Who knew teaching a bit of independence was such a dangerous thing?
On August 2, Corey Widen did what countless parents do every day: she told her daughter to take the dog for a walk. The little girl went out with the dog on a leash, a tiny fluffy Maltese called Marshmallow, because that is what she and her brother had agreed to do when they asked their mother for a dog.
The family, from Wilmette, Illinois, did not expect the police to show up on the doorstep, as they did shortly after, alerted by a call from a neighbor who had seen the 8-year-old outside on her own. Although the police did not pursue charges, several days later the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services opened an investigation to see if Widen was neglecting her children. The result was a lengthy, invasive process that involved interviews with Widen, her daughter, other family members, and their paediatrician, with a final conclusion reached that "no evidence of neglect" was found.Sadly, evidence does abound for a legal system that has its priorities seriously wrong; for a culture that puts absurd amounts of pressure on parents -- specifically mothers -- never to let their kids out of sight; and for children whose natural instinct and capacity for independence is crushed over and over again.
Widen is not the only parent who has been targeted in this way by strangers reporting danger or neglect in situations that they simply do not understand. Consider Natasha Felix, a single mom from Chicago who was watching her three kids and their cousin from an apartment window while they played in a park; a stranger's phone call sparked a two-year court battle that ended with Felix being cleared.
Similarly, the Chicago Tribune recounts the story of Ellen “Treffly” Coyne, who was arrested for leaving a sleeping toddler in the car for a couple minutes while she and her other children went to drop some change in a Salvation Army Christmas kettle.
These stories, along with countless others, are so ridiculous that the Department of Child and Family Services changed its rules recently to say that "a parent must have exhibited 'blatant disregard' for their child's safety to be officially neglectful." The only problem is, the DCFS does not seem to abide by these new rules if it's pursuing cases like Widen's. Instead, it wants to perpetuate the idea that it's acting on every call. Kate Thayer, writing for the Tribune, quoted DCFS spokesman Neil Skene:
“We want to investigate... because you just don’t know. You also don’t want to say (to the public), ‘Don’t call us unless it’s serious.’ There are all these other cases where we say, ‘if only someone had called us.’”
Well, actually, as free-range parenting guru Lenore Skenazy pointed out on her blog Let Grow, that is precisely what the DCFS should be saying:
"Yes, you DO want to say to the public DON'T CALL UNLESS IT'S SERIOUS. DO NOT call if a child is playing happily, or walking the dog."
There needs to be far more public discussion about actual facts. These callers should be asked what they actually fear on behalf of an unattended child. Is it kidnapping? Is it that a kid might be fleeing an abusive situation? Those are justifiable concerns, but they need to be based on something more than a kid not having an adult glued to its side.
Statistics show that it's senseless to make parenting decisions based on fear and panic, rather than facts. A great interview between Skenazy and Prof. Barbara Sarnecka puts these 'stranger danger' fears into perspective. Sarnecka asked rhetorically if you'd park your car in such a way as to avoid potential snipers on the rooftops of nearby stores, or if you'd never let your kid go indoors for fear of an earthquake hitting. "We don’t worry about it because the risk is SO small that it just doesn’t make sense to plan our lives around it."
Currently, the DCFS is rewarding irrational behavior by responding to absurd fear-mongering callers, while punishing many parents who are trying conscientiously to prepare their children for adulthood. It is unfair that, on top of all the hard work involved in raising well-adjusted, pleasant kids, the parents have to worry about dealing with the law.
We need to fight back against this appalling lack of logic by talking about these cases, exposing their absurdities, and supporting parents who refuse to raise their kids in a fear-based culture. When in doubt, repeat Sarnecka's wonderful line:
"I shouldn’t be legally required to act irrationally just because a lot of other people have a particular phobia."