During the 2018 general session, the Utah Legislature passed—and the Governor signed—an important new law protecting Utah parents. Popularly known as Utah’s “free-range parenting law,” this legislation sponsored by Senator Lincoln Fillmore and Representative Brad M. Daw is officially titled as “Senate Bill 65 — Child Neglect Amendments” and operates to amend various sections of the Utah Code. The law has generated interest and news reports not only in many other states but also internationally, including in the United Kingdom.
Why Did This Law Come About?
The new law—and the more general “free-range parenting” movement which has led to the legislation–arises because of the trend towards paranoia and criminalization of normal parenting and childhood activities. Over the last few decades, the public has been gripped in fear over child abductions (which are actually comparatively rare and far down on the list of what is likely to harm or kill a child).
At the same time, child protective services, government regulators, government school officials, law enforcement, courts, medical providers, and other institutions who interface with children (collectively, “Regulators”) have tended to trend in the direction of greater intrusion into family life. As Regulators’ animosity toward parental autonomy has increased, traditional childhood activities and family lifestyles have become imperiled. Many Regulators insist that any parenting style other than extreme “helicopter parenting” is criminal child abuse and neglect.
Government Regulators Taking Extreme Measures Against Parenting Rights
One of the most obvious manifestations of this problem involves the simple ability of children to walk, play, and roam in the course of normal, lawful, neighborhood childhood activity without being apprehended. For example, children have been snatched off the street by law enforcement, and parents cited for abuse or neglect, simply because the children were allowed to walk along a public sidewalk to their nearby school, explore a nearby public woodland, or play in a nearby neighborhood park.
This has occurred even in situations when, for example, the children had GPS trackers, mobile phone access to their parents, and times for starting and returning from their activities. Regulators also attempt to use such tactics to expand their own power and leverage implementation of their own child-raising philosophies against the will of parents.
Damaged Caused by Over-Reaching Regulations
Unfortunately, over-reaching and paranoia on the part of Regulators impose very serious harm to both parents and children. Minors taken into the custody of law enforcement or of children protective services are at risk of psychological harm as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Often the risks to a child in government custody or government facilities is higher than the environment from which they were involuntarily seized.
Moreover, the legal bills and disruption caused by Regulator seizure tend to be considerable even if the parents are exonerated and the children returned without criminal charges. The financial and psychological distress not only harms parents, but it also harms the children and deprives family households of financial resources that could have been used to better the lives of the very children who have been improvidently plucked from their neighborhood without any evidence of wrongdoing by parent or minor.
Although the obvious direct forms of over-reaching by Regulators impose considerable harm, the hidden and indirect harm is argued to be far more pernicious. Parents cannot be everywhere at once, especially if they have multiple children, and they often have other tasks and chores to complete which are essential to the welfare of the household and child. In order to avoid the risk of a child seizure, many parents will confine their children indoors and otherwise restrict minors from engaging in traditional outdoor childhood exploration and play.
This, in turn, exacerbates the modern problems of child obesity, child diabetes, lack of exercise, lack of physical fitness, overuse of television, overuse of the internet, and overuse of video games and other electronic devices. Proponents of free-range parenting also argue that intellectual curiosity, knowledge of nature, civic and social engagement, personal self-confidence, problem-solving skills, navigational ability, self-autonomy, personal responsibility, respect for government law enforcement, and psychological health are all impaired when children are subjected to constant physical supervision by helicopter parents caused by constant fear of overbearing Regulators.
Some of the most important new text from “Senate Bill 65 — Child Neglect Amendments” reads as follows (emphasis added):
148 Section 3. Section 78A-6-105 is amended to read:
285 (35) (a) “Neglect” means action or inaction causing:
286 (i) abandonment of a child, except as provided in Title 62A, Chapter 4a, Part 8, Safe
287 Relinquishment of a Newborn Child;
288 (ii) lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent,
289 guardian, or custodian;
290 (iii) failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary
291 subsistence, education, or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health,
292 safety, morals, or well-being;
293 (iv) a child to be at risk of being neglected or abused because of another child in the same
294 home is neglected or abused; or
295 (v) abandonment of a child through an unregulated custody transfer.
296 (b) The aspect of neglect relating to education, described in Subsection (35)(a)(iii),
297 means that, after receiving a notice of compulsory education violation under Section
298 53A-11-101.5, the parent or guardian fails to make a good faith effort to ensure that the child
299 receives an appropriate education.
309 (c) “Neglect” does not include:
310 (i) a parent or guardian legitimately practicing religious beliefs and who, for that
311 reason, does not provide specified medical treatment for a child;
312 (ii) a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the
313 state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health
314 care decision is not reasonable and informed;
315 (iii) a parent or guardian exercising the right described in Section 78A-6-301.5; or
316 (iv) permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and
317 maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities,
319 (A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
320 (B) traveling to and from a nearby commercial or recreational facilities;
321 (C) engaging in outdoor play;
322 (D) remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under the conditions described in
323 Subsection 76-10-2202(2);
324 (E) remaining at home unattended; or
325 (F) engaging in a similar independent activity.
Although the new law is an important step forward, problems are likely to persist because of Regulators who are ignorant of the law, wish to disregard it or seek to re-interpret its meaning.
If any of your children are seized by Regulators or you receive any citation or accusation involving child abuse or child neglect, it is extremely important to immediately enlist the advice and intervention of an attorney. Avoid physical interference with Regulators, but also avoid signing anything or agreeing to anything verbally or in writing until you have first contacted an attorney. Failure to observe such precautions can greatly prejudice your opportunity for fairness, due process, and prompt remedy.
In today’s world, parents and children need all the help they can get. They need attorneys who can assist when Regulators seize children or make accusations against parents and other family members. At Pearson Butler we understand.
About the Author
In June 2014, Mr. Witte became a member (equity owner) with Pearson Butler where he is a chair for the firm’s litigation department. Among other things, he provides a wide range of “general counsel” services for businesses, including entrepreneurs and small businesses needing legal support but lacking full-time in-house counsel. He collaborates with other firm specialists to provide a range of support in relation to business planning, financial planning, leases, probate resolution, interstate commerce regulation, tax issues, and family/domestic law.
Mr. Witte also litigates as needed on behalf of the firm. Some examples of his recent efforts include a $23.4 million dollar fraud judgment secured in Jameson Stanford Resources Corp. v. Stanford (Utah 5th Dist. Ct. 2014), and drafting the successful brief for Veysey v. Nelson II, 2017 UT App 77, cert. denied, 397 P.3d 846 (Utah 2017).
Mr. Witte is also a noted litigator and scholar regarding parental rights, education, and institutional reform issues. He has lectured widely and authored law review articles on such topics. Most recently he was a contributing author for The Pre-K Debates, a 2011 book edited and sponsored by faculty at Yale University; Neighborhood Disputes: Law and Litigation, a 2013 legal treatise; Personal Liability Under the Utah Payment of Wages Act, Attorney At Law Magazine at 15 (2017); and Managing Irresponsible Actors In Federal Interpleader Actions, 50 Tort Trial & Ins. Practice L. J. 1 (2014), the lead article for the fiftieth issue of the American Bar Association’s premier law review. He made a presentation entitled “Overview of Interpleader Fundamentals” at the Utah State Bar 2016 Summer Convention. He has participated in litigation before various local, state and federal courts, primarily in California, Utah, and nearby western states. Mr. Witte is admitted to practice law in the States of California and Utah, U.S. Federal District Court of Utah, the U.S. District Courts of California, and U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
If you have questions regarding the new “Free-Range Parenting Law” or find yourself in a business dispute, contact Dan at (800) 265-2314.