A Big New Report on American Children Is Out. It’s Horrific.

This article has been adapted from a piece originally published in Jill Filipovic’s newsletter. You can subscribe here.

A new Human Rights Watch report paints a damning portrait of children’s rights in the United States. That is, children here have remarkably few rights and are particularly ill-treated in the conservative states that claim the mantle of “family values.” According to HRW, “Children in the US can be legally married in 41 states, physically punished by school administrators in 47 states, sentenced to life without parole in 22 states, and work in hazardous agriculture conditions in all 50 states.” Over and over again, the worst states for children are clustered around the “pro-life” Bible Belt, and the map of the states that are the worst for children looks a lot like a map of red-state America. (Liberal states, too, have a long ways to go when it comes to protecting kids, but they generally do a bit better.)

The report doesn’t look at forced births, but the U.S. states that ban abortion also routinely force children, including child rape victims, to carry pregnancies to term and become young (sometimes very young) mothers against their will.

The report also doesn’t look at outcomes like child poverty and child hunger, but we know that states that restrict abortion tend to have higher rates of children living in poverty, have lower spending on K–12 education, and make it harder for kids in poor families to get health care.

Most U.S. states also allow for some form of child marriage. The widely accepted international human rights standard is to mandate that people be 18 before they can marry. But the report states that in the U.S., more than a quarter of a million children were married off between the years 2000 and 2018, and some of them were girls as young as 10. Most of these child marriages were between underage girls and adult men.

Only nine U.S. states require a person to be a legal adult before they marry. Nearly half of U.S. states allow 16-year-olds to legally marry, and six states have no minimum marital age at all. When activists have tried to raise the minimum marriage age, Republican politicians have opposed them. And, disappointingly, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have opposed child marriage reforms in some states.

Most of the U.S. also allows adults to assault children at school. Only three states fully ban corporal punishment at both public and private schools; 25 make it illegal in public schools, but allow private school teachers to use physical force as punishment for students. Twenty-two states don’t ban corporal punishment in schools at all. And not a single state bans corporal punishment—adults committing acts of violence against children—in the home. Nearly 50 percent of American children experience corporal punishment—child abuse—at home, and it’s perfectly legal, so long as those children aren’t seriously injured.

To be clear, corporal punishment is a euphemism for “adult assaulting a child”—the same act would be a crime if it were an adult carrying it out on another adult. It wasn’t so long ago that there was a similar legal landscape for domestic abuse, and it remains true in several other countries that a man assaulting his wife or girlfriend isn’t a serious crime unless he inflicts serious physical damage. This is the landscape we’ve created for kids in the U.S.: that unless parental abuse does grave physical harm, parents can abuse their children with near impunity. We give adults tremendous leeway to hit and otherwise commit acts of violence against children who are smaller than them, dependent on them, and under their authority. We don’t give adults these same broad rights to commit violent acts against other adults; children are put in a special category of people it’s OK to assault and abuse. This is crazy. And there’s no real effort to stop it. Children can’t vote. Lots of adults want wide leeway to abuse their children under the guise of “punishment,” and politicians don’t want to tell them no.

This should be simple: Don’t hit people. Definitely don’t hit people who are smaller than you, are largely defenseless, are dependent on you and unable to leave, and for whom you are a world-creating figure establishing what’s normal and acceptable. It is wild to me that adults hit children as punishment and then expect children to understand a “no hitting” rule or to comprehend that violence is not a good way to solve problems or express oneself. It is wild to me that “don’t hit children” remains a controversial sentiment in the United States in 2023, even as we understand that children subjected to corporal punishment have worse outcomes than those who are not.

Then there’s child labor, something the U.S. has actually been pretty good at regulating but that many Republicans are now looking to reinstate. And there’s already a big loophole: farmwork. Generally, children in the U.S. are legally prohibited from working in jobs that are physically hazardous or that interfere with a child’s health or education. There are age minimums for employment, as well as maximums on hours worked and types of work performed.

But according to Human Rights Watch, “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.”

Pre-teens and kids as young as 7 have been found laboring on farms. Nearly half of U.S. states have no minimum age requirement for farmworkers.

Human Rights Watch also details many ways in which the American criminal justice system is particularly cruel to children, but perhaps the most egregious is the fact that 22 states do not prohibit the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole.

“Protect the children” is a rallying cry in right-wing circles at the moment, implying all sorts of boogeymen: liberal educators, books featuring gay penguins, drag queens in libraries, child sex traffickers using Wayfair armoires and pizza restaurant basements. In reality, it’s adults—and disproportionately conservative adults—who are making life much more perilous for children by failing to protect them from guns, from violence at home and in schools, from early marriage, from early and forced motherhood, from backbreaking labor, and from life behind bars.

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