The law defines children as unmarried persons under the age of majority-usually eighteen-who have not left home to support themselves. Children have a right to be supported by their parents. The right of support includes food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Parents are also obliged to arrange for the education of their children either at school or at home. If parents seek to educate their children at home, the parents usually must prove to the state that they offer a genuine education program at home. Children taught at home may be subject to state testing to ensure that they make satisfactory progress in their education.
Children also have a right to be educated by the government through high school (assuming the child is not expelled from school for misconduct). Under federal law, children with significant physical or mental handicaps have a right to government-paid special education programs to meet their needs. If a parent believes a child needs a special education program, but the government is not providing one, the parent can appeal the issue through administrative agencies within the school system and the courts if necessary.
Mature minors (often defined as children over the age of twelve) are allowed to make their own decisions regarding certain medical procedures, even if parents disagree with the child’s choice. For example, in most states, parents do not have absolute veto power over a minor’s decision to use contraceptives or obtain an abortion. In many states, minors can also seek treatment for the venereal disease without the parents’ notification or consent. In some states, a mature minor can seek and obtain short-term mental health treatment or counseling without parental consent.
If a child receives a large sum of money, such as through inheritance, payment of a damage award for a personal injury, or starring in a television series, the law protects how the money is managed. The law generally requires the appointment of a guardian to manage the child’s finances.
The guardian could be a parent or someone other than a parent. Sometimes there will be two guardians-one a parent and a non-family member, such as an attorney or a bank officer. Guardians are required to make sure the money is well managed and spent for the child’s best interest. The money cannot be used for the primary benefit of other family members. If a guardian spends the money for the guardian’s own benefit or in some other way mismanages the funds, the guardian can be personally liable for the amount lost.
To help ensure that the child’s money is properly invested and spent, the court may require that the guardian file periodic accountings with the court, itemizing the child’s assets, explaining how the money has been spent and outlining plans for future expenditures.
The law allows children to sue, including, for example, for personal injuries suffered in an auto accident or a poorly maintained park. In most instances, the child’s parent or legal guardian must begin the suit in the child’s name.
Children accused of committing crimes are handled by their state’s juvenile courts, not the regular criminal justice system. (In many states, children accused of serious crimes who are above a certain age, sometimes as low as thirteen-may be tried in court as adults.) Juvenile courts entitle children to only some of the procedural safeguards that adults receive, but juvenile courts have more freedom to deal with juveniles to rehabilitate them. A child on trial as a juvenile, for example, usually does not have a right to a jury trial, but the child generally may not be confined beyond the age of eighteen.
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