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America’s shameful child rights record

US may soon become the only nation to shun the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

June 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

The U.S. ranks 28 out of 29 advanced nations in child poverty. Yet the issue of children’s well-being receives little attention in the United States. And perhaps not accidentally, the U.S. could soon become the only country to not ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), underscoring how child welfare is not one of our public policy priorities.

Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1989, the CRC outlines the rights and protections that every child should be entitled to regardless of national boundaries, including the right to survival, to develop to one’s fullest potential, to protection from abuse, neglect and exploitation and to participate in family, cultural and social life. It calls on states to develop and implement policies and programs that ensure that all children will grow up in supportive family and community environments.

At the beginning of 2015 there were only three countries that did not ratify the CRC — Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. South Sudan ratified the treaty in May. Somalia started the ratification process in January and is expected to formalize it once the paperwork is deposited with the U.N.

Partisan fear mongering and widespread misconceptions about the CRC’s intent and potential effect continue to create obstacles to expeditiously moving the treaty forward in the United States. Opponents of the CRC, which includes a coalition of religious conservative groups, have pitted children’s rights against parents’ rights suggesting that the treaty would allow the government to tell parents how they should raise their children and grant children autonomous rights such as accessing birth control and abortion without parental consent. Supporters of the CRC insist that it includes language that emphasizes the primacy and importance of the role and authority of parents.

The U.S. does not have a good record on the rights of children. Child labor was abolished only in 1938 following decades of lobbying efforts. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in 1866, nearly a decade before the formation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. And it took another 100 years before a fully funded, formalized child welfare system was in place when Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 and federal dollars were allocated to assisting states in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse. It’s only in 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the sentencing of juveniles to death was a cruel and unusual punishment. Poor and minority children in the U.S. still attend substandard schools that are as racially segregated as they were in the 1950s.

Ratifying the CRC would signal to the rest of the world that the United States is interested in joining the community of nations that are working for the betterment of their children and youth.

A powerful minority of social and religious conservatives have repeatedly obstructed any progress on the CRC, citing unfounded fears that ensuring children’s rights leads to the infringement of parental rights, forcing the U.S. to stand alone on the issue within the global human rights community. In the early 1990s, Congress made several attempts to ratify the CRC amid opposition from President George H. W. Bush. His successor, President Bill Clinton, was widely expected to sign the CRC and send it to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification. However, the administration faced stiff resistance from the right.

Former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, vowed to prevent a hearing on the CRC. He then introduced a separate resolution, backed by 26 co-sponsors, opposing the treaty, arguing that it is “incompatible with the God given right and responsibility of parents to raise their children” and that “the United States Constitution is the ultimate guarantor or rights and privileges to every American, including children.” The George W. Bush administration also opposed the CRC, arguing that it conflicted with U.S. laws on privacy and family rights.

Despite lobbying by child welfare advocates and organizations, President Barack Obama has made no serious efforts to push for the CRC’s ratification. It is a shame because the U.S. does not fare well on a number of social and health indicators that measure child welfare when compared to other industrialized countries. In fact, a 2013 UNICEF report ranks the U.S. in the bottom on five important indicators of child well being compared to other 29 economically advanced nations:

  • Overall ranking: 24.8. The bottom four places in the ranking are occupied by three of the poorest countries in the survey, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, and by one of the richest, the United States.
  • Material well-being ranking: 26.
  • Health & Safety ranking: 25. The only countries with infant mortality rates higher than 6 per 1,000 births are Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and the U.S.
  • Education ranking: 27. The U.S. also ranks near the bottom on provision of early childhood education and in rates of young adults participating in higher education.
  • Behaviors & risk ranking: 23. The U.S. ranks last in childhood obesity and teenage births.
  • Housing & environment ranking: 23. The U.S. ranks 27th in children’s exposure to violence as measured by the nation’s homicide rate.

It is perplexing that the richest nation in the world has such appalling rates of child poverty and educational attainment. The U.S. also stands out for not guaranteeing healthcare coverage for children and for prosecuting children as adults and sending them to adult prisons. Ratifying the CRC would signal to the rest of the world that we are indeed interested in joining the community of nations that are working for the betterment of their children and youth.

Jessica A. Ritter is a Fulbright scholar and associate professor of Social Work at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. She is also the author of two books, “101 Careers in Social Work” and “Social Work Policy Practice: Changing our Community, Nation, and the World.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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