Children, or minors, don't have the full legal capacity of adults. Typically, minors aren’t granted the rights of adults until they reach the age of 18, although this varies from state to state (19 in Alabama and Nebraska, 21 in Mississippi). Because children are still developing, both physically and mentally, they aren’t considered capable of handling the same rights as mature adults. For instance, children don't have the right to vote, own property, consent to medical treatment, sue or be sued, or enter into certain types of contracts.
However, children do have some inherent legal rights as soon as they are born, and they obtain some additional rights as they grow. Additionally, children are able to access some of the rights available only to adults (such as legal actions) when a parent or legal guardian acts on their behalf.
This article covers the basic legal rights of children in the United States.
Legal Rights of Children: The Basics
Although children grow and mature at different rates, there are some rights that every child is born with. For instance, children are entitled to a safe environment, good nutrition, healthcare, and education. Although parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, if a child is not safe, the state will remove the children from their home. Parents are required to meet the child's basic needs.
Minors also have rights under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, they have the right to equal protection, which 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, which includes notice and a hearing, before any of their basic rights are taken away by the government.
Children with disabilities also have rights under the federal Disabilities Education Act. The Disabilities Education Act provides children in need of special education with special accommodations to ensure they receive the same education as their peers.
Rights That Children Can Obtain as They Grow
Some of the legal rights of children are acquired as children grow, depending on their age and level of maturity. For example, children have a limited right to free speech. In many instances, children are encouraged to form opinions and freely speak their mind. However, 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 featuring nudity might be inappropriate in middle school, but 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 he or she may work will vary by state. The Fair Labor Standards Act and state labor laws regulate the employment of minors.
In the criminal justice system, older children receive more autonomy than younger delinquents; and juvenile defendants are sometimes transferred to the adult criminal justice system for particularly serious offenses such as murder.
If a child is particularly mature, they may qualify for emancipation -- a procedure granting minors most of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood -- and in some cases, emancipation is automatic. Otherwise, emancipation must be petitioned for in the appropriate state court.
Get Legal Assistance With Your Child's Legal Matters
It may seem as if children don't have any rights comparable to their adult counterparts, but that's not the case. Still, it's not always easy to determine the legal rights of children, particularly with differences in state laws. Get peace of mind about your (or a loved one's) rights as a minor by reaching out to a family law attorney near you.