Kids Off the Grid: ‘Sovereign Citizen Parenting’ and Its Legal Impact on Children
In 2015, 19-year-old Alecia Faith Pennington gained viral internet fame as “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist.” Alecia was home-birthed and raised in Texas. Her parents never secured her a birth certificate or Social Security number, never enrolled her in school and never took her to a hospital. Without these vital records, Alecia could not get a job, go to college, buy an airline ticket or obtain a driver’s license. Due to her parents’ decision not to report their children’s births, Alecia (and her siblings) had no legal identity.
The United Nations considers birth registration a fundamental right. Though most unregistered births occur in developing countries with limited civil infrastructure, there is a small movement of parents in places like the United States who choose to have unassisted and unregistered home births. This parenting style appears to overlap with anti-medical intervention and anti-vaccine ideologies, homeschooling and the “sovereign citizens movement.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the sovereign citizens movement as a group of anti-government conspiracy theorists who consider themselves exempt from United States law.
Parents’ Approaches To Evading Birth Registration
Though it is difficult to generate data about a group of people who deliberately avoid being counted, social media spaces populated by “sovereign” parents suggest these individuals are racially and economically diverse. The topics and views posted by those who identify as sovereign parents weave together a common thread of extreme distrust of Western medicine, the government and state apparatuses like public education and child protection agencies. Because doctors and licensed nurse-midwives are obligated to register live births with the state, many sovereign parents opt for unattended or unassisted home births, which they sometimes refer to as “free births.”
For groups historically persecuted or disenfranchised by the state, the desire to keep children outside the government’s reach could be grounded in intergenerational trauma. The United States government has a documented past of separating Black, Indigenous, Japanese, Latinx and immigrant and refugee families. Furthermore, as legal norms increasingly affect pregnant women’s autonomy, privacy and liberty, pregnant women may fear that involvement with the medical system and the state could subject them to civil and criminal penalties. According to the Marshall Project, dozens of women have been prosecuted for miscarriages or stillbirths related to drug use – a number expected to rise after the Dobbs decision.
Still, the primary motivations behind purposefully avoiding birth registration appear to be rooted in ideas of “individual choice,” and conspiracy theories that birth and Social Security documents lead to government ownership of individuals.
Legal Implications for Children
Children whose parents willfully avoid birth registration often fall into a legal limbo similar to that which impacts stateless and undocumented individuals. They may be unable to work, travel, vote, apply for loans and obtain welfare services like food stamps and health care. Even if they are not at risk of deportation, people without birth records might struggle to prove their citizenship. They could also face challenges associated with a lack of legal parentage, like receiving child support or inheriting property.
Raising children “off the grid” can prevent them from exercising their rights to health care and education and from securing their personal safety. Some sovereign parents avoid seeking medical treatment for their children because they believe holistic methods are more effective or because they fear practitioners will be mandated to report their families to Child Protective Services. Home-schooling is popular with sovereign parents, but some home-schooled children do not receive even a basic minimum education. Furthermore, severe cases of abuse affecting school-age children often involve home-schooling. Children whose existence is unknown to the state are especially vulnerable to trafficking, violence and abuse.
Legal Implications for Parents
While parents in the United States generally have wide latitude in how they choose to birth and raise their children, some states have instituted penalties for neglecting to register a live birth. In response to Alecia Faith Pennington’s struggle to obtain her birth record, Texas amended its health and safety code to make a parent’s interference with his or her child’s pursuit of delayed birth registration a Class A misdemeanor.
The serious neglect that can stem from sovereign parenting may result in more severe penalties. Parents have been convicted of homicide crimes for failing to seek treatment for their gravely ill children. In New York, parents may be found to have committed neglect for failing to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care for their children despite financially being able to do. However, neither the New York Family Court Act nor the Public Health Law provides for a finding of neglect based solely upon a parent’s refusal to register their children’s births. Moreover, because these parents often deliberately avoid interacting with state authorities, they can be difficult for law enforcement and other agencies to pursue.
Potential Legal Solutions
Jurisdictions wishing to limit sovereign parenting as a matter of public policy could pass legislation or amend their current child protection laws to include caretakers’ refusal to secure birth registration and legal personhood documents as a basis for neglect. State agencies could also be more aggressive in filing petitions based on educational neglect in circumstances where sovereign parents refuse to enroll their children in school or submit the required documents to teach them at home. In New York, parents have been found responsible for educational neglect for removing their children from school and failing to provide them adequate home instruction.
For the children of sovereign parents currently trapped in legal limbo, states could relax laws that require certain vital records to obtain legal documents. For example, children between 12 and 18 years of age seeking to obtain delayed birth registration in New York must provide several documents to prove their identities, including at least two written records (which may not be an affidavit) made at least five years prior to the date of application that shows one’s name, place of birth, date of birth and parents’ names. Children raised “off the grid” may not have any such records or parents willing to furnish them.
Legislatures may fear, however, that loosening the evidentiary requirements for obtaining delayed birth registration could widen opportunities for identity fraud. As the country’s management of undocumented migrants and their children is politically contentious, lawmakers may be reluctant to create a pathway by which people whose citizenship status is unclear or contested could more easily obtain legal documents.
Conclusion: Children’s Right to Legal Personhood
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the United States ratified in 1992) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the United States has not ratified) both recognize birth registration as a fundamental right. Registration is so integral to meaningful participation in society that Target 16.9 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development concerns “legal identity for all.” Without a legal identity, children may be excluded from education, health and social services.
While these parents might want to avoid any state surveillance or control, doing so necessarily entails denying children their right to education, health care and political and social engagement, as well as many of the privileges that come with being a documented United States citizen. Perhaps sovereign parents believe they are allowing their children the “choice” to interact with the government on their terms. In reality, these parents have precluded their children from making many of the choices one might take for granted: the choice to participate fully in society as a legal person.
Erin Welsh is a third-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, where she is a James Kent Scholar and a member of The Buffalo Law Review. This article appeared in Family Law Review, a publication of the Family Law Section. For more information, please see NYSBA.ORG/FAMILY.
 Alexandra Leigh Young, The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist, Radiolab, Aug. 29, 2016, https://radiolab.org/episodes/invisible-girl; Abby Ohlheiser, How a Teenager’s Viral Campaign to Prove Her Citizenship Is Inspiring a New Texas Bill, Wash. Post, Mar. 12, 2015, https://wapo.st/3Zs4p1c.
 See Matthew Paul Turner, Homeschool Teen Can’t Prove She’s an American, The Daily Beast, Apr. 14, 2017, https://bit.ly/3mFZevW.
 See id.; Ohlheiser, supra, n.1.
 Michelle Wilco, Big Brother Is Watching: When Should Georgia Get Involved in Issues of Family Privacy To Protect Children’s Liberties?, 34 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 819, 821 (2018). See also Barbara Cotter, Born in the USA Without a Shred of Proof, The Gazette (Colo. Springs), Sep. 30, 2011, https://bit.ly/3ynd2OL (detailing the story of Jamie Lanosga, who – like Alecia Faith Pennington – was born at home and not issued a birth certificate or Social Security number and was thus unable to get a driver’s license, job or student loans for college).
 OHCHR, Birth Registration, United Nations, https://www.ohchr.org/en/children/birth-registration.
 See id.
 See Brandy Zadrozny, I Brainwashed Myself With the Internet, NBC News, Feb. 21, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/she-wanted-freebirth-no-doctors-online-groups-convinced-her-it-n1140096; u/aggravatedangela, Setting Your Child Up for a Lot of Struggle in Life, Reddit, Dec. 23, 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/ShitMomGroupsSay/comments/ztpide/setting_your_child_up_for_a_lot_of_struggle_in/ (reposting from a Facebook group where a parent writes: “This is birth #6 – the first 2 have BC & SSN (both were born in place of assistance, and I didnt know any better), the 3rd started to be registered but we never went back and finished (1st home/unassisted birth), the 4th and 5th are both completely ‘unregistered’ (both unassisted home births). . . . baby #6 is going to be born at home as well but we are contemplating having a midwife there this time, only thing is, she is REQUIRED to register the birth. So I’m hesitant. . . . What exactly does ONLY getting a BC do vs a BC & SSN?”); u/meowderina, Comment: Has Anyone Ever Heard of “Sovereign Pregnancy?”, Reddit, Mar. 17, 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/BabyBumps/comments/tgo2ua/comment/i13d7gz/ (“[F]or a ‘sovereign birth,’ the main purpose is to keep the child out of the mainstream system, so they’re never registered, given a birth certificate or SSN, eventually not taxed as adults, etc.”).
 See @clairelyrics, TikTok, Jan. 28, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@clairelyrics/video/7058344367433485615 (“My baby is a free home birth, unvaccinated 3 month old.”).
 See u/RileyRush, “My Son Will Not Be Property of the State” So No BC or SS# for Him! Setting Up the Kid for a Lifetime of Hardship, Reddit, Jan. 27, 2023, https://www.reddit.com/r/ShitMomGroupsSay/comments/10mwnlv/my_son_will_not_be_property_of_the_state_so_no_bc/ (reposting a comment from a Facebook group where a parent writes: “My son will not be property of the state. A social is an account number where you become a business. I plan to homeschool anyway especially the way the system is set up.”).
 See id. (reposting another comment from a Facebook group where someone writes: “It’s a form of Sovereign Citizenship.. if a child is homeschooled they dont need social security. Pay cash. Work cash jobs or work a job as tax exempt. Lots of people do. A lot more than u probably realize”); Eric Evers, My State Can’t Take My Child From Me, I Am a Sovereign Citizen and/or My Child Doesn’t Have an SS#, Raise Your Rights, https://raiseyourrights.org/my-state-can-t-take-my-child-from-me-i-am-a-sovereign-citizen-and-or-my-child-doesn-t-have-an-ss/.
 Sovereign Citizens Movement, SPLC, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/sovereign-citizens-movement.
 For some popular TikTok accounts, see, e.g., @theoffgridmom, TikTok, Feb. 15, 2023, https://www.tiktok.com/@theoffgridmom/video/7200555980357258538; @thebrownlotus, TikTok, July 27, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@thebrownlotus/video/7125216313856871723; @aamilahvilchez, TikTok, June 3, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@aamilahvilchez/video/7105112754637393194.
 See, e.g., @mommaxenny, TikTok, Aug. 21, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@mommaxenny/video/7134309492061261099 (responding to another user who comments, “I would love to have an unassisted birth but I’m high risk for hemorrhage since I had it with my last,” with “Don’t let these doctors tell you you can’t! I’m telling you all it takes is speaking life into yourself!”).
 See, e.g., @nitraaaaaaa, TikTok (July 29, 2022), https://www.tiktok.com/@nitraaaaaaa/video/7125805045404192042 (where a woman who identifies herself as a trained doula and free birth mom of three children on her TikTok account writes, “Who have natural unassisted home lotus births with a doula and children don’t have birth certificates or SSNs because you want them to be able to be independent free citizens and not legally owned by the state/ government and don’t regret no decisions nor care about what the state says and deems ‘right’”).
 See id. (commenting “I personally will be home schooling my children”).
 See, e.g., u/round__up, “The fact that they feel they need to lie to hide what actually happened should tell them it isn’t right,” Reddit, Oct. 13, 2022, https://www.reddit.com/gallery/y3cb6b (reposting a parent’s comment: “So, my 6 day old is having diarrhea and is sneezing a lot as well as projectile vomited . . . I went unassisted and had a wild pregnancy. I’m terrified of cps being called.”).
 See, e.g., N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 4130 (requiring physicians and nurse-midwives in New York to register live births within five days).
 See Kristi Pahr, ‘Freebirth’ Is on the Rise but There Are Huge Risks, Parents, Dec. 16, 2022, https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/giving-birth/unassisted-home-births-are-on-the-rise-and-parents-need-to-know-the-risks.
 See Amy E. Heberle, Elsia A. Obus & Sarah A. O. Gray, An Intersectional Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma and State-Perpetrated Violence, 76 J. of Soc. Issues 814 (2020).
 See Laura Briggs, Taking Children: A History of American Terror, 3 (2020).
 See Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. __ (2022) (holding that the Constitution of the United States does not confer a right to abortion); Michele Goodwin, Fetal Protection Laws: Moral Panic and the New Constitutional Battlefront, 102 Calif. L. Rev. 781, 814 (2014).
 See, e.g., Jonathan A. Rapping, The Critical Role of Public Defenders in a Post-Dobbs v. Jackson World, 37 Crim. Just. 3, 6 (2023) (noting that women have been criminally charged with homicides for miscarriages and stillbirths).
 See Cary Aspinwall, Brianna Bailey & Amy Yurkanin, They Lost Their Pregnancies. Then Prosecutors Sent Them to Prison, The Marshall Project, Sep. 1, 2022, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/09/01/they-lost-their-pregnancies-then-prosecutors-sent-them-to-prison.
 See @tay_and_chrii, TikTok, Sep. 28, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@coveredinroses/video/7148111725399756075 (commenting, “[W]e honestly don’t plan on ever registering Noah or any future babies . . . because we choose to let our children decide if they want to be tracked by the government. In reality, that should be each individuals choice.”).
 See @coveredinroses, TikTok, Sep. 29, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@coveredinroses/video/7148111725399756075 (commenting, “Learn how our SSN makes us literal stock for banks”); A Quick Guide to Sovereign Citizens, UNC Sch. of Gov’t (2013), https://www.sog.unc.edu/sites/www.sog.unc.edu/files/Sov%20citizens%20quick%20guide%20Nov%2013.pdf.
 See, e.g., Capernaum (Mooz Films 2018) (following a fictional child in Lebanon who lives alongside refugees and undocumented workers because his parents never applied for a birth certificate).
 See Ohlheiser, supra n. 1; Turner, supra, n. 2; “Father’s rights concerning child’s BC when hippy mother refuses to get them documented,” Reddit (July 4, 2018), https://www.reddit.com/r/legaladvice/comments/8w4usk/fathers_rights_concerning_childs_bc_when_hippy.
 See Turner, supra, n. 2; In re Adoption of a Child by C., 85 N.J. 152, 167 (1981) (“The administration of naturalization laws depends on the accuracy of birth records because persons are classified according to their place of birth. See, e.g., 8 U.S.C. § 1401 (1970). A birth certificate indicating that a person was born in the United States is prima facie evidence of United States citizenship.”). See generally, Anthony Zurcher, The Birth of the Obama “Birther” Conspiracy, BBC News, Sep. 16, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37391652 (discussing how President Barack Obama was pressured to release his long-form birth certificate to prove he was born in the United States).
 See Douglas NeJaime, The Nature of Parenthood, 126 Yale L. J. 2260, 2274 (2017).
 For a discussion on the rights of children, see Perspectives on Children’s Rights, in Douglas E. Abrams, Susan V. Mangold & Sarah H. Ramsey, Children and the Law (7th ed. 2020).
 See u/ShibaInuLuvrr, “Not sure about God’s Will because you had the option of avoiding it,” Reddit, Feb. 20, 2023, https://www.reddit.com/r/ShitMomGroupsSay/comments/117e1dj/not_sure_about_gods_will_because_you_had_the/ (reposting a Facebook comment: “#freebirth is the only way to avoid doctors giving babies vaccines and meds that are proven to be unnecessary and do more harm than good.”).
 See u/RileyRush, “Freebirther fighting CPS because 5 year old tested positive for THC,” Reddit, Jan. 23, 2023, https://www.reddit.com/r/ShitMomGroupsSay/comments/10j7ca3/freebirther_fighting_cps_because_5_year_old/ (sharing a Facebook post: “URGENT. Had an emergency and went to the hospital for my 5 year old son. While there WITHOUT OUR CONSENT tested his urine for THC. (Which tested positive for ) we give him CBD. Then profiled us which we felt. As we got home the doctor hotlined us which resulted us getting a call from CPS!!!!!!!! What should I be doing or concerned for ?????? I also have a baby who is not registered and doesn’t have a SS number / birth certificate. He was born with an unassisted birth in my home !!! HELP!”).
 See @theoffgridmom, supra, n. 13.
 Kimberly A. Yuracko, Education Off the Grid: Constitutional Constraints on Homeschooling, 96 Calif. L. Rev. 123, 135 (2008).
 Rachel Coleman & Kathryn Brightbill, The Turpin Child Abuse Story Fits a Widespread and Disturbing Homeschooling Pattern, L.A. Times, Jan. 17, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-coleman-brightbill-turpin-homeschool-abuse-20180117-story.html.
 See A Child-Rights Approach on International Migration and Child Trafficking, United Nations Children’s Fund (2002), https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd/sites/www.un.org.development.desa.pd/files/unpd-cm1-2002-07-paper-13-unicef.pdf.
 See, e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205; Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).
 See, e.g., N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 4102(2) (imposing a $5 – $50 fine for a person’s first and second failures to record and file a certificate of birth, and for each subsequent offense, a misdemeanor punishable by a $10 – $100 fine and no more than 60 days imprisonment).
 See 2015 Tex. HB 2794; Ohlheiser, supra, n. 1.
 See, e.g., People v. Henson, 33 N.Y.2d 63 (1973) (convicting parents of criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare after their four-year-old son died from pneumonia and the parents had not sought medical care despite being aware the child was very ill); State v. Williams, 484 P.2d 1167 (Wash. Ct. App. 1971) (convicting parents of manslaughter for failing to supply their 17-month-old child with necessary medical attention because they feared the welfare department would take the baby away from them).
 N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act § 1012(f).
 See Verena Fiebig & Daniel Koehler, Uncharted Territory: Towards an Evidence-Based Criminology of Sovereign Citizens Through a Systematic Literature Review, 16 Perspectives on Terrorism 34, 43 (2022).
 See, e.g., N.Y. Educ. Law § 3212(2) (requiring parents to fulfill certain obligations in home-schooling, including furnishing documents to the school district).
 See, e.g., In re Kyle T., 255 A.D.2d 945 (4th Dep’t, 1998); In re Ryan J., 255 A.D.2d 999 (4th Dep’t,1998); Matter of Viveca AA. v. Emily AA., 51 A.D.3d 1072 (3d Dep’t, 2008); Matter of Amanda M. v. Geraldine N., 28 A.D.3d 813 (3d Dep’t, 2006).
 N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 10 § 36.11(b).
 See Cotter, supra, n. 4.
 See Miriam Jordan, U.S.-Born Children, Too, Were Separated from Parents at the Border, N.Y. Times, Apr. 11, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/11/us/migrant-family-separations-citizens.html.
 Ratification Status of CCPR – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx.
 Ratification Status for CRC – Convention on the Rights of the Child, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx.
 See OHCHR, supra, n. 5.
 S. Mrkić, United Nations Strategy for Legal Identity for All (2019), https://unstats.un.org/legal-identity-agenda/documents/UN-Strategy-for-LIA.pdf.
 See Ellen Mouravieff-Apostol, The Significance of Birth Registration in Today’s World, Int’l Fed’n of Soc. Workers, https://www.ifsw.org/wp-content/uploads/ifsw-cdn/assets/ifsw_103846-7.pdf.
 See @tay_and_chrii, supra, n. 25.