By MATT O'BRIEN
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Parents who fear the judgment of neighbors if they leave their kids alone at home or in a car may soon have more than a 'tsk, tsk' to worry about in Rhode Island.
State lawmakers are debating a bill that would punish parents for leaving a child younger than 7 alone in a car. They've also proposed legislation to ban kids under 10 from being home alone and older kids from being home alone at night. Legislation could even extend to private preschools, where a bill would ban outdoor recess when the temperature drops below freezing.
Rhode Island's efforts come years after many other states implemented such measures, but have been met by counterattacks from a growing movement of parents who say enough is enough.
"You can't legislate parenting, and you can't legislate common sense," said Rema Tomka, who is raising three kids in the leafy Providence suburb of Smithfield. "I'm in one of those neighborhoods where the children run free. They all know their boundaries, and we keep an eye on them."
In some headline-grabbing cases nationwide, including one involving Maryland siblings Rafi and Dvora Meitiv, the sight of children walking to a playground or playing without supervision has triggered visits from police and neglect charges against parents. Critics say the harsh enforcement is traumatic, can tear families apart, and disproportionately hurts poor and single parents who can't afford constant child care.
"Basically we are punishing people who don't have the resources to be helicopter parents, as if helicopter parenting is essential — which it's not," said New York author and columnist Lenore Skenazy, who runs a popular blog called "Free-Range Kids."
The Rhode Island lawmakers who sponsored the bills say they're just trying to catch up with other states that already have firm rules in place to keep kids safe from irresponsible parents.
Illinois in the 1990s enacted tough laws against kids being home alone, and some states followed by setting age limits for when kids can stay at home unattended. The death of a 6-month-old left in a parked car on a hot day led California in 2001 to make it illegal to leave kids alone in a vehicle; more than a dozen states now have similar laws on the books.
"We have kids constantly left home alone. It's a danger," said state Sen. William Walaska, the Warwick Democrat who introduced "home-alone" age restrictions that could affect child custody cases. "Imagine they open up a cupboard and there's some chemicals in there."
Nineteen states have laws against leaving kids alone in cars, said Amber Rollins, director of Kansas-based Kids and Cars, which warns of the dangers — from heat stroke to car thieves — of leaving kids alone in a vehicle.
"We feel there should be a law in every state," she said.
Tomka was among a group of families from around the state speaking out against Walaska's bill this year.
"I feel responsible enough to stay home by myself," said one 9-year-old boy, Pascal Dubuc, who testified before a state Senate committee.
Helping to spread the parental outrage and mobilize opposition was Skenazy, who has repeatedly ridiculed Rhode Island lawmakers.
"These laws are preposterous," she wrote in her blog. "They assume it is the government's job to dictate family life. They criminalize maturity in children and common sense in parents, and turn mundane decisions — like running out to do an errand — into legal minefields."
State health officials also weighed in, saying it would lead to a surge of unwanted calls to the child welfare hotline for situations that aren't a safety risk.
The uproar helped stall Walaska's legislation, but a bill to penalize parents for leaving young children in cars is moving forward in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Democrat from Coventry, originally proposed taking away a driver's license or imposing up to $1,000 in fines if a parent or guardian is caught leaving a child under 7 alone in a car for any period of time.
Infants and young children, he pointed out, are unable to leave a vehicle if danger arises. He pointed out that the state already has a similar law in place protecting dogs and cats from overheating. But after some pushback, he's now amending it to mimic a Texas law that makes it a misdemeanor but sets a 5-minute grace period.
"Like if you go to Cumberland Farms to get gas, and your kids are in the car, it won't be a penalty as long as your kid's not there more than five minutes," Raptakis said.
But "if you're in the back freezer picking out ice cream for 10 minutes," he said, that's a problem.
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