What The Authorities Can Do If We “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There”

Hi Readers — This essay is long, but so powerful it blew me away.  As we near May 22’s  “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day,” the author’s question is extremely relevant: What happens when WE believe our kids will be safe, but the authorities do not? Read on. And prepare for revolution.


Years ago, when my mother and I were at the elephant seal breeding grounds in California, a guide explained to us why there were hundreds of seal pups still laying on the beach after their mothers had swum back into the ocean weeks before: “That’s the seals’ rather abrupt way of weaning their young.” Apparently, the pups make their way into the water when they become hungry enough. My mother nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, that’s benevolent neglect. That’s how we raised our children.”

“Benevolent neglect” is a phrase she reserves for polite company. In reality, at the age of eleven in 1985 I was delivering newspapers by myself at five in the morning on a stretch of road that was thick with drug dealers and prostitutes. I shared the sidewalk with drunks who were still finding their way home three hours after the bars had closed. To my parents, there was no better place to raise a child.

Now I’m a father myself and my own five year old boy is desperate for any independence I might give him. So I was naturally intrigued when I read that the Free-Range Kids author, Lenore Skenazy, was declaring May 22nd Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day. As an engineer, though, I’m sensitive to risk, so I first called Child Protective Services here in Tucson to see if this was even legal.

Looking back, I was probably a little blunt when I asked the woman exactly how far my son was legally allowed to wander out of my sight. Her silence was pretty condemning, but I continued on anyway. “Can he walk around the corner from our house by himself? Or, if we’re at the park, can he set off over the hill where I can’t see him?”

Eventually she answered. “Sir, if a 5-year-old is seen out of sight of a parent, that is sufficient cause to initiate an investigation.”

“So at what age can my son walk around the block by himself?”

“A 9-year-old is allowed to stay home without supervision,” she replied.

Despite her confident tone, there is in fact no clear law that states when a child can be on his own. The State Statute from which Child Protective Services derives its authority declares generally that parents are considered neglectful if their lack of supervision causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s welfare.1 But CPS on its website more specifically claims that neglect includes “leaving a child with no one to care for them.”2

It all seemed awfully vague to me. But then, again as an engineer, I was hoping for precise ages and time limits.

So I called another CPS agent to see if this was in fact as ambiguous as it seemed. She was more nuanced. She said if a stranger called CPS to report a child playing in the park alone, CPS might not know how to contact the child’s family and that would be that. On the other hand, if the same stranger called the police, the outcome would depend on the responding officer, but could be immediately more severe, for the officer could return the child home and pursue an investigation there, arresting the parent if the situation warranted it. In either situation, cases are determined on their particular merits by individuals operating under subjective guidance. She suggested I contact the local police department to determine their standards.

To that end I hunted down an officer, finding two on the neighborhood street. I posed to them the same question (with a less confrontational tone). Non-committal, they acknowledged that a great number of juveniles are latchkey kids and most officers wouldn’t look twice at a child alone who was behaving well. As these two men had middle-school-aged children, they both seemed to have a reasonable grasp of what that behavior should be.

Ultimately though, they were no more definitive than CPS in answering whether my son could go to the park alone. To quote them, “It depends…”

This ambiguity is extensive. I can’t even study it scientifically, because the very records that document what constitutes “neglect” — the court records and the CPS case reports — aren’t generally available to the public, as they involve juveniles. So in the end, it would seem, there is no legal certainty for us parents. The law will only be found in the courtroom, before a judge, on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late.

Despite this legislative uncertainty, we can still see how significant a role CPS plays in our community. From their semi-annual report we find that in Arizona there were 1225 substantiated reports of neglect in 20093. With a statewide juvenile population of 1.4 million, this represents about one child out of 1100. But those cases were the result of over 19,000 investigations.4 That’s the family of one child in every 70 being investigated every year by CPS.

But wait, there’s more! Those 19,000 investigations had already been narrowed down from about 34,000 phonecalls5. Which brings the total to one out of 40 children a year having someone call CPS out of concern for that child’s upbringing.

Perhaps, since there is no clear law on leaving a child at the park, the numbers give support to what many of us parents feel out in public everyday: the cultural effect of CPS, the furrowed brows of neighbors and strangers who see a young boy biking down the block and think first to call a government department instead of slowing down their car.

I don’t want to make light of their mission. CPS protects children from very real abuse and neglect, from parents who beat their children or leave them alone for days. And I want to make it clear that if you leave your child alone and your child is hurt or breaks the law, you’ll likely be arrested. It’s that simple.

But I also want to make it clear that laws on neglect are subjectively enforced. And that’s why taking your kids to the park…and leaving them there is culturally  important, because it seeks to change our perspective, our world view, and the world view of every stranger who has CPS on their speed dial.

The policemen I questioned told me their personal concerns were for kidnapping and molestation. But laws on neglect aren’t intended to protect children from kidnappers and molesters. These laws are intended to protect children from their own family, where the real danger lies. So if the frontlines of enforcement aren’t clearly identifying the problem, if they intuitively believe it is about kidnapping, and if enforcement is a subjective decision, then it is critical to change that intuition, to clarify the purpose. When 96% of 34,000 calls a year to CPS are not substantiated — that is, when nearly all calls to CPS are wrong — we have a political and social problem, not a legal one. And the way to fight that is simple. It’s done by persuading your neighbors that children are okay alone. It’s done by making it normal for children to be seen acting independently. It’s done by taking your children to the park.

And leaving them there. — T.G.


1. http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/8/00201.htm

2. https://www.azdes.gov/main.aspx?menu=154&id=2072

3. https://www.azdes.gov/CMS400Min/InternetFiles/Reports/pdf/child_welfare_apr_09_sept_09.pdf

4. These numbers are for cases of neglect only, for which allowing one’s child to walk around the block alone would qualify for an investigation. These numbers assume each case is a unique child.

5. There were a total of 57,192 calls in the 2009 reporting year, of which about 58% were for neglect.

67 Responses

  1. I love it! An engineer confirms what I’ve discovered slowly from 20+ years of parenting.

    The police in our area regularly stopped mine when they were out on a walk with the dog (alone); but usually because they thought my homeschooled kids were truant.

    If I had kids young enough to take to the park and leave them, I would. To strike a blow, as the essay points out. But, as it is, I’d have to knock them unconscious and chain them to a tree. Probably not in the spirit of the “free-range” occasion.

  2. LOL! An engineer applying reason to a government agency. That is priceless. I have learned long ago that the discrete and determinant world of my computers and programming should never be applied to what Ayn Rand so aptly described as looters of the world.

    When politics are applied, reason and production are abandoned in favor of the short-term satisfaction derived from the most arbitrary emotion or capricious self-determined rule.

  3. I just has an incident this weekend, where a neighbor’s three year old son walked over to our backyard (we were outside) on his own with no mother in sight. I asked the boy if he asked permission, and he nodded his head. Despite knowing him and his mother, I didn’t believe him and walked back to the neighbor’s house asking ‘Did you son ask for permission to come over?’ The mother had no clue that her son left their backyard, because she was for a few minutes with a nine month old. He was sent packing back home, but did come over the next day with his mother walking him over.

    Is that neglect on the mother’s part, or maybe we should realize it can happen to anyone?

    I think we’ve lost our social cues. We know we should be teaching our children how to ask permission and tell us what they will be doing and where they will be at the age of seven. We know three year olds can’t do that, but we know they want to do that. Seven year olds in many homes don’t know how to ask for permission, because they never gone anywhere without a schedule play date.

  4. My kids will be 7 and 8 one day right? Honestly, I’m ready now, but they truly are too little at 4 and not yet 6. Still I do let them play in the yard without me & my oldest walks my younger one -5th grade and Kindergarten – home from the bus stop (which is great because my littlest is napping then, so I can stay home. It is the safest best thing for our family) I actually had to sign a piece of paper giving my 5th grader permission to do this very basic thing, but at least the school system sees it as a reasonable thing. Apparently, he is only allowed to do this because he is in 5th grade. In 4th grade, I know he would have been just as capable, especially as they do not even cross a street. We live in a small New England city. My 5th grader is not the only one who is allowed to walk a few places on his own. It is a great feeling & a big change from where we moved last summer (suburbia, everyone driving everywhere & arranging things for their kids all the time.) It’s one of the main reasons we moved here. Kids love the freedom & it seems to make them more responsible, not less.

  5. My local CYS website has a booklet that states “Every child matures at a different rate, but local child welfare experts suggest never leaving a child under age 12 home alone. But, age is only part of it.”

    Click to access homealone%20booklet%20SPOT.pdf

    So ours isn’t really any more clear.

    Yesterday I read the title to an article that had me going, “Grandmother Arrested for Leaving kids alone in park”. It wasn’t until I read it that a 7 year old wandered off with the 5 month old while she was at the grocery store and they were at the park.

    I am all for free range to an extent and read your blog. My oldest daughter and a friend were ganged up on by 10 girls at the park. No one would turn in who they were so they got away with it, my daughters friend was pretty beat up.

    The kids here use their parents as their weapons when they do wrong. We don’t live in the safest neighborhood, the other kids are the ones I worry about as they weren’t brought up to care about right from wrong.

    I wish I could let them free range here, but we take them elsewhere to parks, camping, etc for them to run free. Two of mine are now teens and take public transportation to visit and hang out with friends.

  6. Interesting, but you need to be very careful with statistics, especially if you’re an engineer…

    “1225 substantiated reports of neglect” for 1.4 million kids DOES NOT mean “one child out of 1100” as many of those reports could have been (and almost certainly were) for the same kids. Likewise, I would bet money that those 19,000 investigations did not involve 19,000 different families, so the 1/70 figure is almost certainly an overstatement of CPS’s involvement in the community.

    Just sayin’…

  7. Great article. When the policemen said that their concerns were for kidnapping and molestation I wish they had been asked how often they see those types of things on their beat. After all they are the ones on the front line.

  8. The “Authorities” need to stop trying to be “Heros”.
    That word has been so abused this past decade it simply has no meaning anymore.

  9. I think the statement “But laws on neglect aren’t intended to protect children from kidnappers and molesters. These laws are intended to protect children from their own family, where the real danger lies.” says it all. And explains why CPS all too often oversteps their boundaries.

    I cannot tell you how often folks have gotten nervous around me because I let my child get out of arm’s reach and actually run ahead of me on a path. The horrors.

    That said, I could not help but chuckle this post is taking place in Arizona, of all places. Because at this point, I don’t even want my India-born HUSBAND roaming alone in Arizona. At least not without his papers. Ahem.

  10. Wow, powerful stuff…I was blown away by the fact that 96% of calls to CPS are unsubstantiated. I do think that 5 is a bit young in most cases to leave a child completely by himself, but perhaps this guy is unlike many parents nowadays, and is raising his child to actually have some common sense from the time he’s young. Kudos to him!

  11. In Michigan, children must be 13 before they can be left home alone. A child in a public place out of the line of sight of a parent is neglected.

    If I were going to participate in Lenore’s May 22nd event (we’ll be in Europe) I’d put a card in my 7 and 8 year olds’ pockets:
    I’m a free-range kid! My mom knows where I am, and she’ll be back to get me at x o’clock. I can call her at xxx.xxx.xxxx. May I use your phone?

  12. aDad,

    I thought the same thing when reading the article. The author does note that his figures are based on the assumption that each call is for a unique child, but it’s hidden in the footnotes (#4). A very good place to hide how shocking statistics information was obtained. That being said, he does raise some good and valid points.

  13. It would be interesting to know how many of those calls were from (a) teachers, health workers, and others who are required to report stuff they see in their controlled environment; (b) relatives; (c) people who have called before on the same family. It would also be interesting to know how many different families are called on – since if there was a family that was letting the kids play outside naked and dirty all the time – or regularly leaving them alone for long periods – I’d think there would be more than one call. So, I am not sure what to make of this information. What does it really tell me about my risk, should I let my kids go play in the yard / down the sidewalk while I occasionally check on them from a window? Are we at risk of sensationalizing the risk of being reported to / investigated by CPS? Also, if a high % of investigations show no neglect, then the procedures probably need to be revamped, but what if the % is really not that high once you factor in multiple calls about the same family, etc.? Are the statistics significantly different depending on what neighborhood you live in? If half of your neighbors are involved with drugs, does that justify more official concern for the kids?

    I actually think it’s a good thing that these matters are subjective, up to a point.

  14. Renee – I have to ask my neighbor’s boy (who’s 12) if his dad knows he’s at our house as I’ve received a few too many calls asking if he’s here!

    But your response to him being there without permission was spot on. You didn’t scare him with all of the terrible things that could have happened, you merely reminded him he needs to ask first.

    My kids are allowed to go to the park by themselves anytime they’d like (15 and 12) but they need to ASK first. Most of the time if I say no it’s because we need to be somewhere they don’t know about. They don’t have cell phones so they can’t be tracked down easily if the wander off.

  15. SKL – Yes, we need some subjectivity in the law or we have situations like the woman with a life sentence for having someone touch her breasts and lifetime sex registrations for a 16year old with a girlfriend.

    I would assume that the statictics are slightly flawed due to multiple calls either for the same family or by the same person, but overall his point is good. We need to relearn some risk tolerence.

  16. Out here in MA, we’ve had real problems with Child Protection not doing their jobs and kids slipping through the cracks. People should realize that they are are severely under-manned to deal with even actual cases of neglect and abuse. Your calling CPS (or DSS, or whatever) because a 9-year-old is walking the dog on his own means that someone HAS to at least process that report and throw it out. You are taking time and resources that would be better spent on dealing with a report that a child has come to school not having eaten all weekend.

  17. I can only speak from my personal experience as a front line CPS worker…

    1) Most referrals to my team were from teachers, health professionals etc, and the majority of the others were from family members, and more often than you would think from the parents of the child.

    2) There are very often multiple referrals for the same family, and each referral counts as a separate investigation for each individual child.

    3) Lots of referrals are handled by the call center without an in-person investigation – but rather with advice and
    information to the caller – these are counted as unfounded referrals

    4) I’m sure some workers are different, but given the dire situations which I typically dealt with, I would NEVER agree to undertake an investigation of children playing unsupervised in a park unless there were a number of additional circumstances – very young, out for many hours, not dressed for weather etc. that would lead to a significant concern for safety/well being.

    5) Please also keep in mind that considering an investigation unfounded does not mean that serious difficulties were not identified – at least in my area, the bar was set pretty high for a finding of abuse or neglect…. (For us, the case had to meet a legal definition in terms of the alleged act and the evidence that would substantiate the allegation.)

    6) I know that there are over-zealous workers, but keep in mind that on a daily basis, we are far more often berated for NOT getting involved than for getting involved when a referral is made. Believe me, my sins were those of omission – families which really needed support but where this was not available or offered

    I am no longer a CPS worker, but I know a lot about risk to children and families – and have worked with sexual offenders – so I know about that too; nonetheless, my cherished only child is a free-range kid, because I consider this the best way to help her to be safe, confident, assertive and independent!

  18. We’re trying to get Gabe to think about telling us he’s going to the neighbour’s (we share a driveway and he runs over everytime he sees our neighbour out) but it’s not working so far. He’s only 3 1/2 . Is it horrible that there are some days I can’t wait for him to be more independent? I’m hoping to take him to the park and leave him there by the time he’s 7 or 8.

  19. Kate, you are wrong about Michigan. Michigan does not have a state law specifying when children can be left at home alone. Jeanne Hannah, a lawyer who blogs about family law in Michigan says that MI child support law provides for money for child care until the 12th birthday, implying that the state considers 12 old enough. Here’s a link to her blog entry on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/ldepw9

  20. aDad,

    You’re correct. I should have mentioned in the main text the assumption that each report was a unique child/family. The CPS report does not appear to make the distinction.

    In terms of overstating the effect, I have not included calls to the police department (for lack of research). The two policemen I spoke with said they responded to about three calls a week about neglect (and delinquencies which they attributed to neglect). This could offset the unique child issue.

    Margo, Thanks for the insider perspective. Am I correct in stating these reports are not available for public eyes?

  21. I know I played “alone” in a neighborhood park before I was 7, since we moved away when I was 7.5. The park was around the corner and a block away from my parent’s house. I say “alone” because I’m sure usually other kids were there, too, but I don’t recall any adults at any time. I’m sure sometimes they came, but certainly not always. My brother fell off the slide once (couldn’t walk) and some of us ran to my house to get my Mom. Certainly no adults that time. I recall walking around the neighborhood on my own as well.

    So, just saying, 5 and 6 might be okay at the park, if there are some older kids around, too.

  22. You are correct, these reports are private – in most areas the families can request them, but they are not otherwise made public.

    BTW I am actually very much in favor of more transparency and better statistical reporting from child welfare agencies – I certainly never felt that I needed to hide behind privacy laws – and I think it is easy to think all sorts of unwarranted things about the intentions and actions of workers in the absence of good information.

    Finally, the biggest risk factor in terms of the well-being and safety of children in North America is poverty. Period. Media panic about sexual predators and intra-familial sexual abuse obscures the primary structural cause of difficulty for families. Where there are family problems, the resources of an extended family with financial means go a long way towards solving or ameliorating those problems. Where these resources are absent, long term solutions are very difficult to find.

  23. SP, Thanks for the clarification on Michigan law.

  24. For an engineer his math is pretty bad. The 34,000 phonecalls were not each about a separate child. Recently I had cry out situation with a child at my school. He said cousin X was molesting him.

    I of course reported it. I told his homeroom teacher – because I was concerned he might act out with other students. She had reported him for the same reason. Turns out 5 of the 6 teachers that had him plus 2 more staff members had filed reports because of out cry. (Side note he is still in the home. Still has contact with the cousin. Cousin accuses him of molestation. Something is going on but we can’t do anything but file more reports).

    I had 3 students who are siblings. They were being starved and neglected by their mentally ill parents. It took over 60 complaints from family and neighbors (children were not in school yet) before they were removed and placed in their grandparents’ care.

  25. Thanks Kimberly–I know there are those random stories of people getting reported to CPS for free-ranging activities. I think most of us would be horrified by the typical kinds of neglect situations that kids are actually removed from their parents for. Like not feeding your kids, leaving them with abusers or drug abusers, abusing (and I mean abusing) drugs with your kids around, etc.
    While I don’t want people getting roughed up for free range parenting, its good for people to who have concerns to have a place to call and then the experienced professionals can weed out the calls.

  26. […] To The Park and Leave Them There Day”. Today, she runs a great essay by an Arizona man on what the authorities might or might not do to parents who dare to go ahead with this crazy […]

  27. Yesterday I posted on facebook a story about finding my 2-year-old perched on an overturned laundry hamper trying to cut herself a piece of cheese. Immediately after I posted it, I started worrying that someone might call CPS and report me! It’s ridiculous how much fear I feel about what others will say or do about any parenting choices or mistakes I make. Of course the seasoned moms (like my sister with 6 kids and sister-in-law with 5 kids) chuckled at my story, but I sometimes feel like a lot of people out there have no real concept of normal kid behavior. Hopefully none of my “friends” turn me in. 😉

  28. Great, thought-provoking essay! Thanks to T.G. for writing it and to Lenore for posting it. Another reminder that if we want our world to be different, we have to start by making it LOOK different.

  29. I too thought that there is no way each call is for a different child, considering how these things work, I’d guess an average of ten calls per child, far fewer for specious cases but more for real problems.

    But to the CPS workers, it’s not so much being afraid of CPS as it is of our neighbors. And then if it happens to be some overzealous first-timer who comes and files a case or whatever, that’s on our record, you know? In case of divorce it could be disastrous. We know that most of you are working to protect seriously endangered children which is why it’s all the more irritating to think of getting reported for something that is just not criminal or endangering, insofar as these things go.

    Margot said it best:

    “Finally, the biggest risk factor in terms of the well-being and safety of children in North America is poverty. Period. Media panic about sexual predators and intra-familial sexual abuse obscures the primary structural cause of difficulty for families. Where there are family problems, the resources of an extended family with financial means go a long way towards solving or ameliorating those problems. Where these resources are absent, long term solutions are very difficult to find.”

  30. My parents were fairly hands off as we were growing up. I was born in Dec of ’67 and my brother in Dec of ’69. When I was really little (not sure how old…maybe 3 or 4. I do remember my brother was still in a crib at this time.) I was allowed to go to the park across the alley from our house by myself. It was within sight of our house but I know my mom was not always vigilant in watching. She says today that she regrets how lenient she was but my brother and I have fond memories of being taught independence early on. We walked 6 blocks to school with other neighbor kids or by ourselves from K-4th grade. We rode our bikes a mile or more to school or the library later. This also gave our parents more independence. I know they appreciated not having to take us to every sport/play date/activity and it made it all the more special when they did. Still, I wouldn’t trade our growing up memories of free range bike riding/walking for anything.

  31. I think the “leave alone” age needs to be relative to the particular child, not arbitrary. I still recall the first time being left home alone was 8. Being left home in charge of my 4 (more often 3 of 4 as mom had to take #4 somewhere) siblings, was about 8 1/2.

    My son & my nephew are about 15 months apart. When my son was 6 (now 7) I could drop him across from the park (around the corner from my house), watch him safely cross the street, and go home to takes the dog for a walk around the block & meet him at the park 20-30 min later. of course some “concerned moms” thought I was nuts (but clearly they knew who I am enough to complain).

    My 6 year old nephew is a different personality, and I couldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. I could leave him with my son, but not trust him to stay in the park and/or not to make mischief. And he is the oldest of 3, my son is an only child.

    My son knows the risk of being “taken” by a stranger is rather low, especially in the situations he may be left in (i.e. a park full of children & parents with the bored small town cop parked in the lot). Would I let my son ride the subway alone? No, but that is because we don’t live in NYC and he isn’t familiar enough. Would I let him walk the 4 blocks to school, no only because the crazy parents who DRIVE there kids 4-5 blocks to school aren’t always attentive driver. But he does walk ahead of me to school (I usually have to stop for the dogs’ business), he still hesitates at the corner though he has the right of way, the drivers fail to acknowledge that.

    Will I drop my son off at the park May 22nd, no only because we have 3 other places to be. 🙂

  32. Yes, thank you TripGrass for writing this thought-provoking essay and thank you Lenore for publishing it. I was pleased to read of the police officers’ sensible approach toward children playing alone at the park. But, it is still terrifying that one could be arrested it based on the subjective opinion of a lone officer. That fear keeps many children chained to our sides and inside, I’m afraid. My closest friend spends her summers in Europe where she could leave her 6 year old home alone for quick trips, but she won’t leave the same child (now 7) home alone for even 15 minutes here in states for fear of prosecution and/or persecution.

    And Margo, you are absolutely right in pointing to poverty as the biggest risk factor for children. My heart breaks for families torn apart first by an unfortunate accident that occurs when no adult is around, then the subsequent investigation and removal of other children due to so-called parental neglect. Too many of these cases happen because the parent has no choice – no extended family around and unable to afford childcare, having to work odd hours, etc. Why are we so quick to punish these families and provide them with alternative childcare (in the form of protective custody) after something terrible happens rather than providing a network to help beforehand?

    It seems the only kids at parks these days, with their parents supervising from the bench of course, are those whose parents can afford to hire someone else to do the cooking and cleaning back at home.

  33. Who knows. Perhaps parental fears of CPS are as unfounded as parental fears of molesters and kidnappers, and fears of CPS probably prevent more free-ranging than fears of kidnappers.

    “We know three year olds can’t do that, but we know they want to do that.”

    Why can’t they? It depends on the 3-year old, but certainly some can. Mine does. He asks for permission. “Can I go play in the backyard?” “Can I go play with XYX in her yard?” “Can I go play on the porch?” And I say yes or no, depending on the circumstance, and remind him of the rules “Don’t go past so-and-so’s house; don’t go into anyone’s yard to play without permission from the parents; don’t go into anyone’s house without first coming back and asking me if you can go in.” At that age, I couldn’t have trusted my daughter to follow the rules, but I can trust him. Well, maybe I could have trusted her. I just didn’t. But she was less circumspect and less obedient, so…it depends on the kid.

    “I don’t even want my India-born HUSBAND roaming alone in Arizona. At least not without his papers. Ahem”

    Well, you know, it’s been FEDERAL law for YEARS that all legal non-U.S. citizens carry their papers with them. So maybe you don’t want him roaming about in your state without them either.

  34. Holy cow. This article is amazingly relevant for us as we just had a report filed against us and had the CPS follow-up visit this AM.

    Thank you Trip Gless.

    Perhaps parental fears of CPS are as unfounded as parental fears of molesters and kidnappers, and fears of CPS probably prevent more free-ranging than fears of kidnappers.

    I think this is a very good point.

  35. Fascinating! Thanks for providing all of your resources Trip.

    I think Sky brought up a very good point – “Perhaps parental fears of CPS are as unfounded as parental fears of molesters and kidnappers, and fears of CPS probably prevent more free-ranging than fears of kidnappers.” My best friend and her husband also had a report filed against them. Even though there was no just cause for the investigation, it still left them quite rattled and anal suspicious about everyone when they were out in public with the kids. To make matters worse, they realized that some of the things cited against them were from a family only vacation that only family members would have know. How awful is that to have a family member turn you into CPS!? We’re pretty free-range, but my biggest concern isn’t molesters or kidnappers. No, I’m more afraid of the silent threats from friends, family, and neighbors who might turn me into CPS because they think my philosophy and style of parenting is different from theirs.

  36. […] What The Authorities Can Do If We “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There&#… Hi Readers — This essay is long, but so powerful it blew me away.  As we near May 22′s  ”Take Our […] […]

  37. I understand but don’t entirely agree with the comments about poverty. There are plenty of people in poverty who do not neglect or abuse their children. These acts / omissions can always be traced back to poor but free choices, or to mental illness.

    And I don’t understand the comment about kids only going to the park if their parents have money to pay someone else to cook and clean. I am a single working mom, do my own cooking and cleaning, and still manage to find time to take my preschoolers to the park on most days (when the weather allows). It’s about priorities. Making excuses doesn’t help anyone.

    As far as CPS goes (and the Arizona “papers” thing too): sometimes it’s worth having a few people erroneously inconvenienced if necessary to address serious issues. In Arizona, I understand the residents are fed up with the crimes being committed by people freely crossing the border, including murder, rape, robbery, and many other crimes that make homeowners afraid on their own property. Carrying a driver’s license or green card (which most people always do anyway – why wouldn’t you if you were traveling) seems a small price to pay. 2/3 of my household, including my kids, are brown-skinned and foreign-born, and this requirement doesn’t bother me/us. As far as CPS goes, as long as the investigations are handled professionally and reach reasonable conclusions, I’d rather have someone asking me questions than have children dying due to a lack of CPS authority to intervene.

  38. This was the first thing a friend said about it: “you can get in trouble with CPS.” I knew the laws were unclear in my state (I checked a while back) and figured that I could get arrested *if* something happens. Do we live our lives on those kinds of “what ifs?” Keep writing and I’ll keep linking and forwarding. Maybe something will change. Raise the Volume. Rock on!

  39. SKL, the comment about only well-off kids and families with hired help in the parks was somewhat tongue in cheek, but the point I am making is that accompanying your child to the park regularly, and by that I mean more than once per week, requires abundant free time. Which, if you are doing your own cleaning and cooking in particular (and by that I mean actual cooking, not readying prepared foods) is a luxury outside of working. A generation ago kids could play freely and meet up in the parks while these things were being accomplished at home by a parent. Not anymore. There are certainly many, many kids sitting inside in front of the TV while mom or dad is trying to get things done, when except for fear of CPS or the even more remote possibility of abduction these children would be sent outside to play unaccompanied.

    And of course most children in poverty are not neglected or abused, but children in poverty ARE more likely to be left alone and at earlier ages out of necessity, as children have been for ages. It is not necessarily neglect or a crime – until it IS, the moment something awful happens. Not a purposeful act, simply an accident, but one which instantly becomes a case of neglect for the parent having been absent. There are many, many children left alone at home for a short or long periods while their parent is working, with instructions never to venture outside, again for fear of CPS or abductions, sitting in front of the TV. We never hear about the majority of them, thank goodness, only the unfortunate few.

    And anyway, of course you accompany your preschoolers to the park. They are preschoolers! When your kids are in 2nd grade, however, you may see no valid reason to constantly keep watch over them from the park bench when you’ve got all those veggies needing chopping in the kitchen back home. 🙂

  40. I was a FR parent before I knew what a FR parent was. I love this essay. I was just talking with a girlfriend today who told me about how her mother saw a 7 or 8 year-old riding his bike down the street. Her mother wanted to know where his parents were. It’s time to turn our neighborhoods into playborhoods (another great idea)! http://playborhood.com/

  41. Kate,
    In Michigan your child does not have to be 13…there is no law stating that.
    Here is some info. regarding MI and staying home alone.





    In my searches I also came across this great check list in preparing your children to stay home alone, unfortunately it is in PDF format and I couldn’t figure out how to link it to this comment for you. I was so happy to have found it myself and saved it in PDF and printed it up. We mostly have already completed everything but there were a few that I didn’t think of and we are working on them now.

    Happy Free Ranging!

  42. Kate,
    I was reading through the comments and came across SP’s comment to you.
    Funny enough, but the link she gave you is where I found the wonderful checklist.


    That is the link to the actual checklist.

  43. Ah, cooking is overrated. My kids and I have picnics at least half of the time during the warm months. Usually a simple sandwich or cereal bars with whole fruits and veggies. Healthier than a lot of stuff folks feed the kids at home. Granted, I do buy the bread already baked.

  44. Any legal issue is like this, if you look hard enough. “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” I’m not saying this as an insult to lawyers: laws about human beings rely on human intuition, and can never be as precise as engineering diagrams. Try crafting your *own* bullet-proof specific algorithm for determining if a child is neglected, and I guarantee you will be able to think of situations that clearly violate your own rule.

    I do think the author has some great points to make, once we get past the engineering metaphor. I think I can boil it down to two ideas.

    1. Our sense of what constitutes neglect has gotten totally out of whack. Since all law is based on human standards, when those human standards go awry, we have nowhere to turn. We have to take steps like those Lenore suggests in her book: look to history, or look to non-English-speaking countries, to regain some sense of balance. (Or to St. Louis!)

    2. The burden of proof should be on the accuser, *even in cases of child neglect.* Of course, there are those who will point out that this means some children will get abused when we could have prevented it…and they will be right. But if you follow that logic, the government should be raising all our children, since parents clearly cannot be trusted. I reject that logic. Parents should be raising their children, unless they can *clearly* be shown unfit.

  45. It seems to me that there is one key difference between neglect and letting one’s child have independence:

    Does the child know where their parent/guardian is?

    If they do not – mum ‘just went out’, ‘told us to go away, she was going for a drink’, dad ‘went somewhere’. You have a case for neglect. A parent has made themselves unavailable leaving children, in the least frightened and at worst, in danger.

    If they can say ‘Mum and Dad are at home at 132 Acacia Drive’ or ‘I’m staying with Aunty Sara today, she’s at her house over there and said we could go out’ – no case for neglect. The parent or guardian has made their own risk assessment, and the child knows where they are and that they can go to them any time.

    Obviously, one must allow for kids potentially forgetting stuff or making things up, but if you walk with a child back to their house, and there are their parents and all is in good order, there is clearly no grounds for concern.

    Allowing children out of your supervision is not the same as making yourself unavailable to them.

  46. SKL, I remember reading a study that shows that – other than illegal residency, which for the sake of the study really couldn’t count – illegal immigrants are actually more law-abiding than citizens. This is probably because they don’t have the free time to commit petty crimes, and definitely because they don’t want to be deported.

  47. Thanks to the author for a well-researched essay, and to Margo N for commentary (and to Lenore for posting, of course!).

    Margo, recognizing the factors that you and others have mentioned (multiple calls per case, calls not requiring response, etc.), can you give a rough sense from your experience of what fraction of calls to CPS are about cases that do, in fact, deserve intervention? I’m guessing it’s far higher than 4 percent, but is it 10? 20? 50?

  48. Uly, actually the study I saw recently showed that immigrants in total (legal and illegal) were more law-abiding. Which makes sense when you consider how many are here for higher education or legal business purposes.

    It also makes sense when you consider that illegal immigrants are “undocumented” and hence not easy to identify in the case of a crime they may have committed – especially if they can sneak back across an unsecured border and hang out for a while.

    In addition, the study was nationwide, and has no
    bearing on the Arizona situation.

    The point in Arizona is that the folks living along the border are getting attacked and bothered by people who have no business being there. It’s a problem. A solution is warranted. Being asked to carry and show ID is not burdensome unless you are in fact illegal. (I do it all the time.) How many US citizens (Hispanic and otherwise) need to be murdered in their own homes to justify an ID check?

  49. Right on Claudia for putting some perspective on neglect.

  50. Trip Grass. . . Thank you for that superb review of an important question. I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence and caring of parents today. Sadly, our environment is not condusive to good parenting, good mental health or good “policing of it all” – and that is what needs questioning and studying.

  51. I called the police on a boy in the park one day. I was out flying a kite with my son, and there was a boy, about 9 or 10, cycling around the bike loop in the park. Each time he passed us, he was wearing fewer clothes, until he was stark naked. No . . . no helmet either.

    When I spoke to the dispatcher, she kept asking for identifying features. What is he wearing? Nothing! Any identifying features? I’m not approaching him to find out! What sort of bike is he riding? You’ll recognize him because he’s the only one here who is naked! Had I spoken with him? Like I’m going to approach a naked boy (obviously not lost or in any danger) and strike up a conversation. I would rather keep my distance with my six year old.

  52. […] – in what I would consider the typical style of many Americans – would read this piece: “What The Authorities Can Do If We ‘Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There… a guest post by Trip Gless at Free Range Kids. Gless gives a parent’s perspective on […]

  53. Heck .. I walked about a dozen of blocks and crossed a major road to school when I was 7 years old. We’ve lost our sanity in some occasions.

  54. This is like I commented a few weeks ago. I called CPS to find out how young is “too young” to stay home while their mom is at the store. The agent wouldn’t get specific, “it depends on the child” etc. I said, “OK, so if my sister left her 7 year-old daughter at home while she went to the store around the corner for milk, is that neglect?” And he told me 7 year-olds might still confuse cleaners for juice, so you shouldn’t leave them alone.

    OK, I agree that if your 7 year-old still doesn’t know the difference between the juice you keep in the fridge, and the cleaner you keep under the sink, then you probably shouldn’t leave them alone. But seriously?

    I also talked to highway patrol and after several transfers was told that there’s no law against having your child in the front seat of the car, although the person who finally told me tried to talk me out of it first. (I was asking because I was driving a truck for a few weeks with only a front bench.)

  55. I’m from Michigan originally. My brothers and I walked to school from kindergarten all the way through high school. All of these were at least 5 blocks from home. Oh, and our parents didn’t walk with us. We went to the park alone frequently, as soon as we were able to ride our two-wheelers without training wheels – all we had to do was tell someone where we were going or, if no one was home we left a note. We were latch-key kids most of our school years, except for a brief period when our dad was unemployed. We rode the bus to the library by ourselves 2 times a week. I took ballet and rode the bus downtown alone to my lessons at age 8 – and the studio wasn’t in the best part of town at that time.

    I’d love to have my kids have that same kind of freedom. Only problem is, we don’t have communities the way we did 20-30 years ago. When I was growing up people didn’t move the way they do now – they stayed in the same houses and worked the same jobs for decades. They created neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else. These days this is not the case. We have moved 5 times since my oldest was born – she’s 9. Granted, my husband is in the military and moving is usually unavoidable. Still, we don’t know the people in our neighborhood and they don’t know us. No one plays outside anymore so I can’t get to know who even has children my kids’ age. We have lost the sense of community that gave us the security to let our children be free. My oldest is way more afraid to be out in the neighborhood than I ever was at her age. I wish I could give her the freedom to be free – it’s not just allowing your kid to roam but fostering the desire to do so. How do you get an overly-cautious child to actually brave the world?

  56. On the AZ immigration issue, I would like to point out that mandating the carrying of papers by non-US citizens has been Federal law for the past 50 years, and no outcry has been made that I know of.

  57. Jennifer – By baby stepping it. You can’t just take your child who is used to being cautious and drop them off, but you can start by little things that lead up to bigger things. Take her out to do something she enjoys and start by 30 minutes at a time. She likes to read? Great, drop her off at the library or bookstore for a little while then come back and get her, rinse and repeat until she is more confident that “Hey, nothing bad is going to happen to me”. I think the advantage of moving around so often will encourage that, exploration of something new.

    Karen – A bus stop is a tricky thing and I can see why the school required written permission and it has nothing to do with the ability of the child. My husband is getting the required permits to become a transit/school bus driver, and apparently, the moment your child steps out of your house to take the bus to and from school, s/he becomes under the supervision of the bus driver. So say s/he fell down outside of your house and hurt herself on the way to the bus stop, that would make the bus driver liable, and he’d have to call the CHP to report an accident. It’s against the law not too. So chances are it was just them trying to cover themselves in that case.

    I’ve had only a few scares with my children, one I was sleeping in my bedroom, and my daughter, who at the time was 3 and very adept at unlocking doors, unlocked the front door, and went outside to play. Being clad in only a diaper and it being 6 am, and wandering around a huge busy street alone, with me still asleep in the back room.. naturally instead of someone just coming to my door, they called the police, pointed out my door, and I was woken up by severe pounding at my front door. I was told that if it happened again they would be taking her away and that I was negligent, and lucky that they didn’t take her away and call CHP on me.

    I showed them my locks on the door, and explained that not only had she pulled a table to the door to unlock them, we had installed 3 additional locks to prevent that very thing. His response? “Put a couch in front of the door”. I was .. extremely angry, and upset, and my husband and I ended up installing a lock on the door that *I* needed a footstool to reach. Thankfully we’ve moved.

    The other major scare I’ve had was in an international airport, with both of my kids, between flights. I had stopped to get something to eat when my son saw a shiny toy store down the platform and wandered away too it. 5 minutes of sheer panic, I saw his blond head poking out of the door, just as an airport officer had saw him, however, we were in Mexico, he smiled at my son, asked me if I needed any help, offered to hold my daughter while I ate, explained “Here in Mexico we love children” and went on his way.

    What a tangent! Heh. My kids are 5 and 7, and we will be participating in “Leave your kids at the park” but I am very thankful for where we live now. A very small town of 2500 people, that has one stop sign in the town, and a police-office that is closed half of the week right across the street from the park. Where we live now, is exactly like it was when I grew up, people are friendly, there are some weirdos, but the people at the grocery store still smile and offer my kids cookies from behind the counter.

  58. Kimberly – the police who told you to put a couch in front of the door are wrong (aside from being ridiculous) because you violate fire code if you do that and it puts your child at risk of dying in a fire, another reason you could be investigated. I wonder what they would have said if you’d told them that.

    As for taking my kid out by baby-stepping, my other problem is that she gets easily distracted (she has ADD) and I can’t count on her to be where she’s supposed to be. Case in point: at the grocery store my 3 year-old had to go to the bathroom, as did my 9 year-old. The older one volunteered to take her sister so that I could continue to shop and not have to take the cart all the way to the bathroom and unload her then-not-quite-1 year-old brother and try to help the 3 year-old while holding the baby. About 10 minutes later an employee announced that there was a lost child at the service desk with a stuffed doggie (my 3 year-old). The 9 year-old was nowhere to be found. I finally found her with the comic books and magazines. She had seen them and stopped to look without bothering to make sure her sister was with her. So I get worried that she’ll get distracted by something she sees in another store window and won’t be easily found when she needs to be. It’s a work in progress, I guess.

  59. When people lament childhood obesity I want to scream. THIS is why there is childhood obesity. Because a child playing outside causes DCF investigations!!!!!!!

  60. Also, I was babysitting at the age of 11. Now it’s illegal to leave a child alone til 13 (in some places. Says the above blog post). Good grief. What happened in two decades?!??!?!?

  61. i’ll tell you a good one ,i was greasing away in the mines tyring to help my single parent s.i.l. of 2 where she was in trouble with drugs.they went to our house early for somereason that evening.my fiance unfortunotly held my child in her lap and was puuled over in a road paving project going on and removed from our personel vehicle in front of a line of traffic and detained while my b.i.l. took the s.i.l. and her 2 back to where they came from while he grilled my fiance and 2 yr. old about the welfare till they returned later.the same bunch he let take our car up the road now sells drugs to pay their bills and the cops won’t do a thing about it cause it dont involve my child

  62. i’ll tell you a good one ,i was greasing away in the mines tyring to help my single parent s.i.l. of 2 where she was in trouble with drugs.they went to our house early for somereason that evening.my fiance unfortunotly held my child in her lap and was puuled over in a road paving project going on and removed from our personel vehicle in front of a line of traffic and detained while my b.i.l. took the s.i.l. and her 2 back to where they came from while he grilled my fiance and 2 yr. old about the welfare till they returned later.the same bunch he let take our car up the road now sells drugs to pay their bills and the cops won’t do a thing about it cause it dont involve my child and that been 5 yrs. now they have sold stuff

  63. On the U.S. military base my husband is stationed at in Germany, it is illegal to leave your child alone at home until they are 11 years old. We do not live on base, and my daughter is not yet a year old, so I don’t know how this rule affects other activities, such as playing at the park or leaving your child in the car while you check your mail or pay for your gas (we can’t swipe at the pump here)…. but there are rules for all of that. After I read a post on here several weeks ago about a mother leaving her 5 year old daughter in the children’s section of the library for a few minutes while she checked out her own book , I asked our librarian about it. I was told that if I left my child alone in the base library the librarians would call Security Forces for abandoning my child. I experienced the results of all this coddling when I subbed at the high school and resolved then, before I read this blog or heard of free-range parenting, that my kids would be more capable and independent.

  64. Kacey, I lived in Germany (off post) for 5 years. The rules about child supervision apply off post as well as on, whether you live in a private rental (because you’re there based on your husband’s sponsorship of you as his dependent and he’s subject to government regs) or a government housing off-post. The rule about kids is that you have to have them within your line of sight if they are younger than 11.

    That said, most people use common sense when applying the ‘rules’. If you took your child into the library and she was 10 and you told the librarian that you had to run over to ACS and that’s next door, then they wouldn’t have a problem with it. On our post, the library was near the PX and people let their kids go to the library while they were in the PX and there didn’t seem to be a problem with it.

    The reason for the rules is simple: the Securitas people that guard the gates who are not soldiers are not “required” to stop small, unaccompanied children from wandering off post. It’s not in their contracts to do so, so generally speaking they don’t feel the need to question it if they see a kindergarten-aged child walking off post alone. My neighbor’s son was in kindergarten when he decided to leave the DOD school and walk home. He walked out of the school, went right out the gate and down a very busy street. While he was walking the right direction, he was easily 5 km from home and after a bit started to not recognize where he was. At that point he was no longer near a gate onto post. Luckily another neighbor was driving to the health clinic and saw him, stopped and asked him where he was headed, then took him home to his mother. The school had no idea he had left.

    The German kids (as you may have noticed) frequently walk to school alone or in groups, even as young as in 1st grade. SInce this is normal, the Germans don’t stop to think about whether it’s an American kid who may or may not speak German and who may or may not know where s/he’s going.

  65. Oh yes, Jennifer, I realize the rules still apply off base. I meant only that since my daughter is so young, I don’t know how much flexibility people take when applying the rules. For instance, could I leave a 10yo child in the car while I run into the post office? I don’t see many people do it. I do know our commander’s spouse couldn’t let her 9 & 10yo sons play in the playground by themselves after they erected a privacy fence that obstructed her view of them from their house. We are Air Force, so our base gate is manned by active duty security forces. They would stop a small child from walking off the main base, and even from housing I would think. The comment from the librarian was pretty clear, and she is someone I know… I wasn’t just a random person asking a random question. Living off base, I think I could get away with letting a younger child go to the playground or walk the dog…. as you said, the German kids do it, and no one gets hurt. I’ve commented on here before that when we move back, the sense of community, the ease of walking everywhere and relative sense of safety will be the things I miss most.

  66. […] sent to hover over them with a damp Kleenex and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I love the idea of taking our kids to the park and leaving them there to play, but how do we prepare them? There is a lot of talk about giving our kids more freedom, but very […]

  67. […] love the idea of taking our kids to the park and leaving them there to play, but how do we prepare them? There is a lot of talk about giving our kids more freedom, but very […]

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