Free-Range Laws Help Families--All Families. Read My Letter to The Atlantic
In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jessica McClory Calarco complained that the new Utah Free-Range Parenting Law would help privileged families but not poor families. Lenore Skenazy and I disagreed--and then Prof. Calarco agreed with us. It's a fascinating interchange that I'm excited to share here.
Where does it lead us? Calarco is right about her concern about the free range laws do not help families who can't provide necessary care to their children. But that's a different prong of neglect laws--the prong that neglect is really supposed to be about.
Neglect has become so amorphous a concept that it has led to open-ended enforcement of parenting judgments by state-backed child protection caseworkers and police operating under unclear standards. It's the open-ended and boundless way that neglect has been defined and interpreted that is the problem. This vagueness has opened the door to abuses of State power. This has allowed the State to become the worst helicopter parent. So it's time to clarify what neglect really is.
That's not simple but it's not impossible either. Calarco is right that social supports are essential because parents who can't meet their children's basic needs for food, shelter, and medical care--along with child care--are tremendously vulnerable to neglect citations in place of the help they need. To give the clearest example I know (and the one my organization works most on to correct), homelessness is not neglect, but many states act as if it is. The solution is to assist families to meet their housing needs and stop judging parents neglectful for reasons of poverty.
The neglect line has to be based on the parent's reckless and negligent action toward a child. That's why the Illinois law's approach is right. Illinois law now requires that requires parents to have "blatantly disregarded" their duty of care to the child, subjecting them to obvious danger that a reasonable parent would have taken precautionary measures narrows neglect laws and focuses attention the parent's neglectful conduct. This provides the right answer to one big part of the neglect conundrum.
But it doesn't solve the whole problem. Lack of necessary care is also defined as neglect, under a separate prong of the Illinois neglect law and most other state laws too. So Calarco is right that this part of neglect law needs to address the real problem she has raised--which is not a defect in the free range law at all. Calarco points out that it is also is necessary to decide that where a parent can't avoid leaving their child without some form of necessary care (like shelter), it is our society's responsibility to step in but not through the harsh and punitive child protection system. That's the responsibility of our social safety net. Neglect laws need to be reserved for neglectful parents, not those who are doing their best with what they have.
Free range parenting laws are a good start precisely because they can benefit all children. But they aren't a solution to poverty. They are a good way to start the conversation about supporting families in poverty, though, as this discussion shows.