I was recently told this story about a mom of young kids, who was concerned she could be charged with child neglect or abuse for parenting decisions she believed she was making for the health and well-being of her kids.
This mom was outside with her three children, ages 6, 4, and 2. Her older children were riding their bikes up and down the block while she sat in their yard with her two-year-old, supervising their activity.
When the four-year-old ran to her, followed by a neighbor with her dog, who was towing her son’s bike, she knew something was up. The neighbor proceeded to inform her that her son had gone into the street, where there were cars, because he’d lost control of his bike.
The neighbor was concerned that the mom hadn’t been right there with him and called the police on the mom, informing them that she suspected the mom had been drinking.
The police informed the mother she had nothing to worry about. The child had had an accident; it was clear she had not been drinking.
However, the police did take her name and date of birth, which concerned her. She explained, “It seemed like this neighbor called the police because she was angry at me for disagreeing with her, rather than because my child’s safety was at stake.”
The Changing Tide of Parenting Styles
As public fear of child safety becomes more intense – the perception of the increase in child abductions actually overestimates how prevalent it is – and parenting styles have drastically changed in that last 20 years, child endangerment laws have come to be interpreted much more broadly.
What was once a law designed to protect children from the possibility of being trapped in an enclosed space if there was a fire has come to be interpreted, and prosecuted, on the same level as more serious crimes of actual child abuse.
Free-range parents are fighting back, but more of them are likely to be charged with crimes if this clash continues.
Michigan Laws for Unattended Children
Michigan law states, “According to the Child Protection Law, there is no legal age that a child can be left home alone. It is determined on a case-by-case basis, but as a rule of thumb, a child 10 years old and younger is not responsible enough to be left home alone. A child over the age of 10 and under the age of 12 will be evaluated, but the case may not always be assigned for a CPS investigation.”
A child under the age of six years old may not be left alone in a car without the supervision of a person 13 years of age or older who is not legally incapacitated. (750.135a)
Consequences and Punishment
This is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.
(b) If the violation results in physical harm other than serious physical harm to the child, the person is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both.
(c) If the violation results in serious physical harm to the child, the person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both.
(d) If the violation results in the death of the child, the person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 15 years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both.
The Mother’s Dilemma
But, of course, we aren’t talking about leaving a child alone in a car or at home. This mother wanted to know if she could safely – in a legal sense – allow her child to ride his bike to the end of the block if she wasn’t right by his side.
According to the stories I cited above, it may depend greatly on local law-enforcement’s interpretation of the law and – unfortunately – on the characterization given by the anonymous reporter.
In her case, the police could see she hadn’t been drinking, but it may have gone differently in another situation.
If you are facing charges of child neglect, it is important not to get angry or defensive, but to engage legal protection for yourself with the help of a criminal defense attorney. We do live in a country where parents are free to make their own parenting decisions and not be charged with illegal activity. Call today to know your rights.