Utah's 'Free-Range' Parenting Law Protects Parents So Kids Can Roam Utah is the first state with a "free-range parenting" law — so kids can play or walk to or from the park unsupervised without the risk that their parents or guardians will be charged with neglect.

Utah's 'Free-Range' Parenting Law Protects Parents So Kids Can Roam

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In 2015, two children, ages 10 and 6, were walking home alone from a park in Silver Spring, Md. They were picked up by police and held by child protective services. Their parents were charged with neglect. But they were supporters of a so-called free-range parenting style that encourages independence and exploration for children. Now the state of Utah has made an important move in this controversial issue. It's the first state in the country to protect free-range parenting. Republican State Senator Lincoln Fillmore sponsored the bill. And he joins us from the studios of KUER in Salt Lake City. Senator, welcome.

LINCOLN FILLMORE: Thank you, Korva. It's good to be here.

COLEMAN: Senator, what does the bill say?

FILLMORE: The bill really changes the definition of neglect. The case that you cited in Maryland is a perfect example, where neglect has been interpreted by government agencies or police departments so broadly. And so what we've done with this bill is just to define some specific things that neglect is not - like letting your kids play or walk to or from the park. These kinds of things that parents want to allow their children to do, so they can start building the self-reliance, the independence, the problem-solving skills that they're going to need as adults by practicing those in safe environments as children.

COLEMAN: So I read through the legislation. You don't specify an age at which a child can be alone. You write a child must be, quote, "of a sufficient age." Why did you leave that indeterminate?

FILLMORE: Well, it's sufficient age and maturity, and those two together really get to the point of why we left that indeterminate. That was a decision that we made in concert with our local Department of Child Protective Services. It's very possible that there might be an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old who have some development disabilities - that is not actually mature enough to be on their own. And we wanted to make sure that we had protection in the law for those children.

COLEMAN: So how far is too far? What would you consider being actual neglect or abuse?

FILLMORE: Well, it's not really up to me as a state senator or even as a parent. I mean, for my own child, that makes a difference. But we've left that discretion in there for parents and for state agencies to work together to make sure that kids are protected.

COLEMAN: Senator, have you received any criticism at all from anyone?

FILLMORE: For the large part, I have been very pleased at what the response has been, you know, from my generation. And I was born in the mid-'70s. It was free-range parenting, was just called parenting. We'd go exploring in the vacant lot near the house. There was a creek not too far from where we lived that we would walk across, with the rule of be home for dinner. And then when you go back out, be home when it gets dark. And I think that that was the pretty common way to raise kids at that time. And now I think society has just become so afraid of the volume of images that we see on social media or in traditional media that we have this sense that the world is a lot less safe than it used to be, even though the opposite is true - that a child is safer being raised today than at almost any point in recorded history.

COLEMAN: Senator, we've been talking about protecting parents who make these decisions. What about the children who are affected by this decision, especially children of color? What if they're seen playing alone in the park without supervision? Are Utahns going to be comfortable with that?

FILLMORE: I don't see any reason why the color of a person's skin would make anyone more or less nervous that a kid was playing at the park.

COLEMAN: Well, I'm thinking of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was black. He was shot outside of his home by police officers. He had an air pellet gun and he was unsupervised and alone in the park. And there's going to be some pushback from people who say if children are alone, especially if they are of color, they're going to be treated differently, and their parents may be treated differently.

FILLMORE: I was unfamiliar with that case in Cleveland. That's not my experience here. And I mean, I guess - I appreciate the fact that there is still some racial tension and some racial things we need to get over in the country. But the law really ought to be colorblind. And I look forward to having this help people be exposed to all kinds of different people and different parenting styles so that we can overcome some of those differences.

COLEMAN: Senator, are you a parent?

FILLMORE: I am. I have only one. We're expecting another in a little under two months....

COLEMAN: Congratulations.

FILLMORE: ...And my oldest is only 3. He's not quite yet a free-range kid.

COLEMAN: Will you consider yourself a free-range parent?

FILLMORE: Yes. When buying a house with my wife, we specifically tried to choose a house in a neighborhood that we thought would be conducive to letting our kids go out and explore the neighborhood - where there are other kids. And we've got two parks that are fairly close by, a corner store where you won't to have to cross any busy streets to get to, where you can run little errands. We really do want to be able to have our kids out in the neighborhood, and it's why we picked the neighborhood that we did.

COLEMAN: Utah State Senator Lincoln Fillmore, thank you very much.

FILLMORE: Thank you. It was good to be on.

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