Utah lawmakers OK bill legalizing free-range parenting

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Free-range parenting is a modern buzzword for families aiming to raise self-sufficient kids, but how much freedom at what age remains a fierce debate.

Now, a Utah lawmaker wants to make sure moms and dads don’t find themselves under investigation for allowing mature kids with good judgment to do things alone such as travel to school, explore a playground or stay in their parents’ car.

A panel of state lawmakers unanimously approved the proposal Tuesday, advancing it to the full Senate for a vote. SB65, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would revise state law to say it isn’t neglect to let children do those things alone if they are otherwise well cared for.

Fillmore said allowing kids to try things alone helps prepare them for the future.

“We’ve become so helicopter-ish as parents, and as society expecting parents to be that way, that we are kind of robbing children of some of the joys of childhood,” he said.

Some question whether the measure is needed. Utah authorities don’t want to micromanage parents, but leaving kids to fend for themselves is sometimes dangerous, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

“Right now, parents have pretty much all the liberty they need to parent as they see fit,” Gill said.

If such a law isn’t worded carefully, it could become a defense for parents in child abuse cases, he said.

“We want to be careful this … doesn’t comprise our ability as prosecutors to hold abusive parents accountable,” Gill said.

Fillmore said his proposal addresses those concerns by specifying that kids must be mature enough to take on the activities without hurting themselves. The bill doesn’t give specific ages, which would allow police and prosecutors to handle things on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Parents in other states have been investigated and some saw their children temporarily removed after people reported children doing things like playing basketball in their yards or walking to school alone, Fillmore said, adding that he’s not aware of any similar cases in Utah.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she’s glad people report unsupervised children, though she acknowledged the official responses may have been overzealous.

The founder of the free-range movement said Utah would be a first in the country to pass such a law if Fillmore’s bill advances.

“It’s necessary, because at this point we have to reassure parents they get to decide when their kids are ready to have a little freedom,” said Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book “Free Range Kids” after an overwhelming response to her column about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone.

Other headline-grabbing cases have included a Maryland couple investigated after allowing their 10- and-6-year-old children to walk home alone from a park in 2015.

Arkansas lawmakers considered a similar bill last year but ultimately rejected it, Skenazy said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is also interested in the concept. Lee added an amendment to a 2015 federal education bill saying kids shouldn’t be stopped from biking or walking to school alone with a parent’s permission, and parents shouldn’t face charges for letting them.

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