Is America Holding Out on Protecting Children's Rights?

The United States is the only member of the UN that hasn’t agreed on standards for youth well-being.

Silhouettes of children running through sprinkles
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Recently, I asked my 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old students what they thought all children need in order to grow up healthy and strong. They responded readily: Lots and lot of water. Fruits and vegetables. Love. Schools. Homes. Parents. A life. Stuff to play with. A 5-year-old went a step further: “Legos.” A 6-year-old snapped back. “Legos? You don’t need them, but you would want them.”

The list my students generated around our meeting rug is remarkably similar to the list of rights named in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the world’s most widely ratified treaties. The convention enshrines children’s right to an education, to health care, to expression—and, yes, to play. It recognizes families as the fundamental unit of society, and says that families should be provided necessary protection and assistance to fulfill responsibilities to their children. United States delegates played an active role in drafting the convention in the late 1980s. Since then, all United Nations member states have ratified it, with one exception: the United States.

Some child-rights advocates in the United States said they expected to to see the country ratify the convention had Hillary Clinton won the presidential election. Now, with an administration that aims to boost military spending; reduce funding for affordable housing, education, and other programs that assist low-income families; and dramatically reshape related policies, they say that a commitment to children’s rights is critical to safeguarding children and tempering rising inequality. These advocates face opposition from those who argue the convention undermines national and parental sovereignty.

The United States is one of the richest nations in the world, yet it has one of the highest rates of child poverty among developed nations. The National Center for Children in Poverty finds that 43 percent of children in the United States live in families barely able to afford their most basic needs. One in 25 families with young children lives on about $2 or less per day, a percentage that, according to some researchers, exceeds or parallels those in Russia, the West Bank and Gaza, and urban China. Infant mortality is more common in the United States than in many other economically advanced nations. Still, the United States spends a smaller share of its GDP on benefits for families than other wealthy nations do.

Children in the United States have many of the same constitutional rights as adults—for example, rights to privacy, due process, and free expression. Parents may sue school systems and local governments if they feel their children’s constitutional rights have been violated.  Jonathan Todres, a law professor who has written extensively on children’s rights, says many rights named in the UN convention derive from U.S. law, such as the right to freedom of religion and to freedom of expression. Still, he contends, ratification would have additional value: “There is something that the convention could bring in terms of providing both a mandate and a framework for action. In its absence, there is not quite the same concerted effort and focus on issues affecting children.”

Advocates say that some kind of agreement about what children need to thrive is essential to addressing child poverty. Cara Baldari, a director at the nonpartisan children’s-advocacy group First Focus, asserts that when a society doesn’t come to an official consensus as to what is essential for children, children end up going without goods that might be critical to their economic mobility. Those goods can range from clean water to internet access at school. The law professors Clare Huntington and Elizabeth Scott have written in the journal The Future of Children that policies to promote children’s well-being are optional in the United States. As a result, programs that promote children’s well-being often lack funding and get cut when politically convenient.

Advocates like Todres say that ratifying the convention could change that.  While acknowledging that implementation differs across nations, Todres says many studies show that most countries that ratify the treaty incorporate some aspects into domestic law. In some nations, the commitment to the convention has strengthened efforts to address child poverty head-on. In 2010, the U.K., for example, passed a law establishing firm goals and strategy to reduce child poverty there. Carla Clarke, a legal expert at the U.K. Child Poverty Action Group, cites the nation’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as contributing to the law’s passage.

Some Republican senators in the U.S. have strongly resisted ratification, stating that the treaty undermines U.S. sovereignty in matters of law, and parental sovereignty at home. Prominent libertarian and Christian organizations share these concerns. “Obviously some of the language is unobjectionable and what you want for children,” says Travis Weber, the director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. “But I would be wary of enacting the rights into law.” He cautioned that people have different ideas of what some rights entail, like a child’s right to social-emotional well-being.

The Family Research Council will continue to oppose the convention, Weber says, out of concern that it might force U.S. lawmakers to recognize rights of same-sex parents, provide teens access to reproductive-health services, and override parental desire to use corporal punishment. Stefano Gennarini of the socially conservative Center for Family and Human Rights agrees. He acknowledges that recommendations from UN committees are not binding, and that it is up to individual governments to address them or not.  Still, he expresses concern that the U.S. wouldn’t truly know what obligations it’d assume if it were to ratify the treaty.

More fundamentally, opponents like Weber don’t see a need for such a treaty. “Children in the U.S. enjoy a good standard of living regardless of ratification of this treaty,” Weber says, later noting that he isn’t familiar with research showing widespread child poverty in the U.S. He’s skeptical that ratification would do anything to reduce child poverty, and that it’s the government’s job to even fix it.

Children’s-rights advocates in the U.S. have in recent months reaffirmed their commitment to their agenda, even as the president has expressed disdain for the United Nations and drafted orders to reduce U.S. involvement. In the lead up to Trump’s inauguration, Rricha Mathur of First Focus shared: “If anything, this moment is an opportunity to tell people that children do not have these rights here but they do in many other countries.” The newly formed United States Child Poverty Action Group, modeled after the aforementioned U.K. organization, has issued a call to the new administration to set a goal to reduce child poverty by half in the next decade. Mathur acknowledged that at the national level, advocates may need to play defense and turn to the municipal and state level to press for bold new initiatives.

Children’s-rights advocates in California—which ranks 47th in the U.S. and Washington, D.C., with regard to children’s economic well-being—hope to lead the way. In December, the Democratic state Senator Richard Pan introduced a bill that would establish standards of health, safety, education, and well-being and create an avenue for families to access the supports necessary for their children to thrive.

“We are trying to spark a conversation,” says Craig Cheslog, the co-director of Common Sense Kids Action, an advocacy group that’s helping to prepare the legislation. “What should every child in California have the right to expect in terms of programs and services they need to thrive? Once we have identified that list, we can hold elected officials accountable, and we can help find the revenue.”

Still, the children’s-rights bill encountered vocal opposition, particularly from parents who oppose vaccination and recall Pan’s sponsorship of a 2015 bill requiring children who attend school to receive routine vaccines. Homeschooling parents have also expressed concern that the bill would limit their options. At more than one hundred parent meet-ups across the state, Common Sense Kids has heard from supporters and from opponents. To assuage the fears of parents concerned that their own rights might be threatened (there has been an active trade of unbacked conspiracy theories online), the framers have revised the legislation, recasting children’s rights as parents’ rights to access services. “Access, access, access.  This was never about mandating anything but providing more options and support to families,” Cheslog says.

Gennarini, of the Center for Family and Human Rights, for his part says he’s open to state initiatives like this one. “I think it is fantastic that states, cities, and local governments want to take initiatives to help families fulfill their responsibilities,” he says. “What framework they adopt is up to them.”

Cheslog has remained insistent and hopeful that various stakeholders will rally around the bill: “We believe the Bill of Rights for Children and Youth will be a nationwide model to drive an agenda on what is right for kids,” he says. “We are going to see people really come together around this vision.”