Hilary Gowins: Latchkey laws are the ultimate ‘mom shaming’

Mom shaming is at the forefront of our collective consciousness as mothers. We’ve effectively called out those who pass judgment on how we feed our babies. We’ve banded together to support each other regardless of whether we choose to go back to work or stay home with the kids.

We thought the root of the problem stemmed from our peers, and so we’ve fought for a culture of kindness and community. But some of the most insidious mom shaming today is coming from over-reaching laws.

In three states, parents can face legal penalties for choosing to let their kids play outside on their own. It’s a scary reality that pits children’s need for independence against parents’ fear of being branded "neglectful."

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Illinois, Maryland and Oregon each have laws that dictate how old kids must be before their parents can allow them to venture out alone.

In Illinois, bureaucrats picked age 14. In Maryland, 8. In Oregon, 10.

These latchkey laws are the ultimate mom shaming, and they carry consequences that have the power to traumatize children and jeopardize parents’ lives.

Just ask Corey Widen, a suburban Chicago mom who last fall decided her 8-year-old could handle walking the family dog around the block on her own. Someone saw the child walking and called the police. That unneighborly decision triggered a two-week investigation into Widen’s family, during which authorities interviewed family members, neighbors and her children’s pediatrician.

Chicago mom Natasha Felix was investigated for child neglect in 2013 when she let her three children, ages 11, 9 and 5, play alone at a park next to their apartment. Investigators claimed Felix had provided “inadequate supervision” even though she checked on the children every 10 minutes, and placed her on a state registry, causing her to be fired from her job in home health care.

If I need help deciding how to raise my kids, I’ll ask family, friends or our pediatrician. I don’t need government bureaucrats to tell me how to be a good mom.

Illinois’ latchkey laws are the harshest in the nation. And, to make things worse, these laws are written in such vague language that it’s nearly impossible for parents to determine what is considered “neglect.”

Try to understand this: Illinois law says any minor younger than 14 is neglected if he or she is left unsupervised “for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor.”

What’s “unreasonable”? Ten minutes? Two hours? Five days? The law doesn’t provide that information, which explains how Natasha Felix and Corey Widen were subject to government scrutiny for simply letting their kids engage in normal, independent childhood play.

Illinois state Rep. Joe Sosnowski has floated a bill to drop Illinois’ latchkey age to 12 years old, prompting an important conversation about just how harmful latchkey laws are. But instead of trying to decide what age kids should be allowed to play outside alone, why not have some faith in parents to make these decisions?

We know our kids better than anyone, and so it follows that we can best assess whether they’re mature enough, responsible enough and capable enough to ride bikes around the neighborhood or walk downtown on their own.

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If I need help deciding how to raise my kids, I’ll ask family, friends or our pediatrician. I don’t need government bureaucrats to tell me how to be a good mom.

So here’s what I’d ask of the men and women elected to represent me: Please protect children who are truly suffering from abuse and neglect. But don’t tell me how to parent my kids.