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Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers want to spell it out: It’s perfectly legal for kids to play outside or walk to school alone

A bipartisan measure sailing through the state Capitol would clarify that it isn’t child abuse for children to play outside or stay home without parents.

A boy plays at a natural playground at East Greeley Natural Area on Saturday, November 13, 2021. The park is designed to encourage kids to use their imaginations. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Brinley Sheffield and her mom had run the route several times together and tracked the mileage — two trips around their neighborhood block made a mile. 

So when the 7-year-old who wanted to become a faster runner set off on her first solo run, her parents had no concern that she would get lost. Besides, they could keep her in their sights for about half of the jog. 

What they hadn’t considered is that someone might call the police.

The fact that a police officer knocked on the Sheffields’ door minutes after Brinley finished her run is one of the reasons behind a bipartisan plan to clarify Colorado’s child abuse laws. Lawmakers from both parties are wholeheartedly backing the proposal, even while expressing bewilderment that Colorado needs to specifically state that it’s not illegal for kids to play outside by themselves. Or go to the park. Or ride a bike to school. 

“I regret that we have to make this a law,” said Rep. Mary Bradfield, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “There is a portion of our society that is pretty uptight and can’t allow a kid to be a kid.” 

Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat, said the legislation promotes the idea that kids should play outside more and watch screens less. “I love this bill,” she said, describing how she played outside without parents watching when she was a kid, heading home only when the streetlights came on. “Those were the most enriching years of our childhood.”

House Bill 1090 passed 13-0 out of the House human services committee and passed its first vote in the full House on Thursday. Notably absent from Capitol testimony, though, was the state child welfare division, which for years has run public service campaigns to encourage more people to call the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline

The Colorado Department of Human Services understands the intent of the bill, but is taking a neutral stance, spokesman Mark Techmeyer said via email. “It affirms that age-appropriate childhood activities, such as traveling to and from school, playing outside, or staying at home alone are not alone considered maltreatment according to Colorado law and practice if a prudent parent would consider these activities safe.” 

Still, Techmeyer emphasized that it’s important that the public call the hotline if they have a concern about a child’s safety. “Neighbors look out for one another,” he said. 

Brinley, now 12, noticed a car following her when she was out for a run in her Castle Rock neighborhood. When the police officer arrived at her door, she assumed he was there to say he had arrested the person who had been creeping along the neighborhood street in a car as she ran. The girl burst into tears when she thought the officer was there to tell her that what she did was illegal. 

“My first thought was that they found the person that followed me and they were going to put them in jail,” Brinley told lawmakers. “But then I realized that the officer was there because of me. I started to cry because I was scared. I thought I was going to get in big trouble.”

Christa Sheffield and her daughter, Brinley, of Castle Rock, pose for a photo. (Provided by Christa Sheffield)

The officer, upon realizing Brinley was just fine and that her mom knew she went for a run, did not make a report to child protective services. But the incident rattled her mom, Christa Sheffield, who wondered why someone would watch a child walk into her own house and then call the police. The mother of five said she is trying to raise independent children, kids who learn to handle issues on their own because they haven’t always had a parent hovering. 

As parents have grown more fearful of kidnappings and other crimes, they’ve restricted kids’ freedom, Sheffield said in an interview. “We decided we need to keep our hands on kids a little bit tighter, rather than empowering them,” she said. 

Another mom told lawmakers that parents who homeschool their children are sometimes the subject of child abuse hotline or police calls because their kids are playing outside during school hours. “Once a family is in the system they are guilty until proven innocent, the very opposite of what our judicial system affords us in the name of liberty,” said April Hawley, with Christian Home Educators of Colorado. “Parents have a fundamental right and responsibility to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their children.” 

Playground equipment is marked closed at Arapaho Park in Centennial. Playgrounds and picnic areas were closed during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

The point of the bill is mainly to make a statement: no need to assume young kids playing outside, walking to school or staying home alone are neglected. It also aims to decrease unnecessary involvement in the child welfare system, lawmakers said. 

In reality, most calls to the child abuse hotline to report lack of supervision are unsubstantiated. Of 3,854 allegations of lack of supervision in 2019, 82% of them were unfounded, said Rep. Mary Young, a Greeley Democrat and a prime sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Kim Ransom, a Douglas County Republican. 

But even when the allegations are eventually dropped by the child welfare department, getting called by child protective services or the police is anxiety-provoking, Young said. “That means that families, children were impacted by this identification process,” she said. “This really has a negative impact.” 

Also, families of color are more likely to be the subject of reports to the hotline, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services. Black children are the focus of calls to the child abuse hotline 1.27 times more than their percentage of the population in Colorado. White kids, meanwhile, are underrepresented in hotline calls relative to their representation in the state population.

Low-income families are less likely to pay for supervised activities or sports teams, meaning those children are more likely to play outside alone, bill supporters said.

A similar bill was cruising through the legislature in 2020, but was abandoned when the pandemic forced a Capitol shutdown. The measure faces one more vote in the House before heading to the Senate, where its prime sponsors are Aurora Democrat Janet Buckner and Douglas County Republican Jim Smallwood. 

Update: This story was updated on Feb. 18 to correct the spelling of Sheffield.

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