A state Senate panel Wednesday endorsed a bill that could change how parents raise their children in South Carolina.
The bill would amend the state’s child abuse and neglect laws to state that children who are old enough and mature enough don’t always have to have adult supervision.
The proposal follows a 2014 incident in which a North Augusta single mother was charged with “unlawful neglect” of a child, a felony, for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park, with a cellphone and key to their home, while she worked, according to CNN. The case later was dropped by the prosecutor, according to online court records.
That arrest sparked an intense debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone unsupervised.
Supporters say the legislation would allow parents to use their common sense in giving children more freedom and independence, and clarifies the rules for law enforcement and state social workers.
“Being a kid, as we all understand it, is in many cases, unfortunately, criminalized through overzealous prosecution of the law,” said state Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, a sponsor of the bill. “This is an attempt to push back on that a little bit, to say, ‘It is OK for a 10-year-old to walk down the street and go to the neighborhood park ... or ride a bicycle to school.’
“We want children in South Carolina ... to be able to live and grow and mature independently of their parents, when their parents decide it’s OK for them to do that.”
Modeled off Utah’s “free range parenting law,” the bill would allow children to play outdoors or be alone in a car unsupervised, so long as the child’s “basic needs are met” and they are of “sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.”
Those activities include walking, running or biking to school or a nearby store, park, swimming pool and other recreational facility, as well as waiting in a car or staying home alone.
However, a parent or guardian who “intentionally, recklessly, knowingly or with criminal negligence” leaves a child in a vehicle unattended still could be charged with child abuse or neglect.
The bill originally did not set a minimum age at which a child could be left on his or her own in a vehicle or at home. But it was amended Wednesday by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee to set that threshold at 9 years old at the request of state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
Climer said he wants to “create a little bit more space” in the life of single mothers “already struggling with so much,” so they don’t feel “persecuted by the state” and inadvertently run afoul of the law, “when they’re trying to do the best they can for their families.”
Shawn Reeves, a legislative liaison with the S.C. Department of Social Services, said that state agency already takes into the account the age and maturity of a child in determining whether to investigate an allegation of neglect or abuse.
“But having it in the statute could certainly provide some additional guidance for the department and its workers,” Reeves told the committee.
Greenville parent Jennifer Black pushed the committee to advance the bill.
“It’s kind of unfortunate that we have to enumerate what is — you know, something that I grew up with,” Black said. “But ... unfortunately, we do because people are calling into (law enforcement) because of mandatory reporting. I think there’s a fear of liability, and so ... making these exceptions is something that we have to do.”
The bill now moves to the full Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
“The last thing you want to do is enshrine in statute a license to commit what is actual child abuse,” Climer told The State, calling the proposal a work in progress. “The committee was very careful to not overstep that line.”