Brandon Logan would like to be the kind of free-range parent who allows his kids to bike down to the pond and fish near their home in Austin, Texas, but he doesn’t dare let them go without him.
It’s not that he thinks his children, ages 10, 8 and 7, would be in any danger. Instead, he worries that permitting them to go fishing unsupervised a half-mile from their home would trigger a call by a well-meaning neighbor to Child Protective Services.
“And I’m not alone in this,” Mr. Logan said. “If you look at the number of children who are out and about in my neighborhood, it’s very, very few. There are kids in houses and backyards, but to get them to play out front or to go to the pond and fish, or to go to the store and get a Coke, it’s just not something that happens.”
Mr. Logan plans to do something about it. At the Texas Public Policy Foundation, he’s working on a bill to protect parents who allow their children to walk home, play at a nearby park, or stay home for a few hours unsupervised from being slapped with a neglect citation.
“To me, the key is neglectful supervision should be about blatant disregard of parental responsibilities,” said Mr. Logan, who heads the foundation’s Center for Families and Children. “That is not what happens when a parent makes the conscious decision to let their children play outside, or walk back or forth from school, or stay at home for a short period of time.”
Ten years after New York City mom Lenore Skenazy made headlines by letting her nine-year-old ride the subway by himself, the growing free-range parenting movement has run up against the long arm of the Child Protective Services system, which has sanctioned parents for offenses less heinous than giving kids access to mass transit.
Horror stories about parents being cited for letting their children engage in once-commonplace activities are legion, but the tension came to a head in 2015 with the publicity surrounding the Meitiv case in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Free-range parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv were charged with neglect and threatened with the loss of their children, ages 10 and 6, for allowing them to walk home alone from a local park, although the charge was later dropped.
Ms. Skenazy, who now heads Let Grow, a non-profit aimed at promoting childhood self-sufficiency, bemoaned the fact that her push against “bubble-wrapping” kids has now made some parents “nervous that they could get arrested.”
“The last thing I wanted to do was make people more fearful, and unfortunately the ones who weren’t afraid of predators became afraid of Good Samaritans,” Ms. Skenazy said. “So okay, my bad, let’s make sure parents know they can’t get arrested for trusting their kids and their community, unless they’ve done something that is deliberately dangerous or statistically dangerous.”
Driving the legislative push is Diane Redleaf, legal director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, who has worked on national and state proposals to redefine the “neglectful supervision” standard used in child-protection cases by raising it to incorporate “blatant disregard” for a child’s welfare.
“We have a huge system of sweeping people in for child-protective investigations, and we don’t have very clear standards for determining what is a serious neglect case and what is reasonable parenting,” said Ms. Redleaf. “That’s the issue of why we need a clearer line in the law nationally and in the law in every state.”
The movement has already notched one legislative victory: In April, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law specifying that “neglect” does not include allowing a child to engage in “independent activities” such as playing outside, walking to school, or being left at home or in a car unattended under certain circumstances.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, described the measure as a pushback against the “helicopter parenting” trend, which has been exacerbated by media attention on stranger kidnappings and other alarming but statistically rare hazards.
“I think society has just become so afraid of the volume of images that we see on social media or in traditional media that we have this sense that the world is a lot less safe than it used to be, even though the opposite is true — that a child is safer being raised today than at almost any point in recorded history,” Mr. Fillmore told NPR.
Better safe than sorry?
Each year, about 3.4 million cases involving 7.4 million children — roughly 10 percent of the U.S. child population — are screened by Child Protective Services. Of those, 650,000 cases receive a neglect determination.
“If kids play outside, if they’re left in cars, if they’re allowed to walk home from schools, CPS will very often in some places — not everywhere, but in many places in the United States — accept hotline calls and call that neglect,” said Ms. Redleaf, a Chicago lawyer who founded the Family Defense Center.
She said those found guilty of neglect may find their names on a child-abuse register, which could disqualify them from jobs in health care, education and other fields.
What’s more, such a finding “happens very often on the say-so of just a caseworker and their supervisor. They just declare you to be a neglecter. And some states don’t even have an effective system to allow you to challenge that,” said Ms. Redleaf.
For caseworkers, of course, the pressure to be safe rather than sorry when deciding whether to investigate reports of neglect can be intense.
An Associated Press investigation in 2014 found 786 children had died of abuse or neglect in a six-year span “in plain view of child protection authorities.”
In a 2017 report, the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law accused the federal government of “allowing states to fall below minimum standards with regard to appropriately detecting and protecting children from child abuse and neglect.”
Not everyone is on board with the legislative push. In 2017, Arkansas lawmakers defeated a measure similar to the Utah bill after House Speaker Jeremy Gillam argued on the floor that it takes only 37 seconds to carjack a vehicle with a child inside.
While nobody wants authorities to ignore actual cases of abuse, Ms. Skenazy argued there are also costs associated with investigating parents for offenses such as leaving children in the car for a few minutes while picking up dry cleaning.
“Once CPS kicks in, they go through the list: Did your parents give you drugs? Did your parents show you movies with naked people?” said Ms. Skenazy.
She pointed to a 2016 case in which authorities ordered three children to undergo physical examinations for signs of child abuse after their mother left them briefly in their minivan watching videos while she popped into a Starbucks in Evanston, Illinois.
“The number one way kids drive is as car passengers, and nobody gets investigated for driving their kid to the dentist,” said Ms. Skenazy. “Somehow we’ve decided that when a parent is with a child doing anything that could be once-in-a-blue-moon dangerous, that’s okay. But if a parent isn’t with a child, somehow that’s negligent.”
There are dangers associated with even presumably safe childhood activities, said Mr. Logan, noting that kids who stay home playing video games instead of biking to the park run the risk of obesity.
“The myth is that there’s some risk-free parenting decision,” he said. “Childhood is risky.”
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