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Missouri ranks among worst U.S. states for children's rights due to marriage and punishment laws

 Children climb on the large climbing web at the 15 and Mahomies Playground which officially opened Saturday at MLK, Jr. Park.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Children climb on the large climbing web at the 15 and Mahomies Playground which officially opened Saturday at MLK, Jr. Park.

A recent report by an international human rights group ranked Missouri in the bottom third of all states for child rights, in part because Missouri still allows child marriage and corporal punishment in schools.

The report, published by the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, measured every state’s laws against the standards of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that the U.S. has not ratified.

The organization examined every state’s laws on child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor and juvenile justice.

“It’s disappointing that so many states still fail to meet international children’s rights standards,” Callie King-Guffey, lead researcher for the project, said in a press release, “but this progress shows that policymakers have the potential to bring about rapid change to protect children.”

No state received an A or B grade. Missouri and 15 other states received an F grade. Eleven states improved since last year, but Missouri did not.

The top state for compliance with international child rights standards was New Jersey, and the bottom was Mississippi.

“The U.S. has a long way to go to bring its laws and policies into alignment with international children’s rights standards,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Child marriage

For years, Missouri had among the most lenient child marriage laws in the nation, which made it an especially popular state for 15-year-olds to travel to be married.

That changed in 2018, when lawmakers raised the minimum age of marriage to 16, with the consent of one parent or guardian.

But that still isn’t aligned with international standards, which set the minimum age at 18. Activists argued at the time Missouri’s new law would continue to leave 16 and 17 year olds vulnerable to potential coercion.

Ten states have, since 2018, banned marriage for those under 18.

Earlier this year, Missouri’s marriage laws once again garnered national attention when a video of Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, discussing his vote against raising the age for marriage went viral.

“Do you know any kids who have been married at age 12? I do. And guess what? They’re still married,” Moon said, in response to questioning about his earlier vote against the bill.

In a video “Setting the Record Straight,” Moon later explained that the couple had married in their teens after the girl became pregnant.

“They weren’t forced,” he said, adding that the reason he voted against the 2018 language was “because allowances for these extreme exceptions were not included.”

Corporal punishment

Twenty-eight states ban corporal punishment in public schools, but Missouri — along with states mostly clustered in the South — still allows it.

Three states have prohibited corporal punishment in both public and private schools, 25 in public schools alone and 22 in neither, according to the report.

Missouri has not prohibited corporal punishment in public or private schools, and it’s up to the school districts whether to use it. Public schools are required by statute to receive the permission of parents before paddling a child.

This, too, garnered national attention last year when Cassville School District made headlines for reinstating its corporal punishment policy and distributing forms to parents asking for their permission. District leaders at the time said the policy was a reaction to “requests from parents” and said the majority were supportive, according to the Springfield News-Leader.

An investigation by the Missourian earlier this year found at least 123 school districts in Missouri allow corporal punishment, though some school officials said it is used as a last resort. Some framed it as effective and character-building.

The Human Rights Watch report calls it “recognized as a form of violence against children under international human rights standards.”

But Missouri does prohibit corporal punishment in certain realms that not all states do: The report notes that Missouri is one of the 39 states prohibiting corporal punishment in alternative care, which includes foster care and group homes. It is also one of the 33 states prohibiting corporal punishment in penal institutions, such as juvenile detention centers.

Child labor and juvenile sentencing

Missouri was among the nearly one dozen states that either passed or introduced legislation to ease child labor protections. In Missouri, though, neither a bill eliminating work permits for teens nor a bill extending work hours for teens ended up passing this year.

Among the roughly half of states that have a minimum age for employment in the agriculture sector, Missouri’s is among the highest, at 14 years old.The researchers advocate for states increasing the minimum to 15, which no states do.

The state ranks roughly in the middle of the protections it provides kids from hazardous conditions in agriculture, setting the minimum at 16, like all states, but sets itself slightly apart by adding additional protections for certain farmworkers. The report advocates for raising the age to 18.

Missouri is one of 22 states that does not prohibit juvenile life without parole sentences — though according to The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, no one in the state is currently serving that sentence.

Children 12 and older can be tried as adults in Missouri — but 20 states allow kids of all ages to be transferred to adult court under certain circumstances, and others range from 12 to 16.

There is no minimum age of kids allowed to be referred to juvenile court in Missouri, but that is true among nearly half of states without a minimum age. Other states’ minimum ages range from 7 to 13.

This story was originally published by theMissouri Independent.

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Clara Bates