What are the Legal Rights of Children?

There are some rights that every child is born with. For example, children are entitled to a safe environment free from child abuse. They are, theoretically, entitled to good nutrition, healthcare, and education. Children are entitled to a safe place to live and come of age.

Children, or minors, don't have the full legal capacity of adults. Typically, minors aren't granted the rights of adults until they reach 18 (also known as the "age of majority"), although this varies from state to state.

Children take time to develop 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 also can't own property or consent to most types of medical treatment alone. They can't sue or be sued or enter into certain types of contracts.

But children have some legal rights as soon as they are born. They are entitled to human rights and civil rights, for example, like any other human being. They also receive other rights as they grow. Children can access some rights only available to adults when a parent or legal guardian acts on their behalf.

This article covers the basic legal rights of children in the United States. This article also covers areas where the U.S. may be falling behind.

Legal Rights of Children: The Basics

Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. If a child's caregivers cannot parent the child, courts take this very seriously. If a child is in an unsafe environment, the state may remove the child from the parent's home and place them in foster care. The parents are then offered services that seek to remedy the conditions which led to the child's removal from the home. If a child was severely abused, or the parents failed to address the conditions which led to the child being removed, the state may request that the court terminate the parental rights of the child's parents. After parental rights are terminated, the child may then be placed for adoption.

Parents are also required to meet the child's basic needs. In child custody issues and adoption, courts consider the best interests of the child. 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 contacting 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 help you exercise those rights. Social workers, or case managers, at those facilities can help you navigate child support enforcement procedures and other related matters.

Minors also have rights under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, they have the right to equal protection. This 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. This 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 as anyone else.

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. Typically, the implementation of an IEP (Individualized Educational Program) or 504 Plan will address these issues. The difference between these plans is discussed here.

Child advocacy groups across the United States provide services for abused children and children in need of better homes and better lives. Some groups focus specifically on issues like sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. Some advocate for the mental health of children. Many are focused on non-discrimination advocacy.

The protection of children and children's lives are fundamentally important issues that affect every country in the world.

Rights That Children Can Get as They Grow

Some of the legal rights of children are acquired as children grow. For example, children have a limited right to free speech. In many instances, children are encouraged to form opinions and freely speak their minds. But 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. But, the same painting might be 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 of child labor.

In the criminal justice system, older children receive more autonomy than younger children who are charged with a criminal or status offense. When children are involved in the criminal justice system, it is sometimes called juvenile delinquency. In some cases, juvenile defendants are transferred to the adult criminal justice system. This happens for particularly serious offenses, like murder.

If a child is particularly mature, they may qualify for emancipation. This a procedure granting minors most of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. 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 children's rights are claimed to be a primary concern to U.S. government officials, it seems that violations of children's rights continue in the United States.

A human rights treaty called the Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically outlines the rights to which children are entitled. The U.S. has not become a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations in 1989. It has been ratified by almost every country in the world. It recognizes that young people are individuals with their own rights and have the right to be protected from harm.

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “United States state laws overwhelmingly fail to meet international child rights standards." This report cites 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, for example, the report said: “Child marriage is legal in 43 states."

The report points to how states, not the federal government, determine how children's rights are observed. For example, many states permit a child to marry at ages younger than 18. "Massachusetts became the seventh state to set the minimum age at 18, without exceptions, in line with international standards," the report said.

Further assessing the issue of child marriage, the report pointed out that "child marriage is associated with early pregnancy, lower educational achievement, and increased risk of domestic violence and poverty." According to HRW, no “U.S. 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, the United States remains the “largest donor" to UNICEF. This was first known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. UNICEF is an organization that provides relief services to children in need in the developing world.

Get Legal Assistance with Your Child's Legal Matters

It may seem as if children don't have any rights 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. A lawyer will help you navigate your state laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that affect your case.

An attorney can provide the legal help necessary in circumstances related to children's rights and child welfare. They can advocate for the well-being of children through legal protections.

Get peace of mind about your rights as a minor by reaching out to a family law attorney near you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Minor children can go through the court process without parental consent
  • You may need legal help to understand local requirements and emancipation procedures
  • An attorney or a local legal aid office can provide more specific guidance 

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