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.
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 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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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. 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, religious upbringing, medical care, parental decisions about where to live, and in custody and visitation matters,  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. 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.  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.
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. 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.
The Supreme Court has said that the Bill of Rights is not for adults alone. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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].
BUT GUIDELINES RECOGNIZING CHILD DEVELOPMENT AGE-RANGES CAN HELP PARENTS AND PROFESSIONALS MAKE GOOD JUDGMENTS
As Let Grow advocates for changes in laws and policies to protect the right to reasonable childhood independence, we often encounter the well-intended suggestion that this right should be granted — but only to children above a certain age. Usually, the suggested age is much higher than we know many children could manage. (See this story of Amazing Hero Kids, including the 5-year-old who ran back into his home to save seven family members.)
Because we firmly believe parents know their own children best, and because the circumstances for giving independence vary wildly by geography, weather, the activity involved, the child’s preparation, whether the child is engaging in the activity alone or with others, and because all of these parameters can’t be laid out in a neat set of boundaries, we oppose legislating age limits in both laws and policies.
What we favor is guidance to help parents judge for themselves when their children are ready for more independence, whether that’s crossing the street alone, watching a younger sibling, or camping for the weekend with a bunch of friends.
These are the many policy reasons we do not favor age limits written into law or policy:
In summary: Any age limit is likely to create a problem of over-inclusion of children who are capable of independence and possible under-inclusion of children who are not yet able to exercise independence.
Let Grow sees age limits stated in statute or regulation as double-edged swords that can harm parents, hinder child welfare professionals, and stunt children ready for some independence. However, we have no objection to states providing guidance about age ranges, based on sound children development research.
Finally, a deeper look into the inapplicability of age limits and the harm caused to parents when such limits were applied is documented in a 2015 report of the Family Defense Center: “When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone.” It found that age easily is used by caseworkers as a proxy for child neglect when a fuller assessment is called for. Indeed, the Illinois Appellate Court overruled the child welfare department in several cases where the caseworkers used age in place of a fuller and more nuanced assessment of a child’s maturity and other factors.
As an example, in Ghosh v. DCFS, 2014 Ill. App. 131099 (Ill. App. Ct. 2014), the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that, in inadequate supervision cases, parents cannot be indicated (charged with neglect) solely on the basis of their children’s age, nor should a neglect finding be based on speculation as to what might have happened to the children during the time they were left without an adult’s care. The case was reported upon by the Washington Post as an example of the need for situation-based child protection decision making that recognizes parents’ knowledge of their children’s capabilities.
LET GROW’S STATE-BY-STATE AGE LIMIT REVIEW
After reviewing the Washington Post’s piece latchkey kids’ age restrictions by state as a starting point, we went back to our own 50-state survey data to look for any age limit information we had not previously reported on our state policy maps, or included in the two-part article (here and here) by Let Grow’s legal consultant, Diane Redleaf, in the American Bar Association’s Children’s Rights Litigation Journal.
We reviewed both criminal and children’s code/neglect law provisions. But our review also oftentimes found policy guidance as well, which are denoted in the maps by broken lines in a green (liberal) or red (restrictive) colors to the maps.
As we have reviewed state policies, we coded the states in the following way for further study/review.
*= State has a rleatively low age for any for form of childhood independence.
** =State has high age for any form of childhood independence, creating unreasonable chilling effect on safe activities.
& = We note where states have policies that mirror ones what Let Grow tends to favor. These policies suggest deference to the sound judgment of parents who know the child best, but also provide protection against dangerous and unreasonable parental judgments.
? = This is curious! This state’s policies give some further ideas as to the complexity of setting an age limit.
Alabama—Sets a limit of 16 to engage in a dangerous occupation under Alabama’s criminal code.
Alaska—Defines, as second-degree endangerment, providing negligent care of any child under 10, but at the same time states that 12 is the legal age to babysit under the criminal code. State policy on the neglect side (in policy not statute) includes some of the language deferring to the “sound judgment of the parent depending on age and development of the child.”
Arizona—Endangerment statute applies to children under 16. Neglect policy sets forth a “present danger” standard for children left alone unsupervised.
Arkansas—No age reference.
*California—Kids under 6 can’t be left alone in a car with keys in the ignition (criminal provision only).
**Connecticut—12 is the age at which children can be left alone without parents facing criminal endangerment. Administrative guidelines of child welfare agency say 12 is the age for being alone and 15 is the age at which a child can care for a sibling.
Delaware—No age reference.
*Florida—It is a criminal offense for a child under 6 to be in a car alone for more than 15 minutes. Neglect law is much more open ended/less prescriptive—uses “age and maturity” conditions without setting age limits.
? Georgia—While the Georgia law itself has no specificity about when a child can be alone to avoid a neglect finding and it has no child endangerment law on the criminal side (just “regular” criminal law), administrative guidance states:
1. Children (8) eight years or younger should not be left alone
2. Children between the ages of (9) nine years and (12) twelve years, based on level of maturity, may be left alone for brief (less than two hours) periods of time
3. Children (13) thirteen years and older, who are at an adequate level of maturity, may be left alone and may perform the role of babysitter, as authorized by the parent, for up to twelve hours. This is in a DFCS Lack of Supervision Guideline.
Let Grow views this Georgia guidance as somewhat positive because it gave some permission for children 9 and up to be alone for two hours and avoid neglect charges. This at least does help parents. At the same time, the guidance as to children 8 and under could be read too strictly as prohibiting 8-year-olds from ever being alone, including walking the dog or walking to school or being home alone for an hour. In one Georgia case we have written about, a child age 7 who was stopped repeatedly for riding his bike home two blocks from swim team at the YMCA. He had older siblings who biked ahead of him and when he stopped for a cookie at the grocery store on the way, police were called.
**Hawaii—Criminal law prohibits child under 9 from being left in a car for more than 5 minutes unless someone over 12 is with them. Open ended lack of supervision law in the children’s code.
Idaho—Vague statute on both sides, no age limits.
? Illinois—Widely cited for having a 14-age limit saying children can’t be alone below the age of 1, but this is false—14 is an upper boundary for prosecution for neglect and not a prohibition on being alone if under 14. Illinois policy has extensive factors with a lot of good detail with examples and could be a model for policy development as it has specific categories worked out in negotiated litigation settlement.
Indiana—No age limit but poorly written policy suggests children left alone at any age can be subject to neglect findings regardless of any failing by their parent. Not a model to look at—except as to what to avoid (policy language is hard to understand too).
& Iowa—Expressly has a policy that says it does not have an age limit because “every case is unique.” Iowa could be giving more guidance on the factors to be considered though.
Kansas—Criminal law can reach any child under 18 (generally). We have viewed Kansas as one of the best states for independence (along with Utah, Oklahoma and Texas, which have legislation to protect childhood independence. This finding is based on this explicit policy of the agency: Kan.Stat. Ann. § 38-2223 DCF guidelines state: ” Young children from 0-6 years should not be left alone for even short periods of time. Children 6-9 years should be left for only short periods, depending on their level of maturity. The factors to follow should also be considered. Children 10 and above probably can be left for somewhat longer periods, again dependent upon the other factors.”
See this model policy document for factors as to how to tell if lack of supervision is neglect: http://www.dcf.ks.gov/services/pps/documents/ppm_forms/appendices/appendix_1b.pdf . Kansas also has a reasonable and prudent parent definition in its Juvenile Justice Code, Article 23, 38-2302(x)(as to many other states).
Kentucky—Has a broad and vague neglect law, and criminalizes leaving any child alone in a car if they are under 8 if the child dies due to “extreme indifference.”
Louisiana—Criminalizes leaving a child under 6 alone in a car with “alone” defined as the driver/caretaker being more than 10 feet away. No age in the neglect law which itself is fairly vague.
**Maryland—Criminalizes leaving a child under 8 alone for any period of time. Policy document states that children under 13 can’t be left unattended under neglect law because children of “any age” can get hurt. This was the worst policy we found. It is absolutely contrary to the goal of independence for kids.
**Massachusetts—Makes it neglect to leave a child under 10 alone under an interpretation of its abandonment law.
**Michigan—Vague neglect law. Policy statements are in conflict—some say children under 10 can’t be alone while others apply factors to the determination. Prohibits children under 13 from being in cars alone for “unreasonable time” under criminal law.
& and ? –Minnesota—The statutes are vague but Minnesota has better-than-average guidelines for screening cases in or out which provide:
• 7 and under who are left alone for any period of time
• 8-10 who are left alone for more than three hours
• 11-13 who are left alone for more than 12 hours
• 14-15 who are left alone for more than 24 hours
• 16-17 may be left alone for more than 24 hours with a plan in place concerning how to
respond to an emergency. [Also, guidelines for babysitting:]
• Under age 11 should not provide child care
• Ages 11-15 who are placed in a child care role are subject to the same time restrictions of being left alone as listed above
• Ages 16-17 may be left alone for more than 24 hours with adequate adult back up supervision. https://edocs.dhs.state.mn.us/lfserver/Public/DHS-5144-ENG
Note that screen in and out criteria within age ranges seem like an interesting approach that may allow for more nuanced judgments.
Mississippi—Vague law both criminal and civil/children’s code.
& and ? Montana—Makes lack of supervision both a criminal and civil/children’s code violation without limit. But at the same time, Montana has a nice policy statement: “There is no magic age when children develop the maturity and good sense they need to stay home alone. Mature children in a neighborhood with several adult friends nearby may be all right alone for a few hours. For younger children, one hour may be too long. YOU need to decide if the time alone is too much, based on your child and your situation.” From Child Supervision Flyer https://dphhs.mt.gov/Portals/85/cfsd/documents/CANpubs/3isyourchildreadytobehomealone.pdf
Nebraska—Broad and vague definitions except it is a crime to leave kid under six in a car.
& ? Nevada—No age limit. Our review found Nevada had a punitive criminal law and a vague civil/children’s code law. Nevada has a law saying no children alone in cars under 7 unless with someone over 12. The policy defines lack of supervision as the child has been placed in a situation or circumstances which are likely to require judgment or actions greater than the child’s level of maturity, physical condition, and/or mental abilities would reasonably dictate (policy at http://dcfs.nv.gov/uploadedFiles/dcfsnvgov/content/Policies/CW/Guidelines_for_substantiating_Final_9_20_18.pdf )
New Hampshire—The law itself has no age limits but it has a very detailed policy on lack of supervision–no specific age limits in it (which is good) but its policy gives broad discretion to find circumstances present to make a neglect finding. None of the criteria are per se objectionable though–they do tend to focus on danger and other good reason for concern why a child might not be left alone. An outdated policy was referenced during our review which suggests 10 is an age at which children can be alone but that policy was not located and it appears there is no specific law.
New Jersey—Criminalizes any abuse or neglect without clear definitions of either. No age limits.
New Mexico—Vague law, no age limits.
New York—Has an upper boundary of 18 years old for criminal charges of lack of “reasonable diligence”; New York has a policy which notes that a caregiver can be present and engage in inadequate supervision by allowing child to be near “dangerous objects.” It also has a policy against leaving any children in a car alone—it’s unclear if there is any upper age on when it is OK.
North Carolina—Does criminalize leaving a child 8 or under alone at home essentially under any circumstances due to fear of fire danger. It has automatic reporting of all children under 6 found home alone and otherwise has a long list of factors to be considered as to whether children alone are neglected as a matter of policy.
& ? North Dakota—The criminal law and neglect/children code law are vague, but we did find the policy that the Washington Post relied on and we actually viewed it positively: we found a pamphlet that states:
Ohio—Vague laws, no age limits.
*&? Oklahoma—Oklahoma had a liberal policy on on age even BEFORE it passed its Reasonable Childhood Independence law in 2021. It has had a liberal criminal law that limited children under six from being in a car alone if there were dangerous weather conditions. Its neglect law is vague but is being amended to include reasonable independence activities as not neglect without setting any age limits. The relatively liberal policy guidance provides that “infants and children under 6 years of age should never be left alone without adult supervision. Generally, grade school children who demonstrate the ability to be responsible and mature may be left alone one or two hours during the day with access to a responsible adult.” http://www.okdhs.org/OKDHS%20Publication%20Library/03-24.pdf#search=Child%20Protective%20Services
**Oregon—Criminalizes leaving a child under 10 alone under circumstances that “will endanger” them (vague). Note that Oregon is one of only four states that have laws with age limits not just policies/recommendations, according to the Washington Post so even here, looking at criminal statute, this is not an “absolute” age limit.
Pennsylvania—Has a very open-ended criminal and a vague abuse law (which includes neglect in its actual operations though doesn’t call it neglect per se) that could reach any child under 18 who lacks care.
Rhode Island—Had legislation pending in 2020 on making it a crime to allow a child under 7 to be in a car alone. There are no age limits in the children’s/neglect code.
South Carolina—Has a typical broad and vague law. This is a state where Let Grow is active but was derailed temporarily due to Covid. An age limit of 9 was initially proposed in 2019 as a “friendly amendment” to a bill that was passed in the subcommittee. However that amendment was rejected in committee and sent back to subcommittee. A 9-year-old gave very compelling testified before the full committee about how an age limit in the bill would have stopped him from playing outside with his younger siblings and how sad that would make him.
South Dakota—No age limits in policy.
Tennessee—Criminalizes knowing exposure of a child under 8 to danger if it results in injury, criminalizes leaving a child under 7 in a car.
Texas—Criminal law is like Illinois’s juvenile law—makes 14 the age at which parents can be prosecuted for endangering them. Despite a very similar law to Illinois, Texas has not been labelled a state that criminalizes independence as Illinois has been labelled (unfairly, actually as Illinois law on independence is quite liberal). Texas passed its Reasonable Childhood Independence law in May 2021 (through passage of HB 567).
Utah—Has a broad criminal law that wasn’t changed when the “Free-Range Parenting Law” passed. There is no age limit on reasonable independence in the “Free-Range”/Reasonable Childhood Independence” law that passed in Utah in 2018.
Let Grow welcomes additions and corrections to this summary of state policies.
For questions or discussion, contact Diane Redleaf, Let Grow Legal Consultant: [email protected]
Let Grow’s Analysis of the findings from the Washington Post article.
|State||Age||Notes from Let Grow’s analysis of law and policy|
|Colorado||12||Let Grow found this provision was in the state labor law not neglect or criminal law. Listed as a “recommendation” in the Washington Post survey.|
|Delaware||12||Listed as a “recommendation” in the Washington Post survey; Let Grow’s review did not locate this policy.|
|Georgia||8||This is in policy of Georgia, not text of the law, called a “recommendation” by Washington Post survey.|
|Illinois||14||This is not actually correct it is a misinterpretation. Fourteen is a ceiling on prosecutions (can’t prosecute parents with kids older than 14), and not an age limit|
|Kansas||6||Policy allows children 6-9 to be alone for limited times– a “recommendation.”|
|Maryland||8||Let Grow found another statement for Maryland that made it neglect to be alone when under 13.|
|Michigan||11||Let Grow didn’t find this policy. Our review for Michigan says has an age limit of 10—listed as a “recommendation.”|
|Mississippi||12||The source is a University web site, cannot be verified. Let Grow did not locate an age-limit “recommendation.”|
|New Mexico||10||We could not verify this policy.|
|North Carolina||8||This is included in North Carolina law.|
|Oregon||10||Included in the law but see note on Let Grow’s of this point in its review of the law|
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