MIDVALE — In May, Utah will become the first state to bestow statutory blessing on such activities as allowing kids to play outside, walk to schools and parks or engage in other activities independently, without fear of launching a child welfare investigation because a passerby disapproves.
The so-called "free-range parenting" law, which takes effect May 8, will protect parents like Jessica Hall, who lets her four kids, ages 5 to 12, jump ditches and play in the park and enjoy the kind of childhood more common in their parents' generation than in their own. The new law says participating in such activities that focus on being outside and staying busy without supervision do not, by themselves, justify a child welfare investigation.
That protection doesn't exist in some communities around the country, where complaints from passersby have prompted child welfare workers to investigate.
"I think it's important because around the country parents have been arrested, investigated and had their kids taken from them for doing things as simple as letting their kids play in the park or play basketball in the front yard while they're on their way home from work, or walk to and from school," says Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who sponsored Utah's bill.
Those experiences let children develop skills to find solutions to their own problems and explore and build confidence, he says. They're key to developing self-reliance — and a fundamental stepping stone to becoming a capable adult later.
"We need to stand up and push back against the idea that in order to keep our kids safe, we need to hover over them constantly," Fillmore adds.
While Fillmore's bill had unanimous support in the Utah Legislature, it might have run into opposition in states where parents have run afoul of local child welfare agencies because they let their kids engage in such activities as walking or playing unsupervised. In Maryland, for example, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were mired in a child welfare investigations after letting their children, 10 and 6, walk a mile home from a park and another adult called police. Texas author Kari Anne Roy endured a monthlong probe for letting her son, 6, play on a bench 150 feet away but visible from her porch, sparking complaints from a neighbor.
One of the best-known stories is that of New York journalist Lenore Skenazy, who inadvertently launched the "free-range" movement (she coined the term) when she wrote about letting her son, then 9, ride the subway alone after they'd practiced. Both hailed and battered for that decision, she's often takes calls from parents being investigated and even jailed for letting kids play outside alone or for leaving a child in a car long enough to pick up medicine.
Utah's child welfare statute will specify it is not neglect to let a child "whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm" walk or bike to places like school or stores and parks and pools, stay home alone or play outside or wait in the car (unless the latter specifically conflicts with a different Utah law).
"This bill really codifies what our actual practice is right now. We want kids to be kids and parents to be parents. We want kids to experience life. We want kids to have independent skills," says Diane Moore, director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, who notes the agency supported the law that was quickly signed by Gov. Gary Herbert.
Enacting common sense
Supporters say SB65 could inspire more freedom for kids and parents in other states, although it's not expected to create much change in Utah, where child welfare investigators already take the bill's prescribed common-sense approach, says Moore. Absent indications of abuse or neglect, the agency has not interfered when parents who give children some autonomy.
Not everyone agrees, though, as evidenced by the fact that people do report the parents of children seen playing or walking by themselves to authorities. And the point that people worry that just being alone makes children vulnerable was driven home further when a similar bill hit a wall in Arkansas a year ago. The bill sailed through the Arkansas Senate, but died after someone in a House committee hearing said it takes just 37 seconds to steal a child. While no documentation was offered to back that assertion, the bill died.
"Somehow, the precision of that number made it seem like that statement makes sense," says Skenazy, founder of Freerangekids.com and director of Let Grow, a national organization that encourages schools and parents to let kids tackle new age-appropriate tasks. "In fact, child abduction by a stranger is the rarest of crimes."
"If you're going to live your life by not allowing parents or kids to do anything that could rarely if ever hurt them, then you couldn't have a house with stairs. You certainly couldn't drive your kids anywhere, as that's the No. 1 way kids die, as car passengers," says Skenazy. "So we take away childhood and the freedom of parents to make rational decisions about their own kids' development."
In Utah, Moore says, when complaints come in from adults who think a child is too young for certain activities, her staff is trained to elicit more information to determine what calls really need investigating, as opposed to "I didn't let my kid do that and these parents shouldn't either."
Perhaps, she adds, there are other factors that the public didn't know in the highly publicized cases elsewhere. If there weren't, Utah would have left those families alone.
Calls alleging a child is unsupervised are a small percentage of Utah child welfare allegations. In 2016, the division investigated 60,460 allegations of abuse or neglect, of which 2,983 were related to supervision — but not necessarily that a child was outside playing or in a car or walking alone. They found 687 cases where children really might have had their safety at risk, Moore says. That's 1.1 percent of all abuse and neglect allegations investigated and 4 percent of the supported allegations.
In most cases where Utah took action because a child was unsupervised, other family problems existed, like parents with serious substance abuse issues that posed a risk, Moore says.
For Fillmore, clarifying definitions is a way of heading off potential problems. The wording of Utah's existing child welfare statute was similar to wording in other states. That raises the possibility that a change in division or state leadership could bring a different attitude to the question of child supervision and what constitutes neglect. Says Fillmore, "We decided to provide definitions — to define what neglect is not. It's not letting your kid walk to school. It's not letting them play at the park or go to the mall or ride a bus."
He adds, "It doesn't change real neglect."
The change is to child welfare law, not criminal law, but Moore says police seldom find neglect in cases where division investigations have not. They typically work together.
Perception and reality
A generation or two ago, no one questioned that kids should be outside, whether alone reading on the porch or playing kick ball in the cul-de-sac, says Susan G. Groner, author of "Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World." Founder of The Parenting Mentor, she remembers being allowed to ride the train from Connecticut and wander around New York when she was 14.
Hall, a stay-at-home mom in Midvale, Utah, avidly believes in sending the kids outside to play for their health and creativity, though they have to use the buddy system. But she, too, remembers walking to kindergarten when she was little and long days outside in the summer doing whatever caught her fancy.
The change is a sign of the times, says Fillmore. "The kinds of experiences you and I had where we could go to a vacant lot and play around or have a pickup game of Kick the Can, those things don't happen today, because we're too hyper-sensitive about safety," he laments. "Of course we should be concerned about safety, but it's safer than it was when we were kids. We don't need to be afraid to let children experience childhood."
Statistics back up the assertion. "Crime has dropped precipitously in the last quarter century," heralds the New York University Brennan Center for Justice. Violent crime is roughly half what it was in 1991.
That's true of crimes against children, too, including homicides, rapes and simple assaults, according to University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center. Skenazy notes the trend is not simply a result of helicoptering, a term often used to describe parents who hover over their children. "Crime is down for grown men and women too, and we don’t helicopter them."
But perception bucks reality. Year after year, Gallup polls find American adults think crime is increasing.
Most objections to unsupervised children are based on notions of "stranger danger," Skenazy says, "which is also looking in the exact wrong direction if you want to keep kids safe, as the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know."
She hopes other state legislatures will look at Utah's law and then read the cases she collected of parents who were arrested, their kids sometimes temporarily taken away for letting them play outside or walk to school or wait briefly in a car, she says. She wants them to delve into facts about crime rates, not faulty perception. "The idea these are dangerous activities is wrong," but these exceedingly rare cases make headlines, she acknowledges.
The cost of hovering
Hall knows something bad could happen, however remote the possibility. Her kids have a "safe" word and know not to go with those who might say she sent them, unless that word is used. She's discussed dangers and what she expects of daughter Cleo, 12, and sons Allan, 10, Spencer, 8, and Phoenix, 5.
She's more afraid, however, of the cost of having children who stay indoors and interact all day with TV and computer screens and video games. Couch potato kids are prone to being overweight and unhealthy, she says. And kids who aren't allowed to play and explore don't learn to think creatively, she adds.
While Groner doesn't like the phrase "free-range" because it's too open-ended, she applauds the notion of building resilience in kids and letting them grow.
"My gut reaction is how sad that we need to make laws about this," she says. "On two counts, really: We have to worry about other people judging us as parents. And that there has to be legislation now to allow my kids to walk to school or play outside."
The Utah law doesn't list precise ages at which children can do things. Neither does Groner. "Kids are so different" in their maturity and capability and interests, she says.
"Some kids are very responsible and others aren't. Some kids like to just look at birds and flowers and not pay attention to what's going on around them. As a parent, you have to know your own child," she says. "I suggest an imaginary leash. Every year, let it out a little that you're comfortable with. If needed, pull it in a little bit. By the time the child is in high school, the leash is really long. By the time a child is a senior in high school, he's basically good to go."
The goal is children who are self-reliant and can solve problems, "instead of looking at the role of a parent as engineering their child to get into a good college which in many ways is what I think it is now. Make the goal to raise resilient and self-reliant young adults with good problem-solving skills and mechanisms," Groner says.
Hovering prevents that. That's a prime complaint of those who say kids have to be allowed to do some things independently, including being outside. Groner says years ago she and her husband decided to get out of the "rescue business" and make their kids take responsibility for themselves in certain ways. They don't wake up older kids for class, a task the kid can handle. If a child forgets a book or assignment, they commiserate, but don't rush to drop it off, figuring the child will remember next time. They also let their kids try things that might be a mistake, but provide valuable life lessons.
"My kids are really independent," Groner notes, crediting it to the fact they grew up with permission to explore and try new things and develop skills that serve them well as adults.