‘Free-Range Parenting’ Law Narrows Definition of Neglect

It’s not every day that a bill sails through the state legislature unopposed. But it turns out giving kids more freedom to play and take on tasks without adult supervision is an idea pretty much everyone can get behind.


The bipartisan House Bill 22-1090, which was signed into law on March 30, tightens the definition of neglect to exclude certain activities a “reasonable and prudent” parent would deem safe for a child without supervision. They include walking or biking to school and back, traveling to nearby businesses or recreational facilities, playing outside and staying in a home or other safe location without an adult.

They’re the type of everyday activities many adults remember from their own childhoods. But new attitudes about parenting and children’s safety have cropped up in recent decades, according to experts, and parents who let their children go to the park by themselves or spend a few hours at home alone might worry a caseworker from a child welfare agency will show up at their door. For people of color, low-income parents and other marginalized groups, the fear is even more justified due to biases within the child welfare system. The new law aims to reduce the number of calls to child abuse hotlines and investigations into parents who allow their kids to have “reasonable independence.”

Twelve-year-old Brinley Sheffield, a sixth grader from Castle Rock, became a poster child for HB22-1090 when she testified in support of the bill at the State Capitol earlier this year. Sheffield told lawmakers about how, as a seven-year-old, she wanted to become a better runner, so she set a goal to run around the block twice in a row. She got her parents’ permission to run by herself. During her first solo lap around the block, she noticed a car tailing her. She thought about knocking on a neighbor’s door for help but decided to run home instead. Minutes after she arrived home, a police officer knocked on her door. Sheffield initially thought the police had arrested the person who was following her.

“Then I realized that the officer was at our house because of me. The person who followed me called the police because I was running outside by myself. I started to cry because I was scared. I felt like I was going to be in trouble,” Sheffield said during a March 9 hearing. Sheffield didn’t get in trouble, but she said she didn’t want to run for years after the experience out of fear that someone would follow her and “call the police again for no reason.”

In 2017, Vanessa Peoples, an Aurora mom and nursing student, was having a family picnic in a park. Her toddler wandered off and was intercepted by a passerby who called police, even though Peoples came to retrieve her son shortly after he strolled away. Peoples was ticketed for child neglect, which landed her on the radar of the Adams County Human Services Department. A month after the picnic incident, a social worker from the agency knocked on her door for a follow-up interview. But Peoples, who is partially deaf, didn’t hear the knock, according to the Denver Post. The caseworker called Aurora Police, who entered Peoples’ home, pinned her down, “hogtied” her and carried her out of the house, according to media reports. Peoples eventually won a $100,000 settlement from the city due to her treatment by police.

Peoples, who is Black, is not only an example of police brutality against people of color but also the increased scrutiny racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people and other marginalized groups face when it comes to parenting. According to research by Washington University in St. Louis, 53% of Black children will be the subject of a child welfare investigation for abuse or neglect by the time they turn 18. For U.S. children overall, the likelihood of investigation is 37%.

The Colorado Sun reported last year that Black children in Colorado are the subject of child abuse hotline calls at a rate that is 1.27 times their percentage of the population while white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American children were all slightly to greatly underrepresented in calls compared to their share of the population.

There are many causes of the disparities in reporting, according to Diane Redleaf, legal consultant to Let Grow, a New York-based non-profit that backed HB22-1090 and is pushing for similar “free-range parenting” laws across the country. In addition to overt racism on the part of those who make reports, she said, Black families are more likely to be in contact with a greater number of mandatory reporters, which include teachers, law enforcement, medical providers and employees of county health and human services departments.

“I think what we see is that when you have a child who is at the park by themselves who is Black and you have a child at the park by themselves who is white, you’re going to have more people calling on the Black child than the white child. This is longstanding systemic racism that we see,” said Ashley Chase, staff attorney and legislative liaison with the Colorado Office of the Child’s Representative. “And so in these over-surveilled, over-policed communities, they have more contacts, and with more contacts, eventually, you increase your chance of coming into the system.”

The caseworkers who follow up on the reports might have their own biases. “There’s always room for cognitive bias when you have a caseworker that’s overworked and you have a system that allows so much discretion. So that mix of discretion and overworking is always going to allow room for shortcuts,” said attorney Ruchi Kapoor, who previously served as appellate director and legislative liaison for the Colorado Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel. That “shortcut” could be the caseworker judging a Black parent more harshly for having a dirty home, she said, which could ultimately lead to a child being removed. “That is a pattern that I have seen play out in every county in the state,” Kapoor added.

The number of calls to Colorado’s child abuse and neglect hotline dropped in 2020 after schools closed due to the pandemic, but it was the first time that calls decreased in more than five years, according to the Associated Press. Calls to Colorado’s hotline reached 219,478 in 2019, fell to 193,448 in 2020 and have since rebounded, totaling 208,949 in 2021. Redleaf reported a similar trend nationwide. “Every single year until the pandemic, there was a rise in the number of calls to the point that we got to 7.8 million hotline calls a year,” she said.

What’s behind the upward trend in hotline calls? Redleaf and Let Grow president Lenore Skenazy point to cell phones as one possible factor. Before cell phones, a passerby might have seen a child playing alone and had some concerns, but by the time she got home or to a nearby phone, “she wouldn’t call to say, ‘You know, 15 minutes ago, I saw this kid in the park,’” Skenazy said, “because she’s forgotten because it isn’t that big a deal.” And it’s not just that reporting is easier than ever. We’re also encouraged to do it through media messages like the “If you see something, say something” anti-terrorism campaign, the Let Grow leaders said.

“I think that the last two generations have seen a very big shift in parenting expectations,” said Skenazy, who has her own story about clashing with this new parenting culture. In 2008, Skenazy let her son Izzy, who was nine at the time, take the subway home from the department store Bloomingdale’s by himself. He had wanted to do it and was “levitating with pride and excitement” when he reached the apartment, Skenazy said. She was a columnist for The New York Sun at the time and wrote a column about why she let her son find his way home.

“Two days later, I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR defending myself,” said Skenazy, whose decision earned her the nickname “America’s Worst Mom.” She started a blog, “Free-Range Kids,” and authored a book by the same name advocating a different approach to parenting. “The premise was simple: Our kids are smarter and safer than our culture gives them credit for,” she said.

In late 2017, Skenazy became president of Let Grow, a non-profit founded on similar principles. The organization offers several school and community programs for kids and families. It is also backing bills around the country to narrow neglect laws to ensure parents aren’t penalized for letting their children do certain things without supervision, whether by choice or necessity.

In 2018, Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill. As in Colorado, the Utah bill passed unanimously in both chambers of the legislature. Oklahoma was next to adopt a Let Grow-backed law, and Texas quickly followed suit. Colorado is the fourth state to adopt the legislation, and bills are currently pending in South Carolina, Nebraska and Illinois.

“There’s a culture of fear in parenting that just has kind of evolved, but there is also a legal component to that,” Redleaf said. “We have this hotline reporting system that is very open-ended and a legal system that has a definition of neglect that is very open-ended. And that leaves parents in fear.” Some of the overly broad laws define neglect in terms of “failure to give proper care,” she said. “And who decides what ‘proper’ means?”

“This is really historic legislation to say not only do we have an affirmative definition of what neglect is, but we also say what it is not,” she added.

Colorado’s old definition of neglect under the children’s code said a child is neglected if a parent or guardian “fails to take the same actions to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care or supervision that a prudent parent would take.”

“I think the problem with the older definition of neglect was simply that it was too broad,” said Kapoor. “I think sometimes we, in the name of protecting children, will give government unfettered ability to intervene in family lives. And I think that’s what the old statute was doing.”

Both Kapoor and Chase said that, as lawyers, they haven’t been involved in neglect cases based solely on the activities specified in the bill, such as a child walking to school alone or kids playing in the park unsupervised. Those cases are usually filtered out by county human services agencies without being filed in court. “Once the caseworker goes to the home and does an interview, they’re not going to file a case because the child went to the park by themselves,” Chase said. “But they may file a case because then it leads to a domino effect of asking questions or seeing something they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.” And being investigated by child protective services can be traumatic for kids and parents. 

“Think about all the other things that go along with kids playing outside,” Kapoor said. For example, a struggling single mom comes home late from a shift and lets her kids go out to play alone, which results in a call to the child abuse hotline, she said, illustrating the domino effect. Then caseworkers visit the home and see other indicators of poverty — a dirty home, perhaps — and order the mother to make changes. “If you’re in the orbit of the wrong caseworker, they could come back and say, ‘OK, well, you didn’t do anything that I told you to do. You didn’t go to therapy, you didn’t clean your house,’” Kapoor said. “Maybe they don’t understand that she doesn’t have time for all that.” At that point, the mother could risk losing her children.

For the new law to make a change, county caseworkers and the public will need to be brought up to speed on what counts as neglect. “I think that our mandatory reporters and other people need to know about the law and need to know what is considered acceptable and what is not,” Chase said, noting there is currently another bill pending that would create a task force to analyze mandatory reporting procedures, including their effect on people of color.

Skenazy said she’s hopeful that the media will get the word out about the new law and that the child welfare agencies involved take note and conduct training for their caseworkers and other employees.

“I think that child protective services and the police are going to be happy about this law,” she said, “because they don’t want to waste their time and money chasing down some lady who let her nine-year-old and four-year-old walk home from the park.”

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