Are you a neglectful parent if you leave your child alone in the car when you run into a grocery store? How about letting your little one walk to school alone?
In many states, you can be prosecuted for such activities, but not in Utah. At least not as of May.
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed into law earlier this month a bill that is being called the country's first "free-range parenting" bill. The bill amends certain activities previously considered negligent in the state's legal definition of child neglect. Activities such as letting a child "walk, run or bike to and from school," or "remain home unattended" are addressed in the new language of the law.
The law does say children must be of “sufficient age,” but does not spell out what that age is.
“Absence evidence of clear danger, abuse or neglect, we believe that parents have the best sense of how to teach responsibility to their children” Herbert said in a statement.
What is “free-range parenting?” Here is some background.
What is it?
Free-range parenting defines a way of child rearing that encourages independence and less parental supervision. It encourages age-appropriate freedoms, such as playing outside without supervision and walking to school or stores.
How did it start?
While the movement's origins can be traced back decades to pediatrician Benjamin Spock, the most recent iteration is linked to a column written by Lenore Skenazy, a New York mother and television host. Skenazy wrote about allowing her 9-year-old to make his way home from Bloomingdale's in New York City by himself on the New York subway system. Skenazy was roundly criticized – some called her the worst mother in the United States – after she left her son in the department store with $20 and instructions on how to use public transit to get home.
Skenazy's column and its criticism led to the book, "Free-Range Kids." She is the president of letgrow.org, a website that advocates for the end of "the culture of overprotection" of children.
What does the Utah law mean for parents?
The bill signed into law in Utah is more a rewriting of the definitions of what constitutes child neglect in the state. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore added and deleted language in existing law to allow parents to give children more freedom without being concerned about being charged with child neglect.
The law permits a child “whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities, including: (A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling; (B) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; (C) engaging in outdoor play; (D) remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under the conditions described in 323 Subsection 76-10-2202(2); (E) remaining at home unattended; or (F) engaging in a similar independent activity.”
“Kids need to wonder about the world, explore and play in it, and by doing so learn the skills of self-reliance and problem-solving they’ll need as adults," Fillmore said.
Any other states considering such laws?
Utah is the only state that has passed a "free-range parenting" law. Arkansas legislators tried to pass a similar bill in 2017, but it died in the state's House of Representatives.
Other states legislators have talked about such bills, particularly after a Silver Spring, Maryland, couple was investigated by child protective services after allowing their 10- and-6-year-old children to walk home alone from a park in 2015.
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