Here's Why Utah's New Free-Range Kids Law Will Help Parents of Color

"They call it 'free-range parenting.' I call it 'the rights of parents.'"


Utah kids
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Jessica Calarco, a sociologist writing in The Atlantic, says that Utah's new Free-Range Kids law represents an "unfair double standard" because parents who are poor, working class, or people of color will be less able to take advantage of it.

"A major shortcoming of their otherwise well-intentioned movement is that the people who have the most to gain from it—poor and working-class parents—will find themselves held to a different set of expectations," she wrote.

But the law strives to protect all parents: those who free-range by choice and those who have no alternative but to let their kids play outside, come home with a latchkey, or wait briefly in the car because mom or dad is busy earning a living.

To bolster her point, Calarco mentions the case of Debra Harrell (a case the country first heard about here at Reason). Harrell, a mother of color, had been thrown in jail for a night and had her child taken away for 17 days simply because she let the girl play in the sprinkler park while she worked her shift at McDonald's. Here is a tape of the harrowing interrogation Harrell had to endure.

I wrote that it was terrible for the state to treat a mom who made a rational, loving parenting decision like a criminal. Judging from the outcry, most of America felt the same.

The new Free-Range Law gives moms like Harrell a leg to stand on. In Utah, at least, it is no longer considered "neglect" to let your kids play outside alone.

The Utah law would also have helped a middle-class family, the Meitivs of Maryland, when they were accused of neglect for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park on their own (a story I was also the first to report).

This across-the-board benefit is appreciated by Joyce McMillan, head of the Child Welfare Organizing Project Watkins, a non-profit that works to keep families intact in the face of over-reaching authorities. McMillan became active on free-range parenting issues after authorities took her infant daughter for nearly two years. As she told me in a celebratory phone call about the new law, "They call it 'free-range parenting.' I call it 'the rights of parents.'"

Which is not to say that there isn't a problem with the way some authorities may interpret the law. Calarco's concern is that the law says parents can't be arrested for giving their kids some unsupervised time, provided the kids' "basic needs are met" and the kids are of "sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or an unreasonable risk of harm." She worries that some authorities will interpret poverty as neglect.

That is a worry of mine, too. That is not the fault of the law. That is the fault of anyone with an inflated idea of "unreasonable harm" or "basic needs." As Diane Redleaf, legal director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, points out on her blog: if a mom is homeless, clearly her children's basic needs are not being met the way anyone would wish. But that cannot be interpreted as negligence.

In Illinois, Redleaf was influential in making sure neglect laws now specify that parents must have "blatantly disregarded" their child's care, not that they were too poor to afford better circumstances.

Like Calarco and like me, Redleaf believes that this needs to be made clear in law and practice across the country. But, she adds, this is "not a defect in the free range law at all. … Free range parenting laws are a good start precisely because they can benefit all children. But they aren't a solution to poverty."

Alas, that's true. But they exist to help the Debra Harrells of the world as much as the Meitivs in Maryland.