Some States Update Child Neglect Laws to Allow 'Reasonable Independence' For Kids

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A handful of states have clarified neglect laws to allow parents to permit their children to walk to school and play outside alone without fear of intervention from police or Child Protective Services.

When Oklahoma Rep. Chad Caldwell’s three children were younger, they’d walk to school by themselves. The elementary school was just eight blocks from their house, but Caldwell and his wife were still required to work with the school to get permission for their decision.

Caldwell’s children are in high school now, but that policy still rankles. If he and his wife trusted their children to walk to school alone, why did they require permission from anyone else?

“I don’t want people to tell me how to parent, and I don’t want to tell someone else how to parent,” said Caldwell, a fourth-term Republican. “But we want to give people the freedom to parent in a responsible way while allowing their kids to be reasonably independent.”

Caldwell addressed the issue this year via legislation that narrows the state’s definition of neglect, specifying for the first time a handful of activities that children can do by themselves without parental supervision. The bill, signed into law this month, seemed to Caldwell a common-sense measure, though in some states, the issue is thornier than it first appears.

That’s because many child neglect laws are nebulous and open to interpretation, “allowing child protective investigators and their supervisors to declare a child neglected based on their own unbounded opinions as to what is ‘proper’ or ‘necessary care,’” according to a nationwide analysis of criminal and child protection laws published last fall by the American Bar Association. That leads to a patchwork of enforcement policies, under which families sometimes find themselves under the jurisdiction of Child Protective Services for things like allowing their children to walk home alone from a neighborhood park or leaving a sleeping baby alone inside for a moment to take out the trash.

“What ends up happening is that parents are stopped from letting their children go outside largely because of fear—not fear of what might happen to the child, necessarily, but fear that a neighbor could call the police or CPS,” said Diane Redleaf, author of the ABA analysis and legal consultant for Let Grow, a nonprofit organization that aims to make it easier for parents to allow their children reasonable independence. “Then you compound that with mandated reporting of child abuse, and this drumbeat of ‘see something, say something’ that encourages people to think that if a child’s alone, there’s no harm in calling the authorities.”

Low-income families are more likely to become embroiled in the juvenile justice system as a result, Redleaf said. More than two-thirds of neglect cases in Illinois reviewed in a 2015 report involved families living below the federal poverty line, and many of them were minorities or immigrants, despite extensive published research showing that those groups “are actually no more likely to engage in practices that lead to claims of inadequate supervision.” 

The result is that a system designed to protect children can err heavily on the wrong side of caution, labeling normal, independent play as neglect in a process that can lead to family separation, said Lenore Skenazy, president and co-founder of Let Grow.

“The system has really stopped doing what it’s supposed to do, which is to keep kids safe, and instead has made parents afraid,” she said. “I think we live in a culture that has created a lot of fear and sort of normalized the idea that kids can't have any independence, but there’s no literal reason for that. We’re trying to renormalize the idea of kids doing some things on their own as a good idea as opposed to a crazy dangerous idea.”

The organization’s advocacy includes suggestions for school programs and activity clubs, as well as model legislation for lawmakers to use as templates to adjust policies in their own states. Bills based on those suggestions have since become law in Utah and Texas, with efforts expected to be revived in Nevada and Colorado, where proposals stalled in recent sessions. 

The legislation tends to have bipartisan appeal, including in Oklahoma, where Caldwell was joined by Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat, on his proposal after realizing that they’d each written versions of bills on the same topic.

“We used a lot of language from his bill,” said Caldwell. “I think, between having a bipartisan bill and working with outside groups and state agencies, we came together and ended up with a good bill that’s going to help parents and kids. The process worked how it’s supposed to work.”

Not every state needs a legislative overhaul, Redleaf said, though Let Grow believes that “every state needs it in the form of practice.” The organization assesses each law on its own merits, with the basic goal of eliminating language that’s unclear or leaves the definition of neglect open to the opinion of one case worker or police officer.

“The neglect laws are so vague and open-ended that it sometimes depends on somebody’s interpretation of what is safe and good,” Skenazy said. “The standard shouldn’t be, ‘You’re not providing proper care,’ because that’s vague. Who gets to decide what proper care means? We’re just trying to narrow the definition of neglect.”

Oklahoma’s legislation does that explicitly, naming six activities that are explicitly excluded from the state’s definition of neglect, unless the parent or guardian in charge “willfully disregards any harm or threatened harm to the child.” Those activities include walking, running or biking to school, playing alone outside, staying home alone for “a reasonable amount of time,” and waiting alone in a car as long as the temperature is not “dangerously hot or cold.” 

“The bill is about keeping safeguards in place to protect kids from obvious harm while also giving them the freedom to be kids again,” Caldwell said. “It’s not about letting a toddler wander around unattended miles away from home. It’s about trusting parents to know their own kids. I don’t think we need to wait for something bad to happen when there’s a common-sense solution staring us in the face, and that, to me, is what this bill is.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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