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Illustration by Andrea Ucini

Is Free-Range Parenting a Crime in Colorado?

If your parenting style doesn't mesh with shifting cultural expectations, is that against the law?

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It only takes about 50 steps to get from Monica and Devon Jones’ Stapleton house to the pocket park across the street—maybe 100 if you’re a pint-size person. In fact, when the Joneses bought their house in 2014, they picked it in part because of its proximity to the green space: They could see the playground from the front porch.

On August 21, 2017, Monica Jones stood on that porch and watched her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter confidently take those 100 steps to cross the street and join her friends at the playground. It was the day of the solar eclipse, and a number of neighborhood kids and adults had gathered there; Monica’s daughter had asked to play with them. Monica knew some of the parents in the park, and the Joneses had been working with their daughter for months on crossing the street, so Monica felt comfortable letting her child go on her own while she watched. “We wanted to give her a little taste of freedom and independence,” she says. The Joneses’ daughter made the trip unscathed and spent the next couple of hours going between her house and her friends, with her mom watching from the porch and through the windows.

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A couple of weeks later, there was a knock on the Joneses’ door. Someone who had seen the little girl playing unsupervised had called the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) hotline to report the incident, and now two caseworkers were standing on the Joneses’ porch. They introduced themselves and asked to come in. Monica wasn’t home, but Devon invited the caseworkers into the kitchen, where they delivered some shocking news: They were there to investigate an allegation of neglect.

The Joneses are not the first family to have such child-rearing practices questioned. In 2009, Lenore Skenazy earned the nickname “America’s worst mom” after writing a New York Sun column about letting her nine-year-old ride the subway home on his own. Writer Kim Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor (her son) when she left the four-year-old in the car on a 50-degree day while she ran into a store for five minutes. Other parents have faced felony neglect charges for similar actions. The allegations and subsequent court cases appear to stem from growing cultural differences in beliefs about what qualifies as appropriate supervision today.

The term “helicopter parent” first appeared in the American lexicon in 1990, when researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term to describe parents who curtailed their children’s independence by constantly supervising them. The precise reason the philosophy took root, however, is not as clear.

Some have traced the birth of helicopter parenting to the 1979 disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz in Manhattan and the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh, a six-year-old boy who was abducted from a store in Hollywood, Florida, and killed. Following those high-profile cases, images and information about missing children were printed on milk cartons. The practice raised awareness and also created what some have argued is a legacy of overestimating the risk of stranger danger. Despite the fact that violent crime rates have decreased by 50 percent since 1991—and that nonfamily abductions make up less than one percent of missing child cases, per the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—only about 17 percent of children in kindergarten through eighth grade walk or ride their bikes to school, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Safe Routes to School. Nearly half did in 1969.

The Joneses count themselves among a growing number of “free-range” parents, who believe in fostering independence in children and relying less on supervision. The philosophy is a throwback to the approach of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose parenting book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, was a best-seller through the 1950s. Free-range parenting has been popularized more recently by Skenazy, who penned the book Free-Range Kids following her excoriation for letting her son ride the subway alone. She later founded Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to countering what she views to be overprotective parenting. “We’re sort of imprisoning our own kids these days,” says Let Grow executive director Tracy Tomasso. “We think we’re not doing any harm by keeping them inside, but we are: By taking away their internal locus of control, it’s no surprise that kids are more anxious these days.”

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Anxiety rates in children between six and 17 are, indeed, on the increase. Last June, the American Psychological Association released a report demonstrating that “overcontrolling parenting can negatively affect a child’s ability to manage his or her emotions and behavior.” All of which is part of the reason the Joneses encouraged their daughter to learn to cross the street by herself. “We don’t believe in treating kids like they have to be wrapped in bubble wrap,” Devon says. “We want our kids to learn to solve problems on their own.”

In 2017, more than 211,000 people called the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (1-844-CO-4-KIDS). One of those people was a nanny in the park the day Monica let her daughter cross the street. The nanny, who had brought her charge there to play with another child, reported that a little girl under the age of three had been allowed to play unsupervised.

The majority of the calls the hotline receives are screened out for various reasons. (They’re not related to child welfare, for example, or there isn’t sufficient information to locate the alleged victim.) Roughly 18 percent of all calls are accepted for assessment, which means caseworkers from the respective counties’ human services departments are assigned to investigate. They follow a prescribed set of protocols, among them interviewing all members of the household—including the alleged victim—and any “collaterals” who could have information about the alleged abuse or neglect, such as witnesses (like the nanny), extended family, friends, neighbors, and even teachers who might be able to provide a better picture of the family dynamics and relationships. “It’s a rigorous and balanced assessment,” says Laura Solomon, the intake administrator for the Division of Child Welfare within the CDHS. “We want to balance the risks or concerns with the family’s strengths.” In the Joneses’ case, social workers interviewed them, their daughter, the nanny, and a neighbor who said she saw Monica on the front porch, watching her daughter. They also checked the Joneses’ refrigerator and looked over their two children for signs of physical abuse. The caseworkers did not speak with any of their friends or extended family.

At the end of an assessment, caseworkers must determine if the “preponderance of evidence” supports a finding that an incident of neglect or abuse, as defined by the state, occurred. If it does, the allegation is deemed founded. If it doesn’t, the allegation is deemed unfounded or inconclusive. The caseworkers’ determination is then reviewed by at least one supervisor. In other words, in the Joneses’ case, at least two people would need to believe that allowing a four-and-a-half-year-old to cross the street and play in the park while her mother watched qualified as an incident of neglect. They did.

In September 2017, the Joneses received a letter notifying them that Denver Human Services (DHS) had substantiated the finding of neglect—one of 1,226 cases of alleged neglect or abuse that DHS would substantiate that year—and that they had 90 days to appeal the finding with the state’s Child and Adult Mistreatment Dispute Review Section (CAMDRS), a review unit under CDHS. When a county accepts a referral for assessment, it also is required to notify local law enforcement, which can decide whether or not to move forward with charges of its own. In this case, the Denver Police Department pursued a criminal case, charging the Joneses with “other wrongs to minors,” a misdemeanor.

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The DHS finding and misdemeanor charge came with significant potential consequences. If the substantiated finding of neglect wasn’t overturned, the Joneses would be flagged as “persons responsible for abuse or neglect” (PRAN) on a state-maintained database that records families’ experiences with CDHS. The PRAN flag doesn’t come up in most commonly used background checks, but it would show up on the screenings required for working at a daycare, camp program, neighborhood group, or potentially volunteering at their daughter’s school. If found guilty of the misdemeanor, the Joneses could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Beyond all of that, there’s the stigma, says Bonnie Saltzman, the Joneses’ attorney for their CDHS appeal. “We were fortunate to be in a position to fight this,” Devon says, noting that not all families have the resources to do so.

Ultimately, Devon Jones’ criminal case was dismissed because he had an alibi; he was at a work meeting. Monica’s case, though, was set to go to trial until the city could not produce the nanny who had made the initial hotline call. She was out of the country and would not be available to testify in the time required to ensure Monica’s right to a speedy trial. In March 2018, her case was dismissed. The next day, CAMDRS also overturned the DHS finding of neglect. The decision was a rarity: Of the 869 appeals CAMDRS received in 2017, only 13 findings were overturned (although CAMDRS did work with some families to have the PRAN flag removed after a short period of time).

County human services caseworkers don’t have an easy job. In Denver, there were roughly 50 caseworkers to handle the more than 4,700 DHS assessments required in 2017. (In 2018, DHS employed about 65 caseworkers.) Their jobs are sometimes complicated by the language the state uses to define what qualifies as abuse or neglect.

According to the Colorado Revised Statutes: “‘Abuse’ or ‘child abuse or neglect’…means an act or omission in one of the following categories that threatens the health or welfare of a child.” Some of those categories are obvious; for example, producing meth where your kids live counts as abuse. Others are a little less plain, like this one: “A child is neglected or dependent if…(b) The child lacks proper parental care through the actions or omissions of the parent, guardian, or legal custodian.”

Denver’s municipal code isn’t any clearer in how it defines “other wrongs to minors,” the misdemeanor with which the Joneses were charged. That can include causing “the endangerment or impairment of the morals of any minor.” Is a parent, then, endangering the morals of a minor by leaving a 10-year-old alone at home? (Like most other states, Colorado does not set a legal age for when a child can be left home alone.)

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The vague language reflects a desire to protect kids from other kinds of abuse and neglect that aren’t covered under more specific wording, in part because, as one DHS source says, “We’re not creative enough to come up with all the ways in which parents abuse or neglect children.” The hope is that the carefully crafted safety and risk assessments the caseworkers carry out help them determine if a lack of “proper parental care” actually “endangers the health and welfare of the child.” Colorado law also requires that caseworkers take into account cultural differences and parenting styles when making their assessments, notes Stephanie Villafuerte, the state’s Child Protection Ombudsman. But as the Joneses’ case illustrates, there’s still room for interpretation.

That kind of subjectivity led Utah, last year, to become the first state in the country to pass what’s been deemed a free-range parenting law. The law attempts to protect parents by clarifying what does not constitute neglect—specifically that it does not include “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.” Groups in several other states, including Texas, Connecticut, and Illinois, are pushing for similar changes. The Joneses would like to see the Colorado Legislature consider a comparable adjustment when its next session begins later this month, and they are gathering support through their Facebook group, Free Range Kids Colorado, which has nearly 400 members.

Thus far, no legislation has been drafted, nor are there high-profile moves afoot to adjust Denver’s municipal code. For its part, the Colorado Department of Human Services does not seem to think it’s needed. When Utah passed its law, CDHS published an article that noted: “Colorado’s laws already allow parents space and flexibility to parent their own children.” Except when—as in the Joneses’ case—they don’t.

Villafuerte, whose office is responsible for the oversight of all of the state’s child protection services, says she doesn’t have data that suggest cases like the Joneses’ are a particular problem. However, she notes, neglect cases do make up the largest portion of child welfare cases the system sees—and often they are related to socioeconomic issues. When a parent working two jobs can’t afford daycare, for example, he or she might leave one child in the care of another.

Cases like the Joneses’ highlight the tension between parents’ fundamental right to raise their children without government interference and society’s interest in protecting children from abuse and neglect, Villafuerte says. “This particular situation raises significant questions about how we protect families on both sides,” she says. “But when it comes to making a change in law, there has to be a thoughtful approach to that. Should there be such a movement, there needs to be a really concentrated effort to bring all of the stakeholders together to talk about what that would mean.”

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The Jones family doesn’t want to open the door to more abusive or neglectful parents harming children. They also believe they shouldn’t have had to defend their choice to let their daughter cross the street and play on her own. So the question becomes: What, if anything, needs to change to protect children and the parents who find themselves in this vulnerable position? “We spent most of the summer just recovering from the trauma of the whole incident,” Devon says. “And because of the midterm elections, people told us not to really bother with [pushing for legislation] right now.”

The Joneses also spent some time rebuilding their daughter’s confidence. She used to be bold, they say, but now worries about walking two houses down to knock on her friend’s door to see if she can play. “She’s more fearful now,” Monica says. Then again, she admits, so are they.

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