The Unintended Consequences of“Lack of Supervision”Child Neglect Laws: How Developmental Science Can Inform Policies about Childhood Independence and Child Protection

Policies and programs designed to serve children and families are built upon a general understanding of child development. Developmental research has tried to expand that understanding and determine the typical ages at which children acquire certain skills and capabilities, while at the same time incorporating individual differences and cultural variations in child development (Rogoff, 2003). Unfortunately,cultural norms, and therefore, laws and policies, are sometimes misaligned with the research evidence. This is particularly true for child protection law and policy,including the understanding of when children can and should be allowed to be unsupervised by adults in developmentally appropriate ways.

In recent decades in the United States, children’s unsupervised activities, long seen as a routine and healthy part of child development, have been increasingly scrutinized and labeled as unsafe or inappropriate by law enforcement and CPS agencies (Pimentel, 2015). For example, broadchild neglect reporting laws,first adopted by theU.S. Congress in 1974 (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 1974), have influenced the idea that children must be constantly supervised by adults, even during free play, because lack of supervision may lead to a member of the public calling a child neglect hotline (Pimentel, 2015;Redleaf, 2022; Rutherford, 2011). In turn, the fear of such calls may influence parents’ decisions about what unsupervised activities they can or should allow (Pimentel, 2015;Redleaf, 2022). These changes have contributed to a cultural shift in the U.S. where much of children’s time is structured and supervised by adults. This is even though different children are ready for different challenges at different ages (Rogoff, 2003) and that responsive caregiving should provide opportunities for independence that are developmentally appropriate.

The Legal Landscape

Challenge of defining supervisory neglect

Every year, more than 7 million children are reported to CPS hotlines in the U.S. (U.S.Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), 2022). These hotline calls result in two million cases opened for investigation or a service response in the United States, with approximately 620,000 cases deemed to be“substantiated”(i.e., cases in which, upon investigation, some form of abuse or neglect is deemed to have occurred) (U.S.Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), 2022). Sixty percent of these cases concern“neglect only”cases (i.e., the cases present no claim of physical or sexual abuse)(Pimentel, 2015; U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), 2022). However, it is unclear how many neglect cases fall within the area of“supervisory neglect,”because many states’ laws, policies, and data reports do not distinguish between different forms of neglect (Redleaf, 2022a, 2022b). For example, Arizona is a state that maintained subcategorized data, meaning that it breaks neglect cases into categories such as supervisory neglect, emotional neglect, physical neglect, or medical neglect. In Arizona,the number of cases in the neglectful supervision category exceeded all other neglect cases (Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 2017). Additionally, most of these supervisory neglect cases were ultimately deemed“unfounded”(i.e., determined to be lacking in merit upon investigation; unsubstantiated), which means that the resources spent in investigating these matters drained the system′s resources to protect children suffering from serious abuse (Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 2017; Pimentel, 2015; Redleaf,2022). Similarly, research in Canada has established that the threshold for determining supervisory neglect is too low;finding that 96% of cases resulted in no physical harm to the child, and 74% of the cases did not involve any mental or emotional harm to the child(Ruiz-Casares et al., 2012).

Status of supervisory neglect laws in the United States

Theoretically, the United States Constitution protects the right of parents in the first instance to determine when and if their children are ready for independence, including by engaging in activities that are not supervised by an adult or responsible older child (i.e.,serving as a babysitter or monitor). This general principle is rooted in the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments and has been repeatedly reinforced as“fundamental”by the United States Supreme Court (Meyer v. Nebraska, n.d.; Troxel v.Granville, n.d.).Nevertheless, these rights do not prevent parents from being subjected to investigations and charged with child endangerment or neglect by law enforcement authorities or CPS.This is because the rights of parents to the care and control of their children extend only to“fit”parents, not those lawfully deemed abusive or neglectful (Troxel v. Granville, n.d.).And the State has ultimate authority as“parens patriae”to care for children if the parents are unfit, unwilling, and unable to do so (Longley, 2021). Under the guise of protecting children from parents who are harming them,the overwhelming majority of states have laws and policies that permit or encourage the treatment of unsupervised children as neglected (Let Grow Maps Project, n.d.a)

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