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What are the Legal Rights of Children?

Legal Rights of Children

Children, or minors, don't have the full legal capacity of adults. Typically, minors aren't granted the rights of adults until they reach the age of 18, although this varies from state to state. For example, in Alabama and Nebraska the age of majority is 19. In Mississippi, it's 21.

Because children are still developing both physically and mentally, they aren't considered capable of handling the same rights as mature adults. For example, children don't have certain political rights like the right to vote. They can also not own property, consent to medical treatment, sue or be sued, or enter into certain types of contracts. As their level of competency concerning these matters is considered to fall below required thresholds, children are not afforded these rights.

However, children do have some legal rights as soon as they are born. They are entitled to human rights and civil rights, for example, as any other human being is. They also receive other rights as they grow up. Additionally, children are able to access some of the rights available only to adults, such as legal actions, when a parent or legal guardian acts on their behalf.

This article covers the basic legal rights of children in the United States, as well as where the United States may be lacking in protecting certain rights of children.

Legal Rights of Children: The Basics

Although children grow and mature at different rates, there are some rights that every child is born with. For example, children are entitled to a safe environment free from child abuse, good nutrition, healthcare, and education. Children are entitled to a safe place to live and come of age.

Although parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, if a child is considered not safe the state will remove the children from their home. In cases where a child is being abused, for example, courts and states may terminate the parental rights of the child's parents. Under such circumstances, the child may be placed in foster care. In cases where a child's caregivers have demonstrated an inability to parent and have instead abused the child, state courts are supposed to take very seriously any such infractions against the child.

Parents are also required to meet the child's basic needs. In considerations of child custody issues and adoption, courts review the best interests of the child, as well.

If you're a parent and your child's other parent is not following the child support arrangement, many child support enforcement options are also available. In your state or county, consider reaching out to the local child support enforcement agency for help. Offering services at free or little cost, they not only serve the legal rights of children but also can assist you in exercising those rights. Social workers at those facilities can help you in navigating child support enforcement as well as other related matters.

Minors also have rights under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, they have the right to equal protection, which means that every child is entitled to the same treatment at the hands of authority regardless of race, gender, disability, or religion. Children are also entitled to due process, which includes notice and a hearing before any of their basic rights are taken away by the government. In the juvenile justice system, children are supposed to be afforded the same rights anyone else does.

Children with disabilities also have rights under federal laws related to children's educationThe Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, for example, provides children in need of special education with special accommodations to ensure they receive the same education as their peers.

Child advocacy groups across the United States provide services for abused children and children in need of better homes and better lives.

The protection of children and the lives of children are fundamentally important issues. Continue reading to learn even more.

Rights That Children Can Obtain as They Grow

Some of the legal rights of children are acquired as children grow, depending on their age and level of maturity. For example, children have a limited right to free speech. In many instances, children are encouraged to form opinions and freely speak their mind. However, schools may limit the child's speech if they feel it could harm other students. This rule can have strikingly different applications for student bodies of different ages. For example, a student painting that features nudity might be inappropriate in middle school, while it might be considered cutting-edge art in high school.

Teenagers tend to have more rights than younger children. Teenagers may work, although the exact age at which a minor can begin working and the hours they may work will vary by state. The Fair Labor Standards Act and state labor laws regulate the employment of minors. Laws are in place that at least are supposed to prevent abuses with child labor.

In the criminal justice system, older children receive more autonomy than younger delinquents. Juvenile defendants are sometimes transferred to the adult criminal justice system for particularly serious offenses such as murder.

If a child is particularly mature, they may qualify for emancipation -- a procedure granting minors most of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood -- and in some cases, emancipation is automatic. Otherwise, emancipation must be petitioned for in the appropriate state court and under the relevant state statutes.

Children and Human Rights

While the rights of children are claimed to be of primary concern to United States government officials and the U.S. government, it seems as though violations of children's rights continue in the U.S.

As of November of 2022, the United States has still not become a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “United States state laws overwhelmingly fail to meet international child rights standards." Cited in this report as examples of the U.S.'s failures are “child marriage, hazardous child labor, extreme prison sentences, and violent treatment."

In assessing the U.S.'s handling of children's human rights, HRW assigned 20 states a failing grade of “F," while 26 states received a “D." No states received an “A" or a “B." In justifying the lower grades the report claims that, for example, “Child marriage is legal in 43 states."

The report points to how states, and not the federal government, determine how children's rights are observed. Many states permit a child to marry at ages younger than 18 years old, for example. “On July 28, 2022, Massachusetts became the seventh state to set the minimum age at 18, without exceptions, in line with international standards," the report also indicates.

Further assessing the issue of child marriage, the report points out that "child marriage is associated with early pregnancy, lower educational achievement, and increased risk of domestic violence and poverty."

According to HRW, no “US state has prohibited all corporal punishment of children," while the U.S. “remains the only country in the world that sentences children under 18 to life in prison without parole."

At the same time, however, the United States remains the “largest donor" to UNICEF, originally known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. An organization that provides relief services to children in need in the developing world, UNICEF has indicated that it partners with “several US Government agencies, including the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

Get Legal Assistance with Your Child's Legal Matters

It may seem as if children don't have any rights that are similar to those of adults, but that's not necessarily the case. Still, it's not always easy to determine the legal rights of children, particularly with differences in state laws.

Get peace of mind about your rights as a minor by reaching out to a family law attorney near you. Such an attorney can provide the kinds of legal help necessary, under many circumstances related to children's rights. Just as anyone else does, children deserve a high standard of living.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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