September 11, 2020 Article

Narrowing Neglect Laws Means Ending State-Mandated Helicopter Parenting

How broad neglect laws undermine childhood independence, and a review of legislative efforts to address it.

By Diane L. Redleaf

In this first article in a two-part series, I discuss advocacy that aims to make it easy, safe, and legal for children to enjoy reasonable independence consistent with their needs to gain developmentally appropriate experiences, abilities, and resilience. This work, spearheaded by the nonprofit Let Grow (which grew out of the Free-Range Kids movement), pushes back against increasingly widespread norms of helicopter parenting and state-enforced surveillance of children and families. Advocacy for changes in laws that limit children’s independent activities fits within broader social justice, civil rights, and democratic reform movements, and resonates across party, racial, and class lines.

The second article in this series, which will be published in the winter edition of Children’s Rights, will present Let Grow’s recent 50-state survey that examines state criminal and neglect laws regulating when children can be alone without adult supervision. After describing both especially good laws and especially problematic laws that limit child and family rights, interested readers will be able to learn more and get involved in the work through the Let Grow website.

How Broad Neglect Laws Undermine Childhood Independence

Most adults today remember playing outside as children, walking to school, and running errands with minimal adult supervision. They likely also sometimes sat in a car as mom or dad ran into a store on a quick errand. These activities did not prompt any concerns about the danger of a child being asphyxiated or kidnapped, nor did they lead to criminal or neglect investigations by the police or child protection authorities.

Yet, despite a crime rate that has been plummeting for 25 years, children today engage in far fewer of these seemingly normal, routine independent activities than their parents did. And families today live with a fear of being stopped by authorities if they let their child do something as simple as walking their dog.

Nowadays, only 10 percent of children get to school on their own two feet. In middle-class families, the ages at which children do activities like learning to drive have been steadily rising for the past two decades. Recess and after-school free play time are also casualties of a culture that does not trust children to function unless their time is carefully structured and micromanaged by adults and constantly supervised.

As a result of a culture that normalizes and even expects helicopter parenting, the public, parents, and children themselves have come to fear grave danger if children are left alone. Even if the danger is not reality-based, parents are routinely chastened if they allow their child to engage in a wide range of activities that could prompt a child abuse hotline call. It should be noted that mothers take the brunt of this critique whenever they remove their watchful eyes from their children. (See K. Brooks, Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear (2018); A. Thomas, P. K. Stanford & B. Sarnecka, “No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children,” 2 Collabra: Psychol., Aug. 23, 2016).

Experts have linked the current “never take your eyes off your child” ethos to diminishing childhood resilience and increasing childhood rates of anxiety and depression. A number of experts have pointed to the development of a “fragile generation” due in part to raising a generation of kids who feel themselves incapable of taking or managing risks without adult supervision.

Pushing Back Against State-Enforced Helicopter Parenting Policies and Practices

Let Grow, a nonpartisan nonprofit, grew out of the Free-Range Kids movement founded by Lenore Skenazy (who literally wrote the book Free-Range Kids in 2009). Skenazy started down the path from journalist to advocate after she wrote a column in 2008 about letting her son ride the New York City subway by himself at age 9. After writing and speaking widely against the state-enforced norm of helicopter parenting, in 2018 Skenazy joined with psychology professors Jonathan Haidt and Peter Gray and philanthropist Dan Schuchman to create Let Grow. Its mission is to make it normal, easy, and legal to give children reasonable independence.

As Let Grow has evolved, its programs quickly came to include legal advocacy against the family regulation system and criminal justice system’s broad powers to investigate parents who—by choice or necessity—allow their kids some unsupervised time.

Legal advocacy has taken on a central focus because parents, with good reason, fear the application of child neglect laws and broad “child endangerment” laws whenever they make decisions to allow their children out of their sight. The power and reach of child protective services to seize children and label parents guilty of abuse or neglect has grown steadily over the past four decades.

Since 1974, with the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, states have been required to maintain child abuse hotlines. This mandate has led to escalating numbers of hotline calls, including calls concerning school-age children who are discovered alone outside or indoors, who are playing outside or running errands, or who are left in a car for a short time (e.g., under 15 minutes). (See C. Fuller & D. Redleaf, When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone? Child Neglect Policy and Recommendations in the Age of Free Range and Helicopter Parenting (2015).

The increasing use of cell phones over the past decade has made it ever easier for anyone—including passersby—to immediately call the hotline whenever a child is spotted alone. Highly publicized stories (e.g., the “free-range” Meitiv children, who walked home from a park in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Debra Harrell, who was arrested for letting her 9-year-old stay in a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s) show punitive surveillance of children’s independence across race and income levels (though disproportionately applied to lower-income and minority parents).

Typically, the child neglect laws that authorize child protection investigations are very broad and vague. They include terms of unlimited potential scope—words like “injurious environment,” “lack of proper care,” and “inadequate supervision”—that invite open-ended discretionary, standardless, and discriminatory applications. Moreover, these laws generally do not defer to parents to decide when their children are “old enough” to manage activities alone. As a result, parents largely remain in the dark as to when and how they can safely make those decisions and what the state will judge as neglect. When coupled with demands that professionals and members of the public should call hotlines to “say something” whenever they “see something,” it has become extraordinarily easy for anyone to call a hotline to start a neglect investigation concerning any child who looks “too young” to be alone and for state systems to register findings of neglect or endangerment when parents make decisions they reasonably think are best for their kids.

Bipartisan and community-based pushback against legal overreach on this issue is overdue.

Case Examples and Litigation

Prior to working with Let Grow, I led the Family Defense Center, which I founded in 2005. Based in Chicago, the center represented dozens of parents being investigated each year for letting their children out of their sight, even when the parent made the judgment that his or her child was “old enough” or the action was otherwise safe and appropriate under the circumstances.

The Family Defense Center’s docket included the following exemplary cases involving parents deemed “child neglectors” who had to battle for exoneration from the Illinois child abuse register:

  1. An Orthodox Jewish couple allowed their 9-year-old girl to take her 1-year-old baby sister by stroller to a nearby park in the late afternoon on a nice summer day. As the girls returned home, a passerby stopped them and berated the mother at the door for letting her kids stroll without an adult. The stranger called the hotline. Though both the mother and the father decided the children could go to the park together, the mother alone was labeled neglectful. Her name was placed in the Illinois child abuse register, a decision that threatened her ability to care for children in her day care. Fuller & Redleaf, When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone?.
  2. A Puerto Rican mother, Natasha Felix, who worked in home health care, allowed her 11-, 9-, and 5-year-old children to play in a park next door to their home for 30–40 minutes. Even though Ms. Felix regularly looked out her window onto the children, and one of them ran inside to get a scooter during their play time, she was labeled neglectful for allowing them to be outside without an adult. B. Miller Rubin, “Child neglect citation dropped against mother who let kids play outside,” Chi. Trib., Dec. 16, 2015.
  3. A Hispanic mother realized that her 6-year-old son had missed his school bus. She decided to leave her 8-year-old daughter at home with her 1-year-old baby for about 10 minutes while she drove the boy to school in her car.

What distinguishes these cases from many similar ones is that each of these parents eventually won exoneration from the state’s child abuse register. In each case, however, exoneration came only after at least two levels of appeals. The second and third of these mothers’ cases required resort to the Illinois Appellate Court. And the second case, involving Natasha Felix, also got local and national media attention, including in the Washington Post, thanks to the interest of the reporter who had written multiple articles about the earlier Meitiv case.

In the wake of media attention to the Felix case, moreover, Illinois child protection authorities agreed to amend Illinois’s “inadequate supervision” rule that governed neglect investigations involving children who were allowed out of their parents’ sight. A Cook County, Illinois, class action suit, Nicole P. v. DCFS, followed, to remove all of the registered findings in that category.

While the legal resources needed to secure exoneration in these cases were extensive, these stories demonstrate the multifaceted ways in which lawyers and parent and child advocates can contest the helicopter parenting norms that are codified as neglect under broad “inadequate supervision” statutes and rules. By allying with families and their advocates, by coordinating media, litigation, and legislative strategies, and by negotiating with child welfare agencies to limit their resources when children are not genuinely abused or neglected, it is possible to forge better policies to protect a basic right.

Three Approaches to Legislating Reasonable Independence

Drawing on my litigation and policy drafting experience in Illinois and Let Grow’s multifaceted approach to changing the understanding of the harms of helicopter parenting, Let Grow has developed three models for legislation that are starting to gain traction.

The Illinois approach: Neglect requires “blatant disregard” of “obvious dangers.” Illinois’s neglect law has a convoluted history. In 2009, Illinois investigated a mother named Julie Q. for allegedly creating an “injurious environment” for her 9-year-old daughter after Julie’s ex-husband pressed allegations that Julie had been drinking to excess in their daughter’s presence. A neglect finding was registered against Julie Q. under an Illinois rule that defined neglect as creating an “injurious environment.” Legal research, however, by then Skadden Fellow Sara Block, led to a discovery that the term “injurious environment” had been deliberately removed from the Illinois Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act in 1980. But that lack of legislative authority hadn’t stopped the state’s child protection agency from subsequently adopting a rule that defined creating an “injurious environment” as a form of neglect. The child welfare authorities in turn investigated thousands of parents under this sweepingly broad rule. In a landmark 2011 ruling in Julie Q.’s appeal, the Appellate Court of Illinois held that the rule was unauthorized and void. In 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that decision.

In the wake of this litigation and as a result of negotiations that involved parents who had been directly affected by overbroad neglect allegations, in 2013, Illinois’s legislature adopted much tighter language that defined neglect as “blatant disregard” of “obvious dangers” that are likely to result in serious harm to the child and as to which the parent “failed to take responsible precautionary measures.” This language drew on another of the Family Defense Center’s appellate court cases, a decision in In re Slater, which held that neglect requires more than mere momentary inattention; to be cited for neglect, a parent must unreasonably ignore obvious dangers to a child. Advocates relied on the Julie Q. and Slater decisions as they pushed for the stricter definition of neglect under Illinois law.

The Utah law: Protecting children’s “reasonable independent activities.” In 2018, Utah passed the nation’s first “free-range parenting” law, which expressly gives children a right to be alone when they are engaging in defined “independent activities.” Utah’s experience preceding the bipartisan, unanimous passage of this law sharply differed from Illinois’s. Utah had neither a reported history of children being stopped from being alone nor an extended litigation history. Rather, Utah adopted a purely preventive strategy.    

Proponents of the Utah language explicitly referred to the proposal as the “Free-Range Parenting” legislation. The Utah law lists specified children’s independent activities as permissible and “not neglect,” including traveling to and from school by walking, running, or bicycling; traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; engaging in outdoor play; remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under conditions otherwise prohibited; or engaging in a similar independent activity.

The Utah law states, however, that a child entitled to engage in these activities is one “whose basic needs are met” and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm. The first prong of this legislation could be misread as allowing independence only for well-off children, which was not the intent of the law.

Fortunately, later proposals relying on the Utah law as a model have dropped the “basic needs” prerequisite from the language allowing “independent activities” for sufficiently mature children. And reports from Utah indicate that it is viewed positively by parents across income and racial groups.

After the Utah law passed, similar legislation (without the basic needs limitation) has been proposed in several states. In Arkansas, model legislative language passed as a preamble to the Juvenile Court Act in 2018. South Carolina and Texas both saw childhood independence gain unanimous support in one of their two chambers, though both faced problems like scheduling delays that stopped passages in the second chamber. Renewed efforts are anticipated in both states in 2021. Connecticut also had bipartisan sponsors for and a favorable hearing of proposed reasonable childhood independence legislation in 2019, but child welfare agency opposition stopped the bill.

These experiences demonstrate that there is bipartisan support in diverse states, though reasonable independence legislation has faced some opposition from entrenched agency interests and political inertia.

The Colorado proposal: Protecting “reasonable and prudent parents” to allow “independent activities.” In 2019, Let Grow decided to pilot its reasonable independence proposal in Colorado, hoping to develop a bipartisan approach. The importance of outdoor activities to Colorado families made it seem a good place to press for children’s rights to be outside and independent. Representative Kim Ransom, a Republican, and Representative Janet Buckner, a Democrat, began to work together on the “Reasonable Independence for Children” bill, which got their attention because of its appeal for all families across the political spectrum. And so they quickly got to work. (See J. Buckner & K. Ransom, “Should letting your kid play outside be illegal?,” Colo. Sun, Feb. 12, 2020.)     

Extensive stakeholder meetings—a feature of the open Colorado legislative process—led to meaningful, effective compromise language actually proposed by child welfare agency leaders in Colorado and endorsed by advocates. That resulting language uses the Utah-based listing of independent activities along with deference to decisions made by a “reasonable and prudent” parent as to whether an activity is allowed, given the children’s maturity and other circumstances.

Following the extensive discussion and negotiations over the scope of the bill, it passed unanimously in the Colorado House on February 27, 2020. Unfortunately, the closure of the Colorado legislature on March 16 due to the pandemic meant a scheduled Senate hearing on March 18—and the bill’s potential passage—was abruptly canceled and must await the next legislative session.

Model Laws That Make Use of These Approaches

Let Grow now endorses three different models—drawn from Utah, Illinois, and Colorado—for proposed legislative reforms of state neglect laws. These models can be tailored to the specifics of each state in which a legislative reform effort is under way.

  1. Let Grow’s primary model bill uses the language from Illinois’s law that sets a high bar for neglect as requiring “blatant disregard” of “obvious danger.” The bill also uses the Utah law framework by including all the listed “independent activities” that parents believe their children are capable of doing safely without adult supervision. This model bill language is also the same as Arkansas’s neglect law preamble and was adopted as a model law by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Republican legislative think tank, in 2018.
  2. The “basic” Utah model—without the provision requiring that children’s “basic needs” must be met—remains a model that other states are adopting in their proposals. As noted above, South Carolina and Texas both introduced and have had bills pass one chamber that are modeled on the Utah law.
  3. Let Grow also endorses the Colorado model, which includes both the Utah independent activities list and the “reasonable and prudent parent” judgment standard for deciding the question of whether a child is “mature enough.” This model has the benefit of consistency with existing policies that are required by the federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which supports independence for foster youth, and the model has been extensively vetted as acceptable by child protection authorities and other stakeholders in Colorado.

Each of these models can be viewed on the Let Grow webpage.

No legislation can pass in a vacuum. Each state has its own politics and its own legal framework for adjudicating when children are neglected and when agencies and courts have the authority to intervene. Each state has its own administrative systems and advocacy communities. Each state has its own residents with stories as to why legislative change is needed. Bipartisan approaches to legislation need to be tailored to the specifics in each community.

Conclusion

Some states are especially ripe for revision of their laws and policies. In the next article in this series, I will review the findings of the survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia that Let Grow conducted with the assistance of Chicago-based lawyer Skye Allen. I will also suggest how advocates can join together to support adoption of stronger protections for the reasonable independence that children need to grow into healthy, resilient young adults. 

Diane Redleaf is the founder of Chicago’s Family Defense Center, which she directed from 2005 through 2017; she is also the founder and cochair of United Family Advocates and the legal consultant to Let Grow.


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