Restoring Independence in Child Neglect Laws

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Scholar explores the unintended consequences of state child neglect laws and proposes changes.

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In Connecticut, child neglect occurs when a child is denied “proper care and attention.” Yet, the statute does not define what “proper” care or “proper” attention might be. And in Florida, parents can be held accountable not only for their own neglect but also for neglect by another person.

In a recent article, law professor David Pimentel argues that such broad state child neglect laws have led parents to become overprotective. This kind of “helicopter” parenting has resulted in a decline in childhood independence that has devasting effects on children’s mental health, claims Pimentel. He recommends that legislatures reform state child neglect laws to safeguard reasonable childhood independence and promote situation-specific parental decision-making.

States have designed child neglect laws to protect children from abuse and danger. Although federal legislation provides guidance to states on setting child neglect standards, states have the authority to craft and modify their own legislation. As a result, states have varying definitions and standards of child neglect, which Pimentel argues are often vague and broad.

Under these ambiguous statutes, parents lack a clear understanding of their legal risks––making them hesitant to rely on their parental instincts, suggests Pimentel. These laws, however, carry severe consequences for parents if parents violate them.

Pimentel argues that, under these statutes, parents are forced to adopt and maintain an overprotective parenting style––stripping them of their right to raise their children as they see fit. Some parents, especially low-income or single parents, are unable to meet the prescribed level of supervision mandated by these laws, disproportionately exposing them to state intervention, notes Pimentel.

Pimentel also highlights the adverse effect that these laws can have on children’s well-being. Hypervigilant parental supervision and children’s lack of engagement in independent activities are correlated with mental health issues in children, including heightened dependency on parents, inability to cope with life challenges, decreased empathy, and immaturity.

In response to these concerns, some states have crafted legislation designed to preserve childhood independence and give parents their freedom to parent. Since 2018, 13 states have considered such legislation and four states have passed measures designed to uphold these principles.

Pimentel identified what he perceives as the most effective features of these new laws to create recommendations for other states.

Pimentel proposes that states should require that a parent only be liable for intentional actions that put a child in danger. Most child neglect statutes make parents liable if they perform an action that endangers a child regardless of the parent’s intention.

An intent requirement would elevate the standard for holding parents liable for child neglect, protecting parents who genuinely believed they were acting in the best interest of their child, argues Pimentel. Pimentel notes that a Texas statute has adopted this element, requiring that a parent exhibit a “blatant disregard” for a child’s safety for the state to hold the parent liable under the statute.

Pimentel also proposes that legislatures narrow the definition of neglect in statutes. Many statutes maintain that putting a child at “risk” constitutes child neglect. Pimentel points out, however, that “almost every parenting decision is an exercise in risk management involving a balancing of risks.” For instance, a parent’s decision to either leave a child at home or take them to the pharmacy during a pandemic comes with different yet equally troublesome risks.

Specifically, Pimentel recommends that states should adopt the Texas statute’s language, which replaces “risk” with “immediate danger.” By raising this standard, parents would be less vulnerable to the ambit of decisions and actions that may fall under the broad umbrella of risk, allowing parents to feel more confident in making decisions for their children, explains Pimentel.

Pimentel also proposes that state lawmakers should define a child’s capacity for independence based on their maturity and abilities rather than relying on age limits. He argues that age limits are inherently arbitrary because children of the same age can exhibit vastly different levels of responsibility.

An age-based standard neglects parents’ understanding of their child’s maturity and restricts parents’ judgement of their child’s capabilities, Pimentel contends. Rather, by considering the individual circumstances of the child, such as their maturity, physical condition, and mental abilities, the law would better protect against true cases of neglect, while affording parents’ the opportunity to make decisions in the best interest of their child, suggests Pimentel.

As more states consider changes to their child neglect laws, Pimentel offers recommendations that he contends will empower parents, liberate children, and align a common objective: to protect the overall well-being of children.