Where Does the Free Range End in Maryland?

The following article is provided for information purposes only.  For advice about a specific situation, we recommend you consult the laws directly or an attorney.

There has been a good amount of news lately about “free range parenting.”   Free range parenting refers to decisions of parents to allow relatively young children to engage in some activity without adult supervision.   It may involve something as simple as allowing a child to walk by himself to a neighbor's house down the block.   Or a parent may decide to leave his or her young kids at home watching a movie while the parent goes out pick up an older sibling from school.   Many of these decisions are getting parents arrested and charged with criminal offenses.   Last July, CNN reported that police arrested a Florida mother for allowing her son to walk alone to a park that was less than half a mile from her house.   This past December, a Maryland mother allegedly left her young son alone in a car for eight hours while she gambled at a casino.

 
Parents will always struggle between the competing tendencies to be a “helicopter parent” and a “free range parent.”    However, Maryland law does establish some required boundaries for anyone thinking of letting a child loose on the “free range.”   Section 5-801 of Maryland’s Family Law Article provides:


A person who is charged with the care of a child under the age of 8 years may not allow the child to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person charged is absent and the dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle is out of the sight of the person charged unless the person charged provides a reliable person at least 13 years old to remain with the child to protect the child.


Violating this statute can land you in jail for up to 30 days and a $500 fine.   Thus, a child under 8 years-old may not be left alone in a car, house, office building or other structure while that child is out of sight of the supervising person who must be at least 13 years old or older.  And that person who is 13 years old or older must be of such ability  to “protect the child.”    A child 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 years old can be left home alone.   But that child is not allowed to be left home alone to supervise another child under 8 years of age.  


The “out of sight” clause is an important one.    Technically, it is illegal to go outside and wash the car while your seven year-old is taking a nap.   If the car gets washed and the child wakes up healthy and happy, you are likely not going to get a visit from Officer Friendly.   If the child wakes up, goes down into the kitchen and chokes on a piece of candy, you have to deal with that emergency and a possible criminal prosecution.    If your angry neighbor calls the police on you, and the police roll up as you’re putting on the last coat of wax, you could also be in trouble.  


When the child is in a vehicle, there is a temptation to let that sleeping cherub dream away while you run inside for “just a few minutes.”   However, parents get charged all the time for leaving children sleeping in a car, even if it’s in the driveway while the groceries are being put away.     Picking up the dry-cleaning while you have line-of-sight out the window to the car will be okay.   Going into the grocery store and roaming the produce aisle, from which you cannot see your vehicle, is going to be a problem. 


Also, be mindful of who you are entrusting your children to.  Aging grandparents are susceptible to being distracted, causing them to forget there is a sleeping infant strapped into a car seat on a hot summer’s day.    In August 2012, a two year-old boy died when he was left in a locked car in 100+ temperatures while his great-grandparents shopped at Walmart.  If you are using a nanny or baby-sister, you may want to make sure they understand that they are NEVER to leave your child unattended in a car or building, even within the permissible limits of the law.


When that child is put in a car, Maryland law requires that he or she be seated in a child safety seat if the child is under 8 years of age, unless that child is four feet nine inches (57 inches) tall or taller.   Child seats come in all shapes and sizes.  The seat your child is sitting in will not comply with the law if your child’s size, age, and weight do not comply with the manufacturer’s instructions for that specific seat.    For example, strapping an infant into a booster seat made for an older and heavier child is illegal.  The driver of a vehicle is also responsible for making sure that every child under the age of 16  is secured by a seatbelt or a child safety seat.  That means, if a child under 16 is not wearing a seatbelt, the driver is getting the ticket.  If the passenger is 16 or over, the passenger is getting the ticket.  


There are two other laws every Maryland parent, guardian, teacher, coach and babysitter should be aware of in the context of supervising children   Maryland’s neglect law found at section 3-602.1 of the Criminal Article makes it illegal for anyone who has permanent or temporary care and supervision of a minor (under 18 years of age) to “neglect” that minor.  "Neglect" means


the intentional failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the physical needs or mental health of a minor that creates a substantial risk of harm to the minor's physical health or a substantial risk of mental injury to the minor.


The law is not limited to a continuing course of conduct, or a single event.   Thus, a continuous failure to properly feed, clothe, shelter, and protect a child may be a criminal offense.  Likewise, one single decision or mistake that exposes a child to a “substantial risk” of harm – even if no harm actually occurred – could result in an arrest and prosecution.  


Similarly, Maryland’s reckless endangerment statute at section 3-204 of the Criminal Law Article makes it illegal for any person to “engage in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another.”   Therefore, even if you are not a parent, guardian or person charged with the supervision of a child, you can be prosecuted if you create a “substantial risk” of physical injury to that child – again, even if no injury actually occurs.   What constitutes a “substantial risk?”   Maryland Courts have sometimes described it as a “gross departure from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe.”  Not very specific.   However, the laws are intended to encourage good common sense when caring for children.   Violating the neglect and reckless endangerment laws offers a maximum prison sentence of up to five years.


And remember, if your child should happen to wander off – and he or she is under 13 years of age – you must report it to the police within 24 hours.   Failing to do that carries up to three years of incarceration.