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Free Range Children...OK, But Are They Organic?

The Arizona Teachers' Walkout has ended, children statewide are (perhaps reluctantly) heading back to school, and while as Arizona Family Lawyers we are content to leave the political debate to others, one feature of the walkout that we couldn't avoid noticing was that lots of Arizona parents found themselves with the unexpected dilemma of what to do with the kids. Daycare? Relatives? You can't just leave them home alone, right?

Well, maybe you can--at least in Utah. Utah's average salary for public school teachers ranks near the bottom of the 50 states (as did Arizona's prior to the walkout), but if their teachers decide to follow the example of teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, parents in Utah may have greater flexibility in choosing whether and how to supervise their children. That's because under a new statute in that state, parents who wish to practice so-called "free-range parenting" are being given a legal safe harbor for leaving children unattended in some circumstances.

Child neglect and child abuse are against the law in Utah, but like most states, Utah had not previously defined what "neglect" or "abuse" meant, leaving it to child welfare agencies and prosecutors to define those terms on a case-by-case basis. The new law would, for the first time, explicitly ensure that parents cannot be prosecuted simply for allowing their children to walk, play, or stay home alone. If it seems hard to believe that an otherwise fit parent would be prosecuted for allowing their child to engage in these activities, it is all too easy to imagine for Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Springs, Maryland, who were charged (and cleared) twice in 2015 for allowing their children (aged 10 and 6) to walk home from school through a local park without adult supervision.

Here in Arizona, child neglect is defined in A.R.S. section 8-201. In addition to two specific situations relating to exposing a child to dangerous chemicals, drugs, or locations where such materials are stored or created, the statute states that a child is being neglected if the parents are unable or unwilling to provide "supervision, food, clothing, shelter, [and] medical care" if the lack of those resources causes an "unreasonable risk of harm."

It's not clear from the statute just what makes a risk "reasonable" as opposed to "unreasonable, and the question of where to strike the balance between safety and independence is not likely to be definitively settled any time soon. One thing is certain, though: over 100 years after the fact, the State of Utah has officially recognized the parenting style of fictional resident Henry Jones, who famously taught young Indy "self-reliance," as well as how to count in Greek, of course.

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