A so-called “free-range parenting” bill has sparked debate among South Carolina senators about when children are old enough to be left home alone.
The measure, which won approval Tuesday morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, seeks to encourage children to become more independent. It would prevent parents from being accused of abuse or neglect if they allow children of “sufficient age or maturity” to play outside and walk or bicycle to school without supervision.
But it is a portion of the bill that would allow children to stay home unattended that has generated the most discussion, including jokes about the “Home Alone” movies.
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“What if I want to go buy groceries and leave my 3 and 4-year-old at home because I think they play well together?” Sen. Katrina Shealy asked during a subcommittee hearing on the legislation last month. “I think there is a certain age that children should not be left alone.”
Shealy, a Republican from Lexington, proposed an amendment that the subcommittee approved stating that children under 9 years of age cannot be left by themselves at home or in vehicles.
The subcommittee grappled with the same issue last week before eventually deciding to remove a specific age requirement from the bill. The language about leaving children unattended in vehicles also was deleted.
The panel’s members heard testimony at least week’s meeting from Maggie Cash, executive director of the South Carolina Children’s Hospital Collaborative, and Elizabeth Broadbent, a freelance writer from Columbia who has three sons between 5 and 9 years of age.
“The question of when is a child old enough to be left home alone is a common one in a pediatrician’s office. And the answer to that question is always going to start with, ‘Well, it depends,'” Cash said.
“I can tell you from experience — I’m the mother of three teenage boys — that not all 12-year-olds are created equal,” she said. “I would trust my 12-year-old before I trust my 14-year-old.”
While Cash said the American Academy of Pediatrics has a “soft recommendation” that a child should be 11 or 12 years old before being left home alone, she stressed that “establishing a minimal age is problematic.”
“There are so many other factors involved: Are you in a safe neighborhood? Does the child have ready access to neighbors to help? How is that child’s maturity? Does the child have a development delay or a disability?” she said.
Broadbent voiced opposition to including age limits in the legislation.
“I don’t think the government should have the right to come into my household and make that decision for me,” she said.
Her 9-year-old son, Blaise, also addressed the panel.
“I’m worried that Momma and Daddy will get arrested and will have to pay fines, too,” said Blaise, who was wearing a suit and bow tie and said he enjoys catching lizards and snakes while playing outside with his younger brothers.
Instead of including any age limits in the bill, the subcommittee approved an amendment that states children can stay home alone as long as their parents or guardians return home on the same day, make provisions to be contacted and also prepare for “reasonably foreseeable emergencies.”
As a result of Tuesday’s approval by the Judiciary Committee, the bill will now move to the Senate floor for consideration.
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‘The safest time to be a child in America in a long, long time’
Lenore Skenazy was ridiculed as “America’s Worst Mom” after she wrote a newspaper column in 2008 detailing how she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone in New York City. A year later, she published her book “Free-Range Kids” that sought to debunk the belief that “our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”
South Carolina’s “free-range parenting” bill was introduced by Sen. Wes Climer, a Republican from Rock Hill, and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat from Camden. The measure is based on legislation from Utah, which last year became the first state in the nation to pass a “free-range parenting” law.
Climer said parents are “having their children removed from their care for such acts as letting their children play in a park for a little while by themselves or having a 12-year-old sit in a car for a few minutes.”
He also said “low-income single women tend to get treated disproportionately unfairly” compared to wealthier two-parent households in suburban neighborhoods.
“My interest in pursuing this is to create a little bit more space in the life of those single moms who already are struggling with so much,” he said.
His concerns are illustrated by a pair of cases that received national attention in recent years.
In the summer of 2014, Debra Harrell was arrested on a neglect charge for allowing her 9-year-old daughter go to a playground while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s in North Augusta. She lost custody of her daughter for 17 days. Prosecutors dropped the charge against Harrell in 2016, court records show.
Natasha Felix was cited for neglect in 2013 after she let three children, ages 5, 9, and 11, play in the park beside her Chicago home, where she could watch them from a window. She was cleared of wrongdoing two years later by a state appellate court, according to the Chicago Tribune.
At last month’s Statehouse hearing, Climer asked an official with the state Department of Social Services about how the agency would typically handle a report about an 8-year-old child being left home alone.
DSS legislative liaison Shawn Reeves said the agency might opt against taking any formal action in such a case if no other problems were found at the home.
But Sheheen, an attorney who made two unsuccessful runs for governor, offered a contrasting perspective at last week’s subcommittee meeting.
“I have come across situations where DSS got involved too deeply when they shouldn’t have. I’ve also seen law enforcement called into situations where law enforcement shouldn’t be involved,” he said. “When the government gets involved in your family situation, it is difficult.”
DSS received 56,263 reports of child abuse or neglect in the last fiscal year, officials reported. The agency found no investigations were required in 10,495 of those cases. Another 7,931 were referred to community-based preventive services.
Of the remaining 37,837 reports, allegations of abuse or neglect were substantiated in 10,928 cases, according to the agency’s latest statistics. The statistics don’t provide details on how many reports involved children who were left unsupervised in homes, vehicles or other settings.
Sheheen said the “free-range parenting” bill is not meant to “protect neglectful people or the abusers.” Rather, he said, the legislation is intended to send a message to the public that “it is OK for kids in reasonable circumstances to have independence. In fact, it’s good for them.”
“You wouldn’t know if from media and watching TV, but it’s actually the safest time to be a child in American in a long, long time. It is much safer now than it was when I was a child,” Sheheen said. “Crime against children is down. Crime overall is down. Violence overall is down.
“Yet we seem to live in this fear, driven in large part by what we see on television, on the internet.”
Broadbent told the subcommittee that curtailing the independence of children has led to negative consequences.
“Things like obesity, things like teen depression have skyrocketed,” she said, “and one of the reasons we believe they have skyrocketed is because children are afraid to play outside.”
Follow Kirk Brown on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM
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