The Dangers of Free-Range Parenting

There are dangers now in allowing our children to play outside unattended. Neighbors may call the police because your school-aged children are walking alone to the park or the local bakery. It started in Maryland in April 2015. A couple decided to allow their children, ages 10 and 6, to play at the local park unsupervised. The police responded to the call and the parents began a fight with Child Protective Services (“CPS”). The news media dubbed them “free-range” parents. Maryland law at the time prohibited children younger than eight years old from being left unattended in a dwelling or car but did not reference young children playing outdoors. The parents appealed the findings of unsubstantiated neglect by CPS. In June of 2015, CPS cleared the parents and closed the case. In an email responding to requests for comments, DHR spokeswoman Paula Tolson said, “A child playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.”

The search for parents arrested for allowing their children to play outside unattended, walk the family dog alone, or walk to the neighbor grocery store resulted in more than ten pages of results across the nation. With this trend to accuse parents of neglect for allowing their children to play outside unattended, we are quickly becoming a nation where are children are not free to play as children and grow from their mistakes. But what can you do as parent, who wants their child to be able to play outside without constant supervision?

First, know the laws of your state. In Michigan, child neglect is defined under MCL 722.622(k) as “harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare by a parent, legal guardian, or any other person responsible for the child’s health or welfare.” The law further clarifies that this can occur by either failing though financially able to do so or failing to seek financial or other reasonable means, to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or medical care. The also says that neglect can occur if the child is placed in an unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare when the responsible person failed to intervene to eliminate the risk or has or should have knowledge of the risk. While Michigan does not say that children playing outside unsupervised places them at an unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare, a parent must assess the known or reasonable scenarios that can arise from allowing your child to play outside unsupervised. Some obvious risks of harm include crossing streets, darting onto a busy street to chase a ball or other object, known criminal activity in the area, or traffic flow through residential neighborhoods.

Second, determine what is safe for your child to be able to play outside and teach your child from a young age what to do. While it is not advisable to allow a toddler to play outside unattended, consider allowing the child to play in their own yard with brief moments of running into the house while keeping an eye on the child to retrieve a glass of water or a toy. Stress the importance of not darting into streets or blindly walking across the street. Teach your child to never leave with a stranger even if they were told that you sent them. This should include anyone in uniform. Provide your child with a means to communicate easily with you, such as a cell phone. Consider sending an older child with your child to watch them. However, what is a suitable age to supervise another child, babysit should be followed. In Michigan, CPS recommends that a child as young as ten years old can be left home alone and there is no law saying how young a babysitter must be. It is decision that each parent needs to make. Jeanne Hannah, an family law attorney in Traverse City has written, “The State of Michigan Child Protection Handbook discusses ‘Improper Supervision’ and states: ‘According to the Child Protection Law, there is no legal age that a child can be left home alone. It is determined on a case by case basis but as a rule of thumb, a child 10 years old and younger is not responsible enough to be left home alone. A child over the age of 10 and under the age of 12 will be evaluated but the case may not always be assigned for a CPS investigation.’”

Finally, do not allow your children the age of ten to play outside without some type of supervision. For your children over age of 10 and under the age of 12, be cautious about what they can do outside without supervision. For children over the age of 12, encourage them to put down the remote controller to their favorite video game and go outside and play. If your child loves video games, consider starting a neighborhood live action role play group. This allows the children to dress up as their favorite video game character and play the game with other children. Of course, restrict the live action role play to non-violent video games. Start a neighbor football game, basketball, or baseball game. If your child loves to skateboard or do tricks on a bike, consider building an area that allows them to practice.

If you have encouraged your child to go outside and play, then find CPS knocking at your door. First, you do not need to let them in your house without a warrant. Often, they will be accompanied by a police officer, but they either need a warrant or your consent to enter your home. Second, be polite and respectful. Third, inform the worker that you would be happy to schedule an appointment to speak with them with your attorney present. Then immediately call an attorney knowledgeable in the child protective laws to be your voice. If you need an attorney, we can help you find one.

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