Let Grow Legislative Toolkit

Get tools and resources to advance the childhood independence movement.

Let Grow leads the movement for childhood independence. We mobilize support for policies that allow kids to grow up resourceful and resilient, including “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws. Utah passed the first one in 2018. Now several more states are considering it. If you want to ensure that giving kids some independence is legal in your state, the advocacy resources in this tool kit should help. Good luck!

Let Grow Legislative Toolkit
1. Model Bills

Any of these three model bills can be modified. Click here.

2. Map of State Neglect Laws

There are actually two maps—one for criminal laws, one for child protective laws. Click here to see both.

3. Sample Testimony and Template

Testimony in favor of a “Reasonable Childhood Independence” law can come from parents, experts (doctors, teachers, psychologists), even kids. For samples of each, and an easy-to-use “Testimony Template,” click here.

4. Endorsements

Politicians, professors, and pundits have all endorsed the idea of guaranteeing parents the right to loosen the leash a little. Click here to read what they have to say.

5. Printable Fact Sheets and Flyers

These are copyright-free flyers explaining the need for a Reasonable Childhood Independence Bill. Feel free to print, modify and share, online or off.

Let Our Kids Play flyer

Let Our Kids Grow flyer

6. Stories from Parents

Some good, caring parents have been arrested or investigated for giving their kids—by choice or by necessity—a bit of freedom. These three quick stories exemplify why the law should guarantee parents the right to give their kids some reasonable freedom.

Kari Anne Roy, Texas

Mom Kari Anne Roy’s 6-year-old was playing outside for about 10 minutes when a woman saw him and marched him home, 150 feet away. Shortly afterward, Roy’s doorbell rang again. It was the police. They interrogated her and asked for I.D. A week later, Child Protective Services came to the house and interviewed each of Roy’s three children separately, without their parents, asking the 12-year-old if he had ever done drugs, and the 8-year-old girl if she had seen movies with people’s private parts – something she’d never even heard of.

Debra Harrell, South Carolina

For three days over summer vacation in 2014, Debra Harrell let her 9-year-old play at the popular local sprinkler playground while she worked her shift at McDonald’s nearby. A woman at the park asked the girl where her mom was, and upon learning she was at work, called 911. The police threw the mom in jail overnight. She lost custody of her daughter for 17 days. Despite public outcry, it took over two years before the charges were dropped.

Natasha Felix, Illinois

Natasha Felix was cited for neglect after she let three children, aged 5, 9, and 11, play in the park next to her home, where she could see them from her window. She checked on them every 10 minutes, but a passerby thought the kids were unsupervised, and called the Department of Children and Family Services Hotline. “These were not kids being left in a crack house with no food,” said Felix’s attorney, Diane Redleaf, who is now Let Grow’s legal consultant. It took two years but a state appellate court finally overturned the finding of neglect against Natasha.  

9. Arguments for the Bill

Independence is a critical part of growing up. Kids who have some free time and space get the chance to think creatively, solve problems, and discover their interests. Here are five arguments for the bill that says childhood independence shouldn’t be criminalized:

Independence boosts children’s mental health.

As children lost the opportunity to play and explore on their own, childhood anxiety and depression have gone up. Correlation is not causation, but Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford, says, “Recent studies suggest that kids with…rigidly structured childhoods suffer psychological blowback.” Meantime, there has been a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years.

Learn more: The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders (Psychology Today)

Independence builds children’s resilience.

Young people can’t learn how to solve problems if adults are always right there, solving them first. Kids need the chance to explore, goof up, grow resilient. “Kids taking risks grow from those,” says NYU Prof. Jonathan Haidt.

Learn more: The Fragile Generation (Reason)

Reasonable Childhood Independence and Free-Range Parenting laws help working families.

When helicopter parenting becomes the only legal way to parent, we all lose—but especially those who, by necessity, must trust their kids with more independence. For instance, South Carolina mom Debra Harrell had her daughter, 9, taken away for two weeks, simply because she let her play in the park while she worked her daytime shift at nearby McDonald’s. No decent parent, rich or poor, should be second-guessed by the state.

Learn more: The Abuse of Child Abuse Hotlines (New York Daily News)

Reasonable Childhood Independence and Free-Range Parenting laws help Child Protective Services.

Child Protective Services departments are stretched so thin that in California, for instance, half of all case workers quit their jobs within three years. The best way to keep social workers on the job is by making sure they spend their time investigating cases worth focusing on. This is also the best way to make sure that children who really need help are taken care of.

Learn more: What Does Utah’s Free-Range Parenting Law Mean To You? (Deseret News)

Children are safer today than they have been in years.

Some argue that kids need laws to protect them from a dangerous world. In fact, crime rates are the same now as they were in 1960. In recent years, crime rates peaked in 1993, and have declined 71% since then. Explore the Let Grow Crime Statistics page for more.

Learn more: There’s Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Child in America (Washington Post)

10. Contact Us / Get Involved

Want to help get a Reasonable Independence Law passed in your state? Or maybe you have a question? Contact us using the form below!

11. Constitutional Rights of Parents

Take It from the United States Supreme Court:

Parents Have the Constitutional Right to Allow Their Children Reasonable Independence

The Constitution as a Source for “Reasonable Independence” Laws & Policies

State laws and policies are not the final say on what is legal and what is protected conduct. In our legal system, the ultimate law of the land is the United States Constitution, which is ultimately subject to interpretation by the United States Supreme Court. Laws that tread on the fundamental rights of parents may tread on constitutional liberties. Constitutional cases support the Let Grow proposals to narrow neglect laws so as to protect children’s and parents’ basic rights.

Parents Have the Constitutional Right to Raise Their Children. Starting in the 1920s, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that the right of parents to raise their children is fundamental.[1] This means that “fit parents” are allowed to make essential decisions about their own children’s wellbeing and can’t be second-guessed by government officials, including police and child protection authorities, without a compelling state justification.

Starting with rights in education,[2] religious upbringing,[3] medical care,[4] parental decisions about where to live, and in custody and visitation matters, [5] as well as in questions about liability for children’s actions, our courts have deferred to parental judgment, and consider parents’ rights to make these decisions to be basic to the constitutional system. State and federal courts have stopped non-parents from intervening against the wishes of parents to direct how children should be raised when their views run contrary to the decisions of parents.[6] In our legal system, there is what is called a “presumption” in favor of fit parents: they are the ones who get to decide if their children are ready and able to assume some independence. [7] To take away that presumption, the burden is on the State to show the parent is unfit. Such “unfitness” can be due to abuse or neglect of the child, for example, but to cause a lawful limitation on a parent’s rights, the State must obtain and present evidence against the parent.

The view that children would be “better off” if the parents made a different decision isn’t the legal standard for decisions about family life in either our federal or state court decisions.[8]

Indeed, as a matter of constitutional rights, parents can’t even be told by a court that they must allow a child’s grandparents to have visits with their child, except if there is first a showing that the parent is “unfit.” In Troxel v. Granville, the Supreme Court declared that the right of the parents to direct who their children visit is constitutionally protected.[9] Fit parents get to decide what is best for their children, regardless of what another person, including a court, might think is “best.” This means that state legislatures, administrative agencies (i.e. caseworkers and police), and courts cannot not take away the parents’ decision-making authority just because they think it’s best for the kids. Laws and policies that authorize such limits on parental decision making arguably infringe the family’s fundamental rights, protected by the due process clause of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution.

What About the Kids’ Rights?

The Supreme Court has said that the Bill of Rights is not for adults alone.[10] But paternalism toward children has a long legal tradition too. Under a doctrine known as “parens patriae,” the State has the right to intervene to protect children from harm, including harm by their parents. Precisely where the limits on State authority lie is a question that has been tested in many constitutional cases. Among the constitutional rights that children have is the right not to be seized from their parents for no reason – a right protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[11] When children’s interests are aligned with the parents, it’s clear that the State has no business telling the parents how to raise their children—it’s in the interests of children to let their parents raise them. But in the face of a conflict between children’s interests and parents’ interests, usually it’s the parent who gets to decide. For example, parents had the right to have their child committed to a mental health facility even over the objection of the child.[12] A child who is enrolled in a school they don’t like doesn’t get to decide to go somewhere else. Parents can send children to summer camps even if their kids hate the outdoors.

If this is what the Constitution says, why do we need new laws and policies?

While parents have the right to raise their children, states and local governments sometimes adopt laws or policies that fail to respect these rights. Or sometimes there is a disagreement about whether parents who make decisions on behalf of their children are abusive or neglectful, and investigations might start in which the question arises as to whether a parent’s conduct crosses the line into abuse or neglect. Practices and customs sometimes have developed that limit parents’ and children’s rights, including practices by police and child protection authorities, even when the law protects parents’ rights. Sometimes, police and child protection authorities assume they have power and authority to decide questions about parenting when the law they claim to be acting on isn’t clear.
That’s why Let Grow advocates for laws that are more specific and spell out the right of families to let their children have reasonable independence.

What If Your Constitutional Rights Are Being Violated?

If you believe that you are within your constitutional rights to decide whether your child can play outside, run an errand, be alone inside or do an activity that is challenging, you might be correct and the person telling you that you don’t have this right might well be wrong! Lawyers can help families know and enforce their rights. Because there is a lot of misinformation, there may be some bad laws that could even be found unconstitutional if tested in the courts. Or sometimes the law doesn’t clearly answer the question at hand.
At Let Grow, we believe that parents’ and children’s rights to reasonable independence are almost always aligned, making the case for reasonable independence powerful and legally compelling. The justifications for restricting parents’ rights to let their children, for instance, play outside alone when the parent reasonably judges that the child is safe and there are no obvious dangers – those justifications are not just not compelling. They may not even be rational.

Governmental action that stops children from exercising independence, from doing reasonable chores in the house, from learning new skills that are age-appropriate and build competence is not just bad policy, it might be unconstitutional.

NOTE:

Let Grow can sometimes help parents who want to give their kids more independence. If you have a specific case in which you would like to discuss whether a law, policy, or practice of your state or local government or school is constitutional, you may request a free, one-hour consultation with Let Grow’s legal consultant by emailing [email protected].

[1] Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 321 U.S,158 (1944)
[2] See n. 1
[3] Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)
[4] Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1979)
[5] Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972)
[6] See e.g., Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)
[7] Stanley v. Illinois, n. 5 above.
[8] Quilloin v. Wolcott,434 U.S. 246 (1978)
[9] Troxel v. Granville, n. 6 above.
[10] In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)
[11] See, e.g., Hernandez v. Foster, 657 F. 3d 463(7th Cir. 2011).
[12] In Parham v. J.R., n. 4 above.

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