NASW Law Note
Legal Rights of Children
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed this law
note to aid social workers who work with children and families. For social
workers providing professional assistance to children, it is helpful to have
a general understanding of the legal issues that underpin the determination of a
child’s rights. Because family law is primarily state law, this law note highlights
the various approaches taken by states concerning children’s legal rights.
First, this document addresses the legal status of a child, and how age affects a
child’s rights, including the following: the right to sue, the right to make treatment
decisions concerning the child’s care, the right to contract, the right to educational
services, and the right to be free from abuse and neglect. Next is a discussion of
the ways in which a child’s legal status relates to the child’s family and relationships.
The complex legal issues surrounding a determination of what constitutes a
“family” or a “child” in the 21st century are also reviewed, as are adoption laws,
the foster care system, divorce and child custody, visitation, and support.
This law note also includes a discussion of the admissibility of social workers’
testimony on child custody at custody hearings, and also provides social workers
with information concerning the family court processes in which they might find
themselves interacting with child clients. Finally, five appendices are included at
the end of the law note, providing the following:
- state-by-state information about a minor’s1 ability to make decisions regarding healthcare;
- the right of noncustodial parents to access a child’s health records;
- a state-by-state summary of child custody laws;
- a state-by-state summary of guardian ad litem statutes; and
- a summary of state laws regarding a minor’s competency to testify.
The information and resources provided in this document offer an introduction to
various legal issues affecting social workers’ practice with children and families.
The discussion is not exhortative and should not be used as a substitute for
consultation with an attorney in the jurisdiction in which the child or family is
located. Additional information about legal issues of interest to social workers
can be found on the Web pages prepared and updated by the NASW Legal
Defense Fund at http://www.socialworkers.org/ldf/default.asp.