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Commentary: Giving kids an old-fashioned childhood is not abuse

A few years back, children’s book author Kari Anne Roy was visited by both the Austin police and Child Protective Services for allowing her son Isaac, then 6, to do the unthinkable: play outside, up her street, unsupervised.

Though eventually the charges were dropped, it wasn’t before Child Protective Services interviewed all three of Roy’s children. Afterward, Roy’s daughter, age 8, told her mom that the interviewer had asked if her parents ever showed her movies with naked people in them. “So, my daughter, who didn’t know that things like that exist, does now,” Roy later said. “Thank you, CPS.”

But it was Roy’s final exchange with the caseworker that should chill any Texan’s heart. “What do I do now?” Roy asked, regarding her kids. Simple, replied the investigator, “You just don’t let them play outside.”

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Um, what?

In Texas, we like to believe we are free to raise our children as we see fit. But we worry that parents today can’t allow their children the independence to flourish without running afoul of the state’s child neglect laws.

Currently, Texas parents can be investigated for improper supervision if they put a child in any situation authorities believe “could have resulted in substantial harm.” This hopelessly broad and speculative standard allows state authorities to turn ordinary and safe parental decisions into a panoply of potential disaster.

The issue is this: While there has never been a safer time to be a child in America, there’s no such thing as a zero-risk activity. So, the fact that letting your kid walk to school could result in substantial harm — no matter how unlikely — means that the state can pretty much investigate any parent anytime they let their kids do anything other than settle into the La-Z-Boy to play “World of Warcraft.”

As parents, we believe it is our job to let our kids take a few, simple risks. Not nutty ones, like base jumping into a pit of rattlesnakes, but things like learning to use a pocket knife or ride a skateboard.

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Are many Texans really getting investigated for letting their kids play outside? That’s hard to say. But in the last 20 years, CPS investigations for all forms of abuse and neglect have remained flat — or even declined — while investigations for neglectful supervision have tripled, based on a Texas Public Policy Foundation analysis of CPS data. In fact, investigating parents and removing children for “neglectful supervision” is now 70 percent of what CPS does. As recently as 1996, it was less than 40 percent.

If authorities are removing children from parents who run meth houses, great. But if they’re removing them from people like Kari Anne Roy, we’ve got a problem.

It is especially important to raise the bar on removals because foster care can be so dangerous. In 2015, Texas CPS was doing such a pitiful job caring for children that a judge placed the agency under federal control. The court concluded “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” in Texas foster care – meaning kids “uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”

Even more reason to ensure no children are ever taken from their parents simply because someone with the authority to destroy a family thinks any kid playing outside without his mom is in danger.

Texas law should protect and promote parents’ inherent right to raise their children without undue interference. Our children deserve some unsupervised time — and parents have the right to give it to them without being investigated.

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Climbing trees, building forts, and chasing fireflies present all sorts of risk — broken arms, smashed thumbs, sprained ankles. But they also all build a child’s imagination, resourcefulness and brave young soul. Our job as parents is to give our kids the opportunities to become their best selves. They can’t do this in a bubble.

The state should only get involved when the decisions of parents make great harm likely, not just possible. This standard protects kids from truly negligent parents while giving parents and kids a chance to thrive.

No one wants to see kids neglected or abused. Let’s make sure that parents who want to give their kids a childhood as big as Texas aren’t abused by the system either.

Logan is director of the Center for Families and Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Skenazy is founder of Free-Range Kids.

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