By: Jessica A. Bryant
There has been a recent push in Colorado by parents requesting a free range parenting law. This type of law was recently passed in Utah (the first state to pass such a law). The reasoning for such type of law is to provide some sort of clarity for parents that want to teach their children more independence without the risk of being charged with child abuse or neglect. In Colorado, the child abuse/neglect laws are vague, which allows the Department of Human Services to exercise discretion in an investigation when deciding if something should be pursued as child abuse or neglect, or not. For example, Colorado does not have a specific age as to when a child can be left home alone- it is simply judged on a reasonableness standard. However, that same vagueness creates uncertainty for parents that want to allow their children freedom to exercise independence by walking home from school or riding their bike to the park, for example. If passed, this type of law would have obvious effects on child abuse and neglect cases. However, it could also have effects on Colorado divorce and custody cases.
One notable effect this type of law may have on custody cases is on the best interest standard. Colorado Revised Statute 14-10-124 is known as the best interest standard- which sets forth the factors Colorado courts are to consider when deciding parenting time and the allocation of decision making responsibility. In addition to these factors, this statute also specifically refers to circumstances the court must consider, including if a parent has committed an act of child abuse or neglect as defined by statute. Thus, having a change to the legal classifications of child abuse and neglect would impact this statute as the court deciding whether there was an act of child abuse or neglect would have to consider such claim in conjunction with any free range parenting law.
Similarly, this law, if passed, may be something relied on by parents in child custody cases. It is not uncommon for parents to have different parenting styles and, in a contested divorce or custody case, for those differences in parenting styles to form the basis for one parent’s argument as to why the other parent’s parenting time should be limited. For example, one parent may be more of a proponent of letting a child walk home from school, stay home alone, etc. Currently, in a custody case, the other parent, that does not believe such is best for the child, may use that parenting technique to claim the other parent puts the child in danger, does not properly supervise the child, etc. However, if a free range parenting law is passed, putting clearer definitions on when a child can be left home alone, let walk to school alone, etc. that could provide support to a parent’s custody arguments. Therefore, a free range parenting law may not only provide clarity to parents that want to provide their child with independence without fear of being accused of child abuse; it may also provide clarity to parents going through a custody or parenting time case.
Over they years, I have seen many cases in which one parent is highly concerned regarding the other’s parenting as relates to leaving kids alone. In some instances, the concerns are justified, while in others they are not. Of course the court, not the attorneys, is the ultimate decision maker regarding what is neglect or abuse and what matters as relates to the allocation of parenting time. Though a “free range parenting” law might add some clariyy in certain situations, I believe it will still be wise to be with your children when able and to not be too lax or permissive in granting them independence. Common sense should prevail when deciding how much freedom to give. Age and maturity certainly tie into common sense and each child is different.