Teaneck Council Passes Ordinance Protecting Families (and Police) from Overzealous Neighbors

Councilman Keith Kaplan

Teaneck’s law (Ordinance 58-2022) passed on December 13th states that “minor children of sufficient maturity are permitted in Teaneck’s Parks and Playgrounds and may participate independently in activities that a reasonable and prudent adult would consider safe given the child’s maturity, condition, and abilities”.

Parents have always been capable and expected to determine the appropriate timing, as to when their kids were ready to venture out alone, to play outside or walk to / from school / local stores.

The ordinance passed the Teaneck Council on December 13th and goes into effect 20 days after publication by the Township clerk.  Councilman Keith Kaplan, who proposed the law stated: “We believe that parents know and love their children better than anybody… Responsible parents should be able to let kids be kids without constantly looking over their shoulders for approval or worse, fear that other neighbors may choose to veto their decision as how best to raise their children.”

An Issue of Social Equity

Councilwoman Gervonn Romney-Rice, who voted in favor of the measure stated

Councilwoman Gervonn Romney-Rice

that she “understand[s] why there is a need for this and hopefully it would bring further equity. But my first comment [to Councilman Kaplan] about this was building community. So that it would be a community member that would interact with the student [instead of police].  That we would all be our brother and sister’s keepers. So, I would be in favor if it does decrease these [police] interactions.

Families support the Teaneck “Let Grow” law.

This type of law which has been passed by four other States, in various forms has been requested by many.  Parent Miriam Gedwiser spoke at the Town Council meeting during the public comment session, in favor of the ordinance:

“The ordinance is a way of trying to reduce police involvement in children’s lives and parenting decisions. In terms of regulating social norms. The way to not regulate social norms is to remove the police from deciding who has made an ok decision and not about their child”, Gedwiser told the Council.

Gedwiser also reminded the Council that police being called on a child, merely for walking in their neighborhood, has long-lasting effects.

“Having had a very negative personal experience when somebody who doesn’t know me or my family involved the police in a decision where they did not need to be, I think that maybe that could have been prevented by something like this”, Gedwiser said. “By setting a norm that parents can make reasonable decisions that are different from each other – and that’s ok. I urge you to [pass it], I think this is a way of protecting families from unnecessary police involvement.”

A Sentiment shared by community members of color, among others:

Councilwoman Gervonn Romney Rice, voted in favor of the ordinance stating: “Welcome to my world… [where you can] have a young girl that’s catching lantern flies and have the police pulled on her because you know, a young girl’s out there and it’s suspicious.”

Teaneck’s “Let Grow” law provides protections parents and kids need

For decades, the Board of Education has required a parent to be present to pick up their child from the bus, but only in grades Pre-K to 1.

Are 2nd graders permitted to walk by themselves?  Maybe?

Before this ordinance, there was nothing to speak either way to this question.  When Kaplan first proposed this rule in 2015, he asked schools superintendent Barbara Pinsak about age requirements for kids walking alone.  At the time, Ms. Pinsak stated:

“We require that a parent or designee meet students in grades prek-1 at the bus stop at the end of their day. If there is not someone at the stop, we require the bus company to return the students to a school… so that we can contact someone. As to walkers, we have no set age or developmental level requirements.”

A Neighbor’s Veto?

What happens if a parent is confident in their child’s abilities and says their child is allowed to walk home from the bus stop, only to find that a neighbor disagrees with their assessment and calls the police, concerned for the child’s safety?

Sadly, this is not a theoretical situation.  It has happened across the Country and it has happened here, in Teaneck.

“We used to be a kind of community where a concerned adult could ask a kid if they need help — a place that really looked after our neighbors… sadly, people will call the cops first these days, and it’s very distressing for parents to hear that police are questioning their children (and their parenting decisions) for something as simple as walking home from the bus”, said Councilman Keith Kaplan, who proposed the rule.

Oren Bassik, a Standish Road parent with young children, also praised the new law, stating:

“I’m glad that the town recognizes that my child playing in a park or walking to their friend is not automatically a criminal or a dangerous situation that needs police involvement.”

When originally contemplating this ordinance in 2015, Kaplan asked the Chief of Police, Robert Carney about NJ’s rules and who was ultimately able to decide when children could venture out on their own.  The police chief at the time, indicated:

“There are no set rules governing at what age a child may walk unaccompanied or be left unattended. There are a number of factors which vary from child to child, such as maturity, intelligence, understanding consequences, recognizing dangers and how to obtain help if needed. Additional considerations are duration, geographical characteristics and the totality of the circumstances. Each parent or guardian must be confident in their child’s ability to master the task at hand, whether it’s crossing a street, swimming or utilizing an electrical appliance or tool. Such things cannot be, nor should they be, determined strictly by the age of an individual. Common sense should prevail and if there is any doubt whatsoever, always err on the side of caution.

To be clear, the ordinance passed by the Township sets expectations and parameters, but does not change State law on this issue, said Kaplan.
Kaplan also noted that the NJ Supreme Court found that issues of abuse and neglect are fact-sensitive determinations holding in Dept. of Children & Families v. E.D.-O. (A-109-13)(073916):

Any allegation of child neglect in which the conduct of the parent or caretaker does not cause actual harm is fact-sensitive and must be resolved on a case-by-case basis. The treatment of this matter and others discussed in this opinion evinces a proclivity by the Division to apply a categorical rule that any parent or caretaker who leaves a young child unattended for any length of time, particularly in a motor vehicle, has failed to exercise a minimum degree of care that places the child in imminent danger of impairing that child s physical, emotional, or mental well-being. The Court continues to disapprove of the Division s resort to a categorical approach to this subset of cases.” (emphasis added)

{note: waiting briefly in the car (under some circumstances) or coming home with a latchkey is not covered under this Teaneck ordinance, but the NJ Supreme Court has found that this is not necessarily neglect unless something else is going on.}

While mindful that we cannot legislate “common sense”, it’s the hope that neighbors and police will acknowledge that a range of parenting decisions are in the sphere of “common”, even if not held by everyone.  Absent a showing of imminent harm, neighbors and community members should continue to do what we always have: look out for one another and communicate, as we keep our children safe.

At the end of the day, children learn by doing, experiencing, and interacting with the world around them – and we can all benefit from those lessons, as they join us in an informed citizenry, with experience and knowledge, gained through independence.

We all want our kids to be safe. Sadly, some folks in authority believe that kids are in danger the second a parent walks a few feet away. Those attitudes can have a chilling effect, whereby many parents helicopter their kids — when they really want to give them some independence. This is unfair to both generations, and also to our country, which needs intrepid, creative, resilient young people. The Teaneck “Let Grow” ordinance is an important first step in setting parents free to let their kids grow.

Councilman Keith Kaplan
Teaneck, NJ