Oklahoma “Reasonable Childhood Independence Bill” Signed into Law!

Oklahoma’s kids can do cartwheels – literally. No one is going to investigate their parents just for letting them play outside. A bill promoting greater childhood independence and protecting parental rights was signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday.

This is the second bill in the United States to affirm Let Grow’s foundational belief that children have the right to some unsupervised time, and parents have the right to give it to them without running afoul of the law. It is a law that has been championed and promoted by Let Grow since our inception — and we are thrilled that it is now the law of the land in Oklahoma.

House Bill 2565, sponsored by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, modifies the definition of neglect in the Oklahoma Children’s Code, ensuring that parents can permit a child “of sufficient age and maturity” to engage in independent activities like playing outside, walking to school, or staying home alone for a bit, without the threat of being accused of child abuse or neglect.

Neglect is bad for kids. So is overprotecting them.

“This is about using commonsense and keeping the necessary protections to make sure that kids are safe, while also allowing them to be kids,” Caldwell said. “You can endanger children by being neglectful, obviously. But you can also endanger them by being overprotective and limiting their experiences.” He sponsored the bill to make sure kids have the chance to develop the “coping skills they need to overcome ordinary, everyday hardships.”

Jacob Rosecrants, D.-Norman, co-sponsored the legislation – and in fact had independently drafted a very similar bill he set aside to support this one. Like Caldwell, he didn’t want constituents to feel they had to be “helicopter parents,” or worry that their rational parenting decisions could be second-guessed by the authorities.

“I have known Oklahoma parents who have gotten caught up in the system for nothing more than allowing their kids to go to the park a few blocks away,” Rosecrants said. Eventually those parents were not found guilty of neglect. “But think about the time and effort it took to put somebody on that case,” Rosecrants said. This bill will help parents, he said, but it will also help child protective services, by more clearly delineating the cases they have no obligation to investigate, leaving them more time to deal with serious infractions.

Actual child neglect is still against the law — obviously.

Rep. Caldwell added that of course, parents are still required to protect their children from harms that would be obvious to any reasonable person — just not harms that were “speculative” or improbable. (New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled the same thing a few years back: Speculating about horrible, unlikely outcomes is not the same as exposing a child to real danger.)

The law was inspired by Utah’s so-called Free-Range Kids bill passed in 2018.

“Let’s hear it for Oklahoma – the second state in the country to recognize how important it is for kids to be out and about before they reach voting age! At Let Grow we are thrilled that kids there can have a childhood that isn’t under constant adult supervision,” said our organization’s president, Lenore Skenazy. She added that, “Sometimes I ask audiences, ‘What was your favorite thing to do as a child?’ And then I pause and say, ‘Okay , raise your hand if your mother was right there with you.’” She does not see a lot of hands being raised.

Under new law, poverty itself won’t be mistaken for neglect

Diane Redleaf, Let Grow’s legal consultant, added that the bill is a “model law in significant ways,” including the fact it clarifies that “evidence of material, educational or cultural disadvantage” doesn’t establish a child is neglected. In other words, Redleaf said, “Poverty is not neglect.”

The newly-passed law also tightens the prior definition of neglect to state that it only occurs when parents disregard obvious dangers any “reasonable and prudent parent” would recognize as threatening harm to the child. 

HB 2565 passed the Oklahoma House on March 3, 2021 with a vote of 91-1. In the Senate, the measure was sponsored by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville and it passed there on April 28, 2021 with a vote of 86-2.

Caldwell is happy to have the law on the books. “I had a House member come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for running that bill. I was a divorced parent and I was so afraid that just because I let my children play outside my ex was going to call the police and claim that I was a bad parent. I wish this had been the law back then.’”