to life without parole. And Colorado and Maryland banned corporal punishment in certain school settings. In all, 11 states enacted positive reforms over the past year.

Several other states have pending legislation that would improve their records. A bill in Michigan would ban life without parole sentences for children. Legislation in Washington state would ban child marriage. A bill in New York would ban corporal punishment in all school settings, including private schools. And New Jersey recently proposed a bill to raise the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction to 14.

Despite this progress, the U.S. still fails to protect its children. While New Jersey is the highest-ranking state on the scorecard, it only meets half of the internationally established child rights laws we examined across four categories. We also found that on one of the four issues we assessed—child labor—states are moving backward. In the last two years, at least 14 states introduced legislation to roll back child labor protections.

The U.S. still has a long way to go to protect children. Children can still be sentenced to die in prison in 22 states. In all 50 states, children can be tried as adults in the criminal legal system or work in hazardous conditions in the agriculture industry. In all but three states, children are subject to physical punishment in certain school settings. And while the U.S. State Department decries child marriage as a human rights violation and works to end the practice in other countries, until 2018, child marriage was legal in all 50 states. Today it remains legal in 41 U.S. states.

States can protect children with or without federal action. In fact, recent legal reforms show that rapid progress is possible. Nearly all the recent bills strengthening child protections were introduced with both Republican and Democrat co-sponsors, demonstrating that despite partisan rancor on many issues, political parties can come together to protect children.

Lawmakers in every state should look at the gaps in protection in their states and come together to protect children from physical abuse, marriage, incarceration, and hazardous labor. Such legal improvements will improve kids' chances for a better life.

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