Hats off to Texas: Over the weekend, it became the third U.S. state, after Utah and Oklahoma, to make reasonable childhood independence the law of the land. Now parents who live there cannot be investigated for neglect simply for giving their kids some old-fashioned freedom.
Amazingly, the bill became law on the 11th anniversary of "Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day," a holiday created by Free-Range Kids and once considered so wacky—so dangerous—that it was splashed across the pages of The New York Daily News. The paper quoted the mother of an eight-year-old, saying: "Never in a million years would I do something that stupid. When the kid turns 18—fine. Until then you watch them." And it spoke to an "expert"—the chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn—who said that "a seven-year-old shouldn't be left alone in a backyard, much less a park."
Too bad for that shrink. When the Texas law goes into effect in September, more than one tenth of all Americans will live under laws passed with the help of Let Grow, the nonprofit that grew out of Free-Range Kids, that insists our kids are smarter and safer than our cowering culture gives them credit for.
HB 567 enjoyed bipartisan support, sailing through the Texas Senate unopposed, and winning the House with a vote of 143 to 5.
The statute enshrining childhood independence is part of a bigger children's services bill ensuring Texans that the state will not intervene and remove kids from their homes unless the danger is so great and so likely that it outweighs the trauma of entering the foster care system.
"Removing a child from his or her family causes immense harm to the child and should only be done when absolutely necessary," said Rep. James Frank, a Republican who was one of the bill's co-authors. This new law—"the product of years of work from stakeholders of all types and legislators of both parties," he said—gives the authorities those marching orders.
It does so because it "changes our definition of neglect," Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, told the assembly. From now on, kids will be removed only when "they're actually in danger, and not just the possibility of danger."
This way the bill not only protects parents who want to let their kids play outside, "it also enables parents struggling to make ends meet to make childcare arrangements that make life easier rather than harder," says Diane Redleaf, Let Grow's legal consultant. In other words, it prevents poverty from being mistaken for neglect.
Andrew Brown, distinguished senior fellow for child and family policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, thinks the bill will come as a major relief to working families.
"Say you're a single mom and you have to catch the 7:15 a.m. bus to get to work but your babysitter's running late," says Brown. "If the mom misses that bus, she gets to work late and loses her job. How does that help the child, if now she can't pay her rent? So she leaves her child home alone for 15 minutes." The new law makes sure that such circumstances do not result in neglect charges.
It would have been most welcome in 2015 when Houston mom Laura Browder was arrested for having her kids wait 30 feet away from her in a food court when she had a job interview there and didn't have time to line up child care. The arrest came after she had accepted the new job.
At the same time, the bill also helps folks who choose not to helicopter parent, like Austin mom Kari Anne Roy, whose case made headlines in 2014. Roy was at home while her six-year-old played within view of the house for about ten minutes. A passerby marched him home and called the cops. Police officers paid Roy a visit, and a week later, child services interviewed each of her children separately. They asked the boy, 12, if he had ever done drugs, and the girl, eight, if she had seen movies with people's private parts—something she'd never even heard of. "Thank you, CPS," Roy said.
That kind of thing is in the rearview mirror now, in Texas.
"You had the most right-wing members of the legislature signed on with most left-wing members," said Brown. The bill was so popular "because it's a common sense reform."
As common sense as taking your kids to the park and leaving them there when you know they're ready—no matter what some passerby or bureaucrat thinks.