Center for Educational Progress Newsletter – January 27, 2011

1. Tyranny of the Fearful

By Daniel E. Witte

On Dec. 10, 2010, Rosella Talbot, mother of six in South Jordan and caretaker of a stay-at-home child who is chronically ill, was confronted at her home by police officer Elyse Charter. Talbot was issued a misdemeanor child neglect citation and fingerprinted on the spot. Her alleged crime? Allowing Noah, her son, to walk to school by himself.

As reported by Molly Farmer of the Deseret News, the Jordan School District recently cut school bus service to the Talbots due to a budget shortfall. After unsuccessfully petitioning for a reversal of the decision, and then unsuccessfully petitioning the South Jordan City Council for a crossing guard, Rosella spent two weeks teaching her 8-year-old and 5-year-old sons what route to use to walk to school together, and what obstacles to avoid. Rosella spoke with police officers about safety, arranged with school teachers to make sure her sons would wear an orange helmet and safety vest while walking to school, and had the teachers on speed dial to verify her sons’ arrival.

Still, these precautions reportedly weren’t sufficient for Officer Charter, who thought it child abuse to let children walk outside in cold weather and on sidewalks next to roads with traffic.

Talbot’s ordeal is an instructive illustration of a profound but stealthy malady atrophying Utah’s families and local communities: criminalization of the basic family lifestyle.

From a legal standpoint, Utah’s child neglect statute is vague, overbroad, and fails to provide advance notice of what acts or omissions actually cross the line into criminal behavior. The statute is often used by overbearing government officials to impose their own child-raising philosophies on others’ families, in derogation of the constitutional Parental Liberty Doctrine.

Utah parents are increasingly held to an unreasonable standard of care that police officers, child welfare workers, and school officials – all of whom insist upon virtually unbridled legal immunity for themselves – do not meet and cannot possibly satisfy. Minors subjected to government care are quite often at greater risk of abuse more serious than anything they may have faced without misguided intervention.

Of course, the needless financial and emotion trauma inflicted on the Talbot family by government intrusion is more harmful to Noah than anything actually likely to happen while he walks down the sidewalk in his neighborhood. Saddling Rosella with a costly criminal citation – and rendering her unable to serve as serve as a scout volunteer or obtain employment at a day care center if convicted – harms Noah’s future well-being. Even in a hypothetical situation where a parent has clearly used poor judgment, police officers, child welfare workers, prosecutors and judges should know that informal verbal admonition is typically more appropriate than a criminal charge. Criminal prosecution profoundly traumatizes parents, imposes a heavy burden on the public treasury, disrupts family relationships, and is appropriate only when unavoidably necessary. Pettiness, vindictiveness, intolerance, indifference and other reflexive tendencies have no place in the proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

The social malady at work here extends far past any legal considerations. Children everywhere are being harmed by a society now dictated by people who are hyper-allergic to risk, exploration, independence and creative thought. For thousands of years, young children all over the world have learned to hike, hunt, fish, tend fires, herd sheep, haul water, play and perform other functions without constant physical supervision by adults. Physical solitude, exploration and risk-taking are not abuse or neglect, but critical components in a child’s development of personal self-confidence, self-reliance, resilience, intellectual curiosity and responsibility.

In many areas of Utah, children have become so confined, institutionalized, segregated and supervised that it is a shock to see a child like Noah autonomously walking or playing in our antiseptic neighborhoods. Instead of teaching children how to become obedient, responsible and self-sufficient, our society now attempts to perpetually confine them in “safe,” climate-controlled environments.

But this delusion has consequences. Noah’s habit of walking to school is healthier, more frugal, and more environmentally responsible than those of children dropped off from gas-guzzling buses or family automobiles. Children confined to indoor activity are susceptible to obesity, diabetes, and excessive television and video games. They lose a vital appreciation of nature and of the mortal vulnerability that unavoidably shadows each person and every society. Deprived of the opportunity to fight out of their cocoons, children flail like atrophied butterflies and struggle to develop an incisive instinct for survival. Can America continue to hold its own against vicious military enemies like the Taliban, or hardscrabble economic competitors like those from the mean streets of Bombay, when our children cannot walk a few city blocks without a helmet, orange safety vest, and leash to mom?

Meanwhile, the West Valley Prosecutor’s Office has persuaded Senator Ben McAdams to introduce a bill rendering it criminal negligence to leave any Utah child unattended in a car, even for a short time and even if the child is not harmed or specially endangered in any way. The mentality behind this trend eventually leads to a situation where children cannot be left unattended anywhere, for any length of time, under any circumstances, no matter how reasonable. It is impossible for any parent with multiple children – even one economically fortunate enough to enjoy a full-time homemaker lifestyle – to shackle each non-infant minor to immediate adult supervision for every second of each day.

Life inherently implies the risk of death. Denial of that fact endangers us all.

When a society criminalizes childhood accidents, and leaving children at home, and driving children around without customized car seats for each one, and leaving children in the car during a quick errand, and letting children walk around in their own neighborhoods – among numerous other unfunded and logistically unreconciled mandates – that society is on the path to a de facto one-child (or no-child) policy. Such a society abuses any children who remain. This is especially true when the society’s social norms, economic incentives, and tax structure render it extremely difficult for a family to retain one parent as a full-time homemaker.

The author is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress.


2. Sutherland Daily blog debuts

This month, with the launch of its new website, Sutherland Institute debuted the Sutherland Daily blog. The launch of Sutherland Daily is the latest of Sutherland’s efforts to find new, innovative ways to connect with Utahns. Sutherland Daily will be used to share news and views on Utah public policy issues with readers. Investigative journalism reports, videos, documents and other pertinent information will be posted to the blog. Readers of Sutherland can comment in items posted to the site and interact with Sutherland staff on various issues.


3. Immigration Debate a Success

Sutherland’s immigration debate last week at Thanksgiving Point generated lots of interest and media coverage.

Click here and here to see some of it.

You can also go to Sutherland’s website to see a video of Mero giving his remarks.


4. Sutherland on the Radio

Starting Wednesday, Feb. 2, Sutherland Institute’s weekly radio spot, the Mero Moment, will be heard on two additional radio stations. The Mero Moment will be broadcast at 6:06 a.m. on KVEL 920 AM in Vernal and between 10 and 11 a.m. on KSVC 980 AM in Richfield. The Mero Moment can continue to be heard on KVNU 610 AM in Logan Tuesdays at 5:10 p.m., and now it can also be heard Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m.

“We are excited to expand the availability of our radio program to new areas of the state,” said Tyler Riggs, Sutherland’s manager of communications. “Our hope is that having our message delivered to communities outside the Wasatch Front can help enable rural Utah to become more active participants in their government.”

Each week, Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero records a radio spot discussing topics ranging from Sutherland’s seven core principles to news topics of the day.

Archives of the Mero Moment are available online at Sutherland’s website.