My wife and I are set to become parents within the next few months. One thing that frightens me about the prospect of being a parent in today's world, and specifically, in Littleton, Colorado, USA, is the recent spate of reports of parents being arrested and having their children taken away because the children engage in activities on their own that would have been considered normal a few decades ago.

I was born in 1983. Much to the dismay of my parents, I preferred to constantly amuse myself with Nintendo games throughout my childhood. However, I was certainly allowed and encouraged to play outside any time I wanted to.

In today's United States, it appears that many people in law enforcement and the courts see it as a parent's duty to keep their children under close supervision at all times; they see anything else as criminal child endangerment.

See this report by the Washington Post: A boy in Ohio left church one Sunday morning to go play with friends. Someone saw him at a "Family Dollar Store" and reported this to the police. The police arrived, took him home, and arrested his father for "child endangerment".

Google will find you many stories like this, so I'm not going to post them all here; I believe that the above story is a good example of what I'm concerned about.

Are parents required by law in the United States in the year 2014 to closely supervise their children when they are out and about, or else keep them at home? It sounds like the answer is a resounding "Absolutely, yes, and you can go to jail and lose your family if you don't obey!" Are these reports typical of how the law is applied in the USA today, or are these reports outliers? Finally, if I don't want my children to be developmentally stunted by being placed under close adult supervision at all times and "house arrest" when supervision isn't available, what can I do about it?

I would be particularly interested in an answer that cites the law as applied here or how the courts have interpreted the law.

  • 4
    Try to remember after your child arrives that you once had this attitude. I can pretty much guarantee you will want to watch your child more closely than you now think is necessary. Jul 23, 2014 at 6:12
  • 3
    @anongoodnurse, that may be true, but it isn't what I'm asking about. Jul 23, 2014 at 12:33
  • 2
    @anongoodnurse, I admit I might be an outlier, but after having two kids (they are now 3 & 5), I have discovered that giving them the freedom to roam by themselves (safely! within reasonable limits! with other people around with kids!) has become even more important to me than I had imagined.
    – coco
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:03
  • 2
    Political, not parenting; narrow focus (Just US); not a question
    – DanBeale
    Jul 26, 2014 at 12:24
  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a legal question and also too localized (USA, 2014) and not about parenting as described in the help center. Mar 11, 2019 at 13:23

2 Answers 2


Unfortunately the specific answer to your question is "yes the law might forbid children from being out and about without supervision, but it depends on the state". I believe the section of law most applicable to this question is "child neglect", and for the most part the definitions of child neglect are left to the states. There is a very wide variety in what is considered "neglect" in various states.

There are often specific laws involving "leaving children alone at home", but they usually don't have much to say about leaving children unattended outdoors. For example, Maryland's 5-801 states that children under 8 cannot be left alone (confined) under the supervision of anyone younger than 13. Note that although this statute does not technically apply to children left to "run free", it is certainly not too hard to imagine a state judge interpreting it as being "in the spirit of the law".

To stick with Maryland again, this is the definition of neglect from 5-701

(s) “Neglect” means the leaving of a child unattended or other failure to give proper care and attention to a child by any parent or other person who has permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for supervision of the child under circumstances that indicate:

(1) that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm;

This definition is a bit non-specific, which could potentially cause trouble.

The department of health and human services provides a rather nice summary of state laws as they apply to neglect (and many other crimes against children): https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/define.pdf . They really do run the gamut as a judge could potentially apply them to 'free range children':


Neglect Citation: Alaska Stat. § 47.17.290 ‘Neglect’ means the failure of the person responsible for the child’s welfare to provide the child necessary food, care, clothing, shelter, or medical attention.

It would be a bit of stretch to get any sort of trouble out of this.


Neglect Citation: Rev. Stat. § 8-201

‘Neglect’ or ‘neglected’ means:

• The inability or unwillingness of a parent, guardian, or custodian of a child to provide that child with supervision, food, clothing, shelter, or medical care if that inability or unwillingness causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare

(bolded the parts that could potentially be troublesome)


Neglect Citation: Ann. Stat. § 626.556, Subd. 2

Failure to provide necessary and appropriate supervision or child care arrangements for a child after considering such factors as the child’s age, mental ability, physical condition, length of absence, or environment, when the child is unable to care for his or her own basic needs or safety, or the basic needs or safety of another child in their care

Mostly someone would be working with the definition of 'safety' here, but for the most part this is pretty reasonable.


Neglect Citation: Welf. & Inst. Code § 300

A child may be considered dependent when:

• The child has suffered, or there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness as a result of:

» The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child

This... could be stretched to something troublesome. Similar to Maryland in some ways.


Since you specifically mentioned Colorado, I'll point out that the definition of neglect there is maddeningly flexible.

Neglect Citation: Rev. Stat. §§ 19-1-103; 19-3-102

The term ‘child abuse or neglect’ includes any case in which a child is in need of services because the child’s parent has failed to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision that a prudent parent would take. A child is ‘neglected’ or ‘dependent’ if:

• The child lacks proper parental care through the actions or omissions of the parent, guardian, or legal custodian.

• The child’s environment is injurious to his or her welfare.

• The parent, guardian, or legal custodian fails or refuses to provide the child with proper or necessary subsistence, education, medical care, or any other necessary care.

(I have edited the quotes from the above-linked pdf only to remove definitions irrelevant to the discussion... but please note that all of them have been edited, and should not be represented as authoritative summaries of the referenced statutes)

  • Thanks for a great answer! At the beginning, you suggest that the answer is "yes", but looking at the source you cite, it sounds like the answer is that it depends on the attitude of law enforcement and court officials. I am reminded of the debate about how to interpret the meaning of the 8th Amendment phrase "cruel and unusual punishment". As one judge might consider hanging an appropriate punishment, another might consider it cruel and unusual. Likewise, a judge would have great leeway to interpret the rules that you cite. Jul 23, 2014 at 16:28
  • @DanielAllenLangdon: Yeah, the "yes" was mostly to state that it could be interpreted as illegal in some parts of the US, but this really does depend on where you live specifically.
    – jker
    Jul 24, 2014 at 0:39
  • Let me clarify one thing: I stated that I live in Colorado, but the specific example I gave of a man being arrested for not watching over his son in public happened in Ohio. Jul 24, 2014 at 21:26
  • I would suggest that the law is flexible on purpose, but that the overwhelming majority of judges will apply basic common sense when ruling. I'd further suggest that what the OP describes (lots of news articles about parents facing abuse charges in the US) is a kind of observation bias - you don't hear about the many more cases that don't get to court because someone reasonable stepped in before that). In fact, the news articles show that such extreme rulings are still considered strange by the people -- otherwise they wouldn't be news. Mar 24, 2019 at 9:47

It may not quite answer your question, but I think it is related. Although I am not from the US, I feel like YES there you would be in trouble for whatever society believes is child-neglect. And I think it is scary, I think people should be really worried now, are we really ready for that? It sounds crazy. So at the end you would have to go on a trial or whatever legal stuff happens after child neglect and JUSTIFY, prove that you are not such a bad parent, that this and that were taken into account etc. So I would say, yes I am ready for that, I am ready for that fight and putting people in front of their stupidity is my biggest pleasure in life. And at the end it is not about law only, as you become parent you realise that you will have to prove all of that to everyone: the mother in law, the teacher, the neighbours, the complete stranger at the mall, every bloody people on Earth will feel like telling you what you should or shouldn't do. So are you ready for that? :)

  • You talk about what "society" thinks. If you have the full force of the legal system brought down on you, you are going to be faced with (A) Knowing that your children are in the care of strangers and it is a crime for you to contact them and (B) From what I've heard, you are likely to have a prosecutor come down on you like a ton of bricks to pressure you into plea-bargaining. If you really think you can take on the full brunt of a legal system bent on crushing you all the while having your children (possibly literally) torn from your arms, good luck with that! Aug 1, 2014 at 22:28
  • However, I think it may be the case that some case like the one I mentioned in Ohio may one day force the legislative bodies to write more specific laws that aren't open to such wide interpretation. Aug 1, 2014 at 22:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .