No U.S. state meets international child rights standards, study reveals

September 8, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The United States is failing its children, according to a revealing scorecard released by Human Rights Watch.

The scorecard says that no U.S. state, including New York, currently meets the globally accepted standards for child rights. From child marriage to corporal punishment, the nation’s lack of conformity with international children’s rights standards is glaringly evident.

While the United States stands as a lone outlier — the only U.N. member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child — the consequences of such an omission are deeply felt.

The report highlighted that child marriage is legal in 41 states, corporal punishment by school administrators is permitted in 47 states, and life sentencing without parole for children is sanctioned in 22 states. Further darkening the portrait, hazardous agricultural labor conditions exist for children in every state.

The scorecard, released a year ago, ranked states based on their adherence to international child rights standards. The updated version shows 11 states have made reforms, pushing them up the rankings. Notably, these policy changes were focused on prohibiting juvenile life without parole, altering the minimum age for child prosecution, and either limiting or outright banning child marriage.

Callie King-Guffey, the study’s lead researcher, commented on the results, stating, “Although the progress is commendable, the overall picture remains grim. The potential for positive change is undeniable, but the pace needs to accelerate.”

Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Vermont and West Virginia have all shown improvement in the past year. Still, only seven states managed to score above a “D” grade.

Legislation introduced in various states could further enhance protections for children. Several bills aim to ban or restrict child marriage, with Connecticut and Vermont leading the charge by completely prohibiting it this year.

New York is working to ban corporal punishment in all school environments, and Michigan is working on banning juvenile life without parole. New Jersey is eyeing the chance to be the first state to receive a B grade by proposing legislation to raise the minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction.

However, it’s not all progress. The U.S. is not just stationary in its efforts to adhere to international child labor standards but seems to be backpedaling. At least 14 states are considering rolling back child labor protections.

Even as national discussions surround exploitative child labor across sectors, hazardous agricultural work remains legal for children in all states. Federal exemptions allow children as young as 12 to work without limits on commercial farms, with some roles even posing substantial risks to their lives.

Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “There’s an undeniable chasm between U.S. laws and global children’s rights standards. While some states are making strides, there’s an urgent need for reform at both the state and national levels.”

In one instance, the Department of Labor announced this past February that Packers Sanitation Services Inc. LTD, a sanitation company based in Kieler, Wisconsin, had employed over 100 minors, some as young as 13, in hazardous roles at 13 meat processing facilities across eight states.

These minors were tasked with cleaning potentially dangerous meat processing equipment using unsafe chemicals. The Labor Department’s announcement revealed that some of these minors also worked night shifts, with at least three of them incurring injuries while on duty. Notably, the largest concentrations of underage workers were found at two JBS Foods facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota and at a Cargill Inc. facility in Kansas.

Following an investigation initiated in August, Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine on Feb. 16. This investigation led to two significant court orders in the preceding months: a restraining order in November forbidding the company from engaging in child labor violations and a subsequent order in December mandating compliance with federal child labor laws throughout its operations.


Gov. Hochul’s crackdown

In June, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced significant advancements in New York State’s efforts to combat child labor violations. The New York State Department of Labor (NYSDOL) completed inspections of 145 businesses regarding their child labor practices. This initiative resulted in penalties totaling $105,000.

To further the state’s commitment to eradicating child labor violations, NYSDOL introduced an online child labor complaint form, making it simpler for minors, parents, and the community to report any misconduct. Additionally, an online child labor hub was launched, offering resources to help employers align with federal and state child labor laws.

Highlighting New York’s dedication to creating a secure environment for all workers, especially minors, Hochul said the state is continually reinforcing its pledge to end abusive child labor practices. Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon echoed this sentiment, stressing that businesses bypassing the law would be held accountable.

Furthermore, NYSDOL’s Division of Labor Standards has been actively investigating child labor violations. A notable case involved Princeton Food Services, L.L.C., which faced a child labor investigation after a tip regarding its Staten Island Wendy’s restaurant. The company was found guilty of several violations and, after being made aware of its legal obligations, paid $105,000 in penalties.

The newly launched child labor hub is equipped with tools like an online complaint form that triggers an investigation, an interactive scheduling template, a work schedule sample, and training videos to help employers comply with child labor laws. In a bid to educate the masses, NYSDOL has also distributed print and digital resources, including videos in English and Spanish, detailing the protections for minors in the workplace.

This comprehensive approach to tackle child labor came after Gov. Hochul established the Child Labor Task Force in March, in response to a concerning rise in child labor violations. The task force focuses on strengthening the protection of young workers by ensuring all stakeholders are well-informed about their rights.

NYSDOL also provides detailed online guidance categorized by age groups, offering information on various topics like work papers, resume building, and job search essentials. Some key points include the necessity of employment certificates for 14-17-year-olds, restricted working hours based on age, and specific tasks that minors are prohibited from performing due to safety concerns.

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