The Crime of “CSI”

It’s nice when science takes the time to confirm one’s own sneaking (or even not so sneaking) suspicions. In this case: That TV crime shows are driving us crazy with fear.

In a report titled, “CSI: Mayo Clinic,” Mayo psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry and his team studied two sets of data: One, a list of crimes, victims and circumstances as seen on CSI and CSI: Miami over the course of two years. The other: a list of crimes, victims and circumstances in real life, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control over the course of two years.

You may think the stories on crime shows are “ripped from the headlines,” but Lineberry found that the shows usually forget to rip the ones involving minorities, for starters. (For that matter, so does TV news. But if the victim is young and white, you will soon see more of her family than your own.)

Meanwhile, TV crime shows also forget to mention how often alcohol is involved, probably because a drunk guy with a gun is not nearly as compelling as, say, a charming psychopath. Or criminal mastermind. Or, as I saw on Law & Order the other day, a Serbian war criminal roaming the streets in search of a young girl — any girl — to drag off and rape.

That’s not going to affect whether you let your daughter walk home from school, is it?

Most significant of all, in terms of warping our perceptions, is that the shows forget to tell us that most homicide victims know their killers. Most violence is not random. Most of the time, murderers are not hiding in the bushes – or mall, or playground  — just waiting to pounce. But on TV, the guy with the machete/chainsaw/van is usually some fiend out to nab the next sucker walking by. 

That one little fact has had a huge impact on the way we live.

It wouldn’t, of course, if we were better at separating perception from reality. But seeing crime after crime on TV, it’s hard not to feel at least a little nervous. After all, our brains are hardwired to react to dangerous situations. It would be nice if they filed dramas under “Don’t worry!” and TV news under, “Tabloid crap (and weather)!” But in fact, it all gets thrown in the hopper and stays there a very long time. (Anybody have a hard time picturing Hannibal Lechter?)

So when we’re trying to figure out, “Is it safe for me to take a little walk tonight?” we end up flashing on a pile of maggot-covered bodies, courtesy of CSI. Bodies of people murdered by strangers. Result? ”Maybe I’ll just stay in.”

Parents are even more affected. Never mind that while there are about 50 children kidnapped and killed by strangers every year (according to numbers from the Crimes Against Children Research Center), there are about 1,000 killed by family members or acquaintances. Since most of us aren’t exposed to crime in our real lives very much (thank goodness), all we have to go on is what we see on TV.

And so we think, “It’s a jungle out there! Strangers are hiding everywhere, with duct tape. I will not let them kill my kid!”

In we yank our offspring. (And dare I suggest that at least a few of the older ones will end up watching CSI because they’re not out playing kickball?)

The only way to regain perspective  — read: sanity — is to counterbalance the crime shows with more and more reality. More walks in the neighborhood. More chats with friends outside. More chats with strangers, even, because most of them aren’t carrying machetes. Or, for that matter, duct tape.

— Lenore

49 Responses

  1. We don’t have a TV, and I’ve never seen an episode of CSI all the way through, but we do have a self-important, media-hungry bounty hunter appropriately named “Dog” to warp our perceptions.

    On my last weekly mail check at the Post Office in our little burb, I ended up in line to pick up a return-receipt letter (from our health-care ‘provider’–curse them!) As usual, I set my babies, strapped into their car seats, just inside the door of the business area as I stood in line. I figure that, rather than kicking them along in the line, they can hang out under a large potted plant and cheer up our neighbors as they come and go. Then a woman came in, queued up just behind me, and asked me if they were mine. I nodded and smiled and she said, “Someone’s going to take them.” I replied, “No they’re not! Has that EVER happened here in Hawaii?” She turned her head away from me and that was the end of it. Really, my blood was boiling. I counted the linoleum tiles on the floor–16 between me and the girls–maybe 12 feet. The customers entering the office were stopping to talk to them. At nine months, these two girls are already experts at spreading good cheer and delighting people who may not have smiled for quite a while. Some of the postal workers even know them by name. I am dead certain that if anyone so much as sneered at them at least ten people would have taken him/her out.

    What makes me angry is that I AM terrified that someone will do something to them. There have been a few cases here of car thefts in which there were kids strapped into the car. When the thieves realized their mistake, the cars were abandoned and the kids recovered unharmed (Note: Do not leave your kids in the car with the air conditioner on and keys in the ignition). We also had a high profile case in which a toddler was murdered (too awful to say how) by an unstable guy, but the mother had entrusted the kid to him (Note: Drugs are especially bad if you are a parent). Would I take such risks myself? Duh, no!

    I am more terrified, however, that someone like the lady in line will pursue the issue and report me to CPS. Contrary to what many people think, having your family investigated is traumatizing no matter what the outcome, and the outcome may not necessarily be based on objective data. It is for this reason, more than any other, that I continue to make irrational decisions that restrict my children.

  2. My dad taught me to talk to strangers. In line at the grocery store, mostly, but people pulled up next to us at red lights weren’t outside his range.

    I’m glad I wasn’t raised to be scared of strangers, but you’re right. I’m still freaked out to walk alone because you never know what *could* happen, and you get freaked out imagining all the possibilities. Especially if you were one of the people who a stranger hurt once. *sigh*

  3. Oh my goodness! She nailed it right on the head. I am more scared of someone turning me into CPS than I am that something will happen to my children. Society has decided that parents cannot be trusted to make decisions that are right for our children. Never mind that we know them and what they are/are not capable of, everyone else knows better than we what they should be doing.
    The funny thing is – I just brought my children to our pediatrician and we got to talking. He was supportive of all the decisions I make and stated that most children he sees are too attached to their parents and can’t even answer simple questions about their health. We discussed allowing my two to take public transportation (9 and 11 years old) and he is all for it. So I am just going to keep trusting my ability to read my children and let my children experience life.

  4. We WERE reported to CPS, “for neglect and having animal feces in the house.” (Allegations NOT true!) Big waste of time for the social worker (she said as much when she was here. She asked me the name of our ped. and I knew his phone number of the top of my head. She said it was obvious my kids weren’t neglected when they started telling her jokes, and chatting with her but she STILL had to look in our fridge, etc.) And it FLIPPED ME OUT. Because an anonymous tip means the social worker has to come out! And apparently there are a lot of malacious people in the world.

  5. My husband I were quite addicted to watching the original CSI series a few years ago (we’ve since moved on to MI-5, aka Spooks, from the UK, via Netflix). But my husband is a research scientist and he is quite familiar with many of the lab tests and machines used in crime labs; he was always pointing out that the speedy results shown in CSI are quite impossible with current technology.

    The worst part is in real life in too many crime labs across the country, there is a serious backlog for processing DNA evidence collected in “rape kits”, not instant test turnaround times depicted on shows. It can take a year or more for many evidence kits to be processed; some are never processed.

  6. or — TURN OFF THE CRIME SHOWS !!! I’ve noted for years that there seem to be more and more of them … a CSI for every city – and a spin off show for each “unit” SVI et al ..

    enough already!! I’ve long felt that the “energy” we surround ourselves with – will breed more of the same… I never have allowed visitors (or children) in my home to tune into COPS, America’s Most Wanted, Bad Boys, and all the other Fear Inducing / or Crime Centered TV shows … Its just so much more negative information – that in the end .. is good for what exactly?

    bread and circuses – for the masses – to distract them while their entire world is changing unnoticed …. while they oogle the latest “crime” on TV ….

    no good — for anyone – except the advertisers …. and the people behind this fear induced offering … the think tanks who recommend these kind of shows be aired – and sponsored.

    @ Mae Mae and Carol: You are so right.

    ALL parents should be far more afraid of DHS / CPS infiltrating their lives and legally kidnapping their children … than of some random crime touching any one on your block….

    I hope to live long enough to see nightly exposes of THAT gang of thieves to be on TV !!

    but meanwhile, Americans sit in a daze – watching the many variations of CSI – and sinking deeper and deeper in fear …..

  7. Hmm. Another great piece. I used to love shows in that vein, but I honestly have watched very little TV since our boy was born. Yes, I still watch some baseball, and the Olympics, and little basketball. We do watch some kids shows, and I check out some “news” pieces now and then, but we’re so busy playing that the TV just doesn’t get turned on all that much.

    Thank goodness!

  8. We do enjoy these programs at our house, but you’re just as likely to walk in to one of my kids watching a documentary on some obscure historical figure or the food channel. TV can be a good tool in opening up conversations with kids about reality vs fiction. There has to be moderation in all things. I don’t believe in teaching my kids about stranger danger, either. I think it’s stupid. Kids see adults talking to strangers every single day: at the bank, at the grocery store, etc. The trick is teaching kids to recognize when they get a weird vibe from someone and to trust that instinct.

  9. I loooove crime shows! Bones was my favorite when I had TV, but I love me some Law and Order! But I also let my 3 year old play in the backyard by himself and talk to my next door neighbor without freaking out. I can’t wait until he can memorize our names, address, and phone numbers so that I can go let him play in the neighborhood in the next couple of years.

    There is a pretty big, in your face line between reality and TV Drama.. and a lot of people just can’t see it! Drives me nuts.

  10. Every so often I read the police blotter for my town. It’s a good idea; makes me both more aware and calmer. Seems like most violent crimes in my town are drunk/reckless driving, domestic disputes, and drug deals gone wrong. On the one hand, those are clearly no fun for the people involved. On the other hand, as you point out, two of those three categories aren’t random violence (and the third mostly occurs at times when I’m not out in the streets).

    Every so often we’ll get an upsurge of smash & grabs, which *is* random crime, but can also be averted by, e.g., not leaving your iPod in your car.

    I suppose reading the police blotter might make some people more paranoid, but for me, it’s a good source of reality.

  11. @Ana (RE: Mae Mae and Carol)

    It really bugs me when I see people categorically maligning Child Protective Services. Pretty much the only time you read and hear anecdotes about CPS is when they overstep their bounds or screw up. You know, kind of like reading and hearing anecdotes about child abductions by strangers.

    Given that most child abuse happens at the hands of family members, who do you think investigates this? And how do you think does such abuse get reported? Do you expect an abused 5yo to call a CPS hot-line?

    It is very unfortunate that sometimes perfectly fine parents get accused by someone (and yes, I too occasionally have that nagging “what if someone sicks CPS on me” thought). But let’s be realistic here – children of most people reading this blog or Lenore’s book are not the ones that CPS will need to protect (or investigate).

    I’m much more upset when I read a story about abused children because CPS did not do their job than hearing of their investigating a frivolous report. Sure CPS can and should be improved (often there isn’t enough funding and the case-loads make the results sub-optimal) but CPS does (or are supposed to) provide a very important service protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

  12. The police blotter for our town is usually calls about stray dogs. Gives me a good sense of perspective.

  13. That’s why I watch science fiction shows. I’d rather be afraid I or my kids are going to start time traveling at any minute. 🙂

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  15. Some of my favourite people do carry duct tape. Useful stuff– like the force, it has a light side and a dark side (and holds the universe together).

    Perhaps it is fortunate that, since becoming a parent, I haven’t had the time for CSI. And somehow, “Lost” doesn’t make me that much more nervous about flying.

    I have been a foster parent, and I, too am far more fearful of CAS involvement than random violence.

  16. Seems like most violent crimes in my town are drunk/reckless driving, domestic disputes, and drug deals gone wrong. On the one hand, those are clearly no fun for the people involved. On the other hand, as you point out, two of those three categories aren’t random violence (and the third mostly occurs at times when I’m not out in the streets).

    Our police reports are very similar here (a mid-sized Northern Ontario town) and rarely is there any violence or abuse of children. CAS/CPS has a bad rep. here though; I know of people who were wrongly investigated and harassed while actual abuse was ignored. The *ideaI of CAS/CPS is a good one, there’s no denying that, as children are usually unwilling or incapable of making the call themselves, so it’s up to the adults around them to do it, but as nonplus said, they’re usually under-funded and overrun with work. Being investigated is traumatic and infuriating/embarassing for any family and a stigma that lingers for years, even if the investigation proves groundless.

    And along the lines of children being hurt by their family or people they know, there was a little girl who lived in Guelph, ON, kidnapped and killed 6 weeks ago by a person who knew her mom. Noon’es figured out a motive yet. I can only shake my head and ask the Creator “Why?”

  17. I have been going to Vegas since I was a kid – I have family and friends there.

    I used to watch CSI: Original Recipe and loved that it was set in Vegas, but I finally gave it up a few seasons ago because the storylines were getting increasingly downright bizarre. It also disturbed me that they had taken one of my favorite cities, and reduced it to a horrific, gory, bloody JOKE.

  18. We do have to be concerned about violent crimes in my neighborhood. Unfortunately we live in an urban area with a lot of crime. My neighbor’s nephew was murdered last week. There US Marshalls have stopped by our house while looking for a suspect (one I had called the police on the week before!). My children have been harassed walking home from school. My husband, a school teacher at one of our *neighborhood* schools, was seriously injured in an attack by a student earlier this month. These sorts of crime shows, in some communities, do represent a reality for some populations. Maybe this is why people think I’m still crazy for letting my kids play outside. We have created a safe place for the neighborhood kids at our house and everyone comes here. My free range kids have become the magnet for all the children in the neighborhood who are “free range” because of negligence rather than a purposeful parenting move. So even being free range can be a beacon of hope because it opens homes up to children who don’t have the parent at home watching from the window.

  19. Nonplus,
    One of my biggest fears is someone calling CPS on my ass. Officially, I know far too many people whose lives have been ruined by them.

    Yes, they have done great things but I truly believe that overall, it is has turned into a modern-day witch hunt. CPS has too much power and parents are guilty until proven innocent.

  20. When our TV died a few years back, we didn’t replace it. I do like mysteries (Agatha Christie…love her) and used to watch much of the CSI franchise. But after a while they were either the same thing over and over, or obviously scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for shock value. So I turned it off, and went to the library for more Agatha. TV just isn’t something we feel the need to spend time on around here. We’re too busy free ranging to have time for it anyhow.

  21. I can’t watch that stuff anymore for exactly this reason. I start to get all freaked out and think there’s some kind of serial killer lurking behind every corner. Not healthy.

    I do love mysteries. BMS, I am an Agatha Christie fan too. But somehow Miss Marple doesn’t have the same effect on me.

  22. I’ve had friends investigated by CPS for stupid reasons, and while yes it did suck a lot and wasn’t fair, there were no permanent consequences for the family. No trial or hearing, no long going investigation, etc.

    I also have a friend who’s a foster parent, and it took CPS WAY too long to get those kids out of that situation. They did, eventually, but there has been permanent damage to those kids.

    In short I’ve seen both sides of it, and I really do think the problem is that too many people call CPS willy nilly and not that they have too much power and overstep their bounds.

  23. We recently had a police officer from the sex-crimes unit of our local police department come to speak to a bunch of women at my church. He said the same thing–that pretty much in all of the crimes he dealt with the victim knew the offender, and the victim had put herself in a dangerous situation. There hasn’t been a single case where someone was grabbed off of the street, or any such thing. Drugs and alcohol are usually involved.

  24. I love your site, and your ideas! I am doing my best to be a bit more free range, letting my eleven year old ride the school bus home and let herself in with her own key, and letting my girls walk to the park a block away. But then we hear about Tori Stafford, and I do get scared. My younger daughter is her age. We live in a similar, but slightly larger Canadian city, but still a relatively small safe-feeling place.

    I wish there was some way to not see my own kids in every scary story like Tori’s. My heart breaks for her family.

  25. Thank you, Lenore! I have long complained about how
    crime/procedural shows are skewing our perception of crime rates and even how the judicial system works.

    I was an advertising major in college; I can honestly tell you that every image we see in the media, especially TV shows and advertisements, are constructed to evoke a particular feeling, usually related to what creates the most dramatic tension (or a fear-based need, in the case of ads). They are not reality. (Heck, even the so-called reality shows aren’t reality!)

    We need to learn to deconstruct these images in order to understand their intent and their impact. The goal for the networks and advertisers is not to get to you to understand how the world works accurately or to feel good about yourself. It’s about getting your eyes on their shows to increase ratings to boost their bottom line or to get you to buy their product in order to boost their bottom line.

    It’s about money, folks. Not reflecting real life.

  26. I just bought your book, Free Range Kids. I enjoyed Daniel Gardner’s book The Science of Fear and I thought your book would be a great read as well.

    Even though I’ve only just started it, it’s already touched on some issues that my wife and I have had disagreements on.

    On a side note, I’ve seen other parents exhibit fear in situations that really didn’t call for it. Unfortunately, they’ve thought I seemed suspicious and have yelled at me and even called the police as I was walking my daughters around the neighborhood seeling Girl Scout Cookies.

    Thank you for writing this blog and this book.

  27. Have a question! My neck of the woods had a little girl taken by new neighbours as she was coming out of school.

    I KNOW this is not common. The fact that the articles constnatly refer to a case that happened in 2003 in a nearby city confirms it. Reporters could have referenced a more recent case but that girl wasn’t white. Even that case happened in 2006.

    But still….

    What do you do say to yourself! Better her than my kid? Or do you just accept that your child could also be killed by a runnaway piano and move on with your life!

    I don’t believe CSI, but I do read newspapers and they aren’t all from lands far far away.

  28. Interesting stuff. Has research has been done examining systematically the effect of watching such shows on perceptions of crime, danger, etc.?

    I live in a statistically boringly safe place in a statistically boringly safe town but find that I myself am edgier not about my son — at 2, he’s too little to be free-ranging much — but about myself, e.g. I used to walk routinely late in the evening for exercise and now worry more about his well-being if something happened to me. I guess that just a standard mom-ism but it does affect my choices … sometimes.

    I don’t watch CSI but have a family member who works in our state Medical Examiner’s office. she performs autopsies on individuals whose deaths are of uncertain causes. We’ve heard many horrible stories (and mostly learned to avoid asking her how her workday went over dinner), but I can think of only one victim (Jennifer Short) who may have been killed by an unknown attacker (there have been no charges in the 2002 murder of the Short family as far as I know).

  29. I will also add my voice to those that may not be able to let their kids be as free-range as they’d like because of fear of CPS.

    Where I live, you are not allowed to let you kids out of direct adult supervision until age 11. And your neighbors WILL call CPS or the police on you. It’s a shame how the state has decided they know better than the parents.

    To those who think CPS is “no big deal”, you are very very wrong. Their powers are greater than the police or courts, and parents are guilty until proven innocent. Files never go away, and you can’t see what’s in them. If you are reported once, sure, nothing might come of it after an embarrassing and traumatic investigation, where your neighbors and friends have to vouch for your parenting, your house is randomly searched, your kids yanked out of class by government workers and interrogated, and if you don’t smile and allow all of it, they threaten to take your kids. It’s possible they’ll force you to take “parenting classes”, often taught by a young idealistic social worker who has never had children of her own, in which she’ll tell you you CANNOT raise your kids free-range. And you had better agree, because getting a good evaluation from her is the ticket to eventually getting CPS out of your life. From then on, you fear every knock at the door, you screen every phone call, and you lose sleep and sanity every night and day under the pressure that if there IS a next time, they’ll take your kids first and ask questions later. Who would be brave enough to let their kids out of their sight and be “free-range” after that?

    Now, in the spirit of free-range parenting and rational, fact-based analysis, I should examine how my fears of unwarranted CPS involvement stack up against, say, stranger abduction.

    Nationally, the rate is about 36 CPS referrals per 1,000 children (2002), according to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services. Stranger abductions for the last year I can find statistics easily with Google (1999) were 115 per about 75,000,000. That’s a 3.6% chance of CPS involvement, and a 0.00015% chance of a stranger abduction.

    But let’s just look at the rate of *unsubstantiated* CPS involvement, after all there’s a lot of real neglect/abuse out there and those kids need CPS involvement. I’m a good parent yet still fearing CPS involvement. Of the 36/1000, 32% were determined to be not worth a full investigation while 68% were investigated, and 60% of those investigated were found to be unsubstantiated. That’s a rate of about 15 unsubstantiated full investigations per 1000 children. Or you could say 26 unwarranted involvements with CPS per 1000 children. The odds aren’t huge, but I’m still afraid.

    I’m sure there are many good CPS workers out there saving children who really are being abused, but too many social workers have a chip on their shoulder and are on a power trip. Most importantly, there are not enough checks and balances in the system, nor high enough standards of substantiation and proof to keep good families from being swept up and traumatized by the system.

    It’s not stranger abduction I fear. It’s my own neighbors and CPS.

    This is why in the “ideas” thread, I mused that we really need some kind of legal defense association to help with education, advocacy, political lobbying, and members’ legal issues should they be unfortunate enough to have their free-range parenting result in a neglect investigation.

  30. […] …Or even a ‘touch base with teens’ moment akin to a quiet text where they can ‘save face’ with their friends and give you specifics on their whereabouts (great for those come ‘get me pronto’ bailouts as well as the periodic ‘check-in’ necessities of 21st century fears and ‘free-range kids’). […]

  31. I like your post, and mostly agree…. We don’t have a TV…. I have to say though (when I do watch TV) CSI is a favorite of mine! 😉

  32. CSI group of shows are the favorite shows in this house, but you are right. I think it does feed our fears a little. We have four almost free range children and a baby. The older four are free to be in our yard and the neighbors’. We have now fence, but trees surrounding the yards. I allow our oldest to walk the half block to our library a couple times a week. She is 7.5. Sometimes she takes one sibling with her.

    Just this afternoon we walked to our post office and I practiced allowing them to be a little more free range by allowing them to run just a little further ahead than I normally do. I usually keep the younger two (3.5 and 2) close, but I allowed them to go too. We were all fine. 🙂

    Also, I considered, when we stopped at the post office to allow the four to play at a nearby park (ages 7, 6, 3, 2) while I went inside to grab the mail and some stamps. But I changed my mind. I didn’t know how long I was going to be inside and I didn’t trust that the oldest would keep the youngest off the street. So I called them to come to me. They responded immediately! I was so impressed with them. I then allowed them to play on the grass and ramps outside the building while I went inside. They stayed where they were supposed to or came in when they were done what they were exploring.

    I’m learning more and more that people are generally good. My kids are great communicators (even the 2 yo) and I trust that they would ask for help if they needed it. I am slowly opening my free range wings. My husband is too, though he’s a little “behind” me in this.

    We had a baby die at 12 days old. We know the pain of the loss of a child. We would never want to experience that again. At the same time, we don’t want to coddle or baby the others. It is a matter of finding balance and knowing our children and what they are capable of. And giving them the tools they need to be safe.

  33. I’m sorry to hear that social workers are obviously as out of control in the US as they are in Canada. We have had two run-ins with social workers as a result of our “free-range parenting.” In my experience, social workers are unbelievably vindictive and obtuse. Once when they came to my house, we had just come home from the grocery store where I had spent about $350 on food. My children were bringing the bags in from the van and setting them just inside the front door. The social workers arrived and, among other things, they suggested that perhaps there was no food in the house and I wasn’t actually feeding my children. My children who were standing around just gaped at them in disbelief.

    However, I found the family court system to be no better. Our case went to trial because I refused to let the social workers in my house. I had done nothing wrong and I didn’t want these unbelievably obnoxious people to come into my house. This whole thing started when my son who was 21 months old found the front door open and walked about 75 down the sidewalk before my daughter spotted him and brought him home. Some do-gooder saw this and reported us. Anyway, when the judge heard all this, instead of telling the social workers they were being ridiculous, she asked “And why haven’t these children been removed from the home yet?” I nearly died on the spot. We ended up spending a fortune on a lawyer because we were terrified. We won but I will never get over it for as long as I live.

    However, although I live with a LOT of fear, I try to conceal it and I haven’t really changed my parenting style. I refuse to let evil people force me to raise my children in a way which I think is unhealthy and weird. It has put a lot of strain on me and my husband, but we try to ignore it as much as possible and do things as we always have.

  34. As a teacher in a rural area with a very large at-risk population, I am constantly wondering why children are consistently returned to their parents. Time and again I have seen kids starting to have success in school as a result of the care of amazing foster parents, only to be pulled out and returned to their previous bad situation. After giving my middle school kids the pre-summer only do stupid things that will not affect the rest of your life this summer (riding your bike too fast: okay, drugs and alcohol:not okay) speech, I had a student explain that for a lot of kids, those are the only things they know, because every adult in their life in engaged in it.

    So, I am sure that being unjustly investgated is a frustration, I am more sure that this must be an incredibly difficult job which is bound up in a whole lot of beaurocracy.

  35. I introduced CPS into this thread. I in no way meant to slander social workers. I have had seven foster kids, and dealt with maybe twenty social workers. Every one of them was wonderful, if not overworked, and I did my best to make them active members of our family. My point is that the decisions that are made are not always based on objective or factual data. Families who do not fit whatever might be considered normal or conventional who collide with some warped citizen with projection issues or an ax to grind are in big trouble. And I know from experience that a false allegation changes your life forever and you never fully recover because you know that lightning can strike twice in the same place. So I say again–I support the line workers at CPS agencies but I do fear the environment that fuels them.

  36. When I was younger, I was sure the world was a terrifying place, convinced strangers lurked around *every* corner. It wasn’t until I found online email lists that I realized there are good people everywhere and finally began to feel the world was a generally safe place.

    At some point along the line, I realized that watching crime shows had fed into those fears. I do enjoy an occasional episode of a variety of crime shows now, but I can tell when I’ve watched too many. I start feeling the fear creep in again! This is true even though I am a generally intelligent adult who has a pretty firm grasp on how rare extreme crime is.

    As far as social services, very early in my parenting, a dear friend of mine had a terrible experience. Her husband left their sleeping daughter in the car while he ran in to pick up some developed pictures. An elderly lady called the police who immediately removed the child from her father and put her in foster care (in their state of SC, police had that kind of power). The next week was a *nightmare*. The girl was 11 months old and breastfed, but her mother was only allowed to see her one time for a brief supervised visit. The foster family ignored the mother’s explanation of her daughter’s diet needs, so they got a very sick little girl back. And the foster family took it upon themselves to cut her daughter’s hair without permission, which hurt my friend deeply (as it was yet another way that her wishes as a mom were not taken into consideration, another way they showed the state and their random foster family had the right to make parenting decisions).

    The court date was a week after she was taken and the judge agreed that the child should never have been removed from her home. The dad was given parenting classes and not allowed to be alone with his daughter for the next year. This reinforced to him that he didn’t really need to take responsibility for his child (his wife could do it all alone, afterall) and led to many years of serious parental immaturity on his part.

    I was left quaking in my boots. Who was really punished here? The mom had done nothing wrong. The baby certainly hadn’t. My friend and her daughter were in *agony* the entire week. The short visitation was spent with her daughter clinging and sobbing while nursing in between. Months of trauma and healing followed ~ this happy little baby had lost all sense of security. I lived in terror that at any moment, I would hear a knock on my door and my babies would be removed from my care.

    It has taken me a lot to move beyond all of those fears. I know families who do foster care and have known a few social workers over the years enough to see the success stories. But I really question the eroding of parent rights and family freedoms. While there are children who are being abused and benefit from intervention, I wonder how many children are traumatized by unnecessary removal from the home and persecution of their family. And how many more people are damaged by fear because they know someone that has happened to.

  37. […] The Crime of “CSI” It’s nice when science takes the time to confirm one’s own sneaking (or even not so sneaking) suspicions. In this […] […]

  38. I was reported to CPS also, just a couple of weeks ago. For letting my son ride his bike home from school alone! Apparently, that is now illegal in my area at his age (turned 8 this week). Children are required to be fully supervised at all times until the age of 10. Everyone who knows me well, especially those with their own young children, are horrified and I’m now afraid to make a move because we now have a 25 year file and lord knows what will happen if we get reported again. All this because someone didn’t think he could handle crossing a slightly busy street that I’d been working with him on for a year and a half, just so we could get to this point!

  39. And don’t forget about all the chain letters about mysterious attackers lurking in parking lots and dark alleys sent to us from our “concerned” male friends to add to our distortion of reality.

  40. my favorite example of this CSI was my foster kids at the time(3 girls) being scared that someone dangerous would jump out from a bush and grab them. over the next few days i explained and showed them that the anyone waiting for them first needed to see them and behind the bush was a sucky place for such. i then showed them how to recognize likely places for someone to hide and how to check there. wouldn’t you know it, they no longer worried about people jumping out at them.

  41. At my old job, there was a woman whose six-year-old son watched CSI. The kid wanted to visit Las Vegas to meet the characters and was sad Sarah left the show. The mother described this in “cute antics” terms and I, meanwhile, kept thinking about the horrible things that happen in that show that give even me bad dreams.

    It’s bad enough CSI is making juries expect forensic magic from prosecutors. I think Without A Trace is worse, since from what I saw about half the time it’s children disappearing.

  42. Does anyone know where one would find the CPS ‘rules’ for your state? So how does one know when it is ok, according to the authorities, to legally let children do things on their own?

  43. BMS … I tried to figure all that out several years ago in my state. Specifically, I was looking for what age was allowed for babysitting, what age the kids could be home for brief periods of time unsupervised, what age they needed to be for being outside unsupervised, etc.

    On the babysitting front, my google searches weren’t turning up anything definitive. So I started calling different agencies in the state to find out. I got different answers from everyone! No one actually knew! I was told 11 and I was told 12. My husband was told 10 when he was taking a state required class (because he had lost his job and we were on state assistance).

    After a lot of digging, it turned out that our state has *guidelines* rather than laws. They take each case on an individual basis and consider the details. How many kids being babysat, what ages, what hours, etc. The guidelines are very strongly worded (as far as what ages kids can be unsupervised in what circumstances), but they are still only guidelines and they weren’t particularly easy to find either. As far as I can tell, the fact that these are guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean something good or bad one way or another, btw. If they decide they want to make an example or issue of it, they can. If they want to be lax, they will. I like to think this means that common sense wins out at least most of the time. I don’t have enough experience to know one way or another.

    My first advice would be to google your state with whatever key words you are looking for. Then if you can’t find anything definitive, consider contacting a local social services agency or the police or a lawyer if you are comfortable doing so.

  44. Lenore, this is very slightly off-topic, but I’d love to see your take on the latest article at Motherlode about keeping children safe from abduction. Here’s the article:

    and my response to it:, which could well be summed up as, “Seriously? Did you really print that out loud, New York Times?”

  45. I think it’s interesting that in the same thread where we all agree we shouldn’t let anecdotal TV “evidence” color our judgment as to the real risks of free range parenting, plenty of us seem to be willing to let anecdotal “evidence” color our judgment about “power hungry” CPS workers.

  46. @Timmy Mac
    Some people have offered personal experiences, but I don’t agree that that means that we are basing our judgment on anecdotal evidence.
    I believe I backed my CPS fears up with statistics from a reputable source – the US Dept. of Health and Human Services.

    I did not attempt to give statistics on “power hungry” CPS workers, and I specifically stated there are good CPS workers out there, and kids that really do need their help. However, the statistics I cited show that a large number of families that have CPS called on them are unwarranted. And these are the statistics they supplied themselves to the federal government. I don’t care whether the investigator is power-hungry or not; it certainly isn’t good, but even a well-intentioned CPS worker could be overworked, burnt out, having a bad day, see something that is a personal peeve, been told to make an example of you, be under pressure to investigate more thoroughly, not permitted to use his/her own judgment, etc. Even with a nice, kind, fair, professional CPS worker on your case, it is still traumatic to the family to be investigated. These problems are systemic, not individual. Ok, I don’t have statistics on bad CPS workers, so I shouldn’t fear them. I *do* have statistics on the overall rate of CPS involvement – 3.6%.

    The statistics show I have over a 1 in 200 chance of CPS getting involved in my parenting even though they will eventually acknowledge it is unwarranted. How does that stack up to stranger abduction (I covered this), murder, rape, or injury resulting in a permanent disability (things that argue against free-range) for my child?

    Murder rate for under 14 in latest year I can get (2003):
    1.4 in 100,000, and about 70% know their attacker. (Dept of Justice).
    Note these statistics include gang violence and home arson.
    (Note % that knew their attacker is broken down by age, I took an average over 0-14). So that’s 4.3 per 1,000,000 – 0.00043% if I did my math right.

    Rape – can’t find it. Statistics are mostly for “sexual abuse”.
    last I can find is about 90,000 reported from a population of about 75M.
    That’s 0.12 percent. One can argue a lot go unreported, but since these statistics also include “verbal solicitation”, “unwanted touching”, etc., and include up to age 18, I will have to guess it’s a wash when looking for sexual assault under 14. (National Center for Victims of Crime, National Incidence Study, 2004). Oh, and only 4% are unknown to the victim. So I should really be figuring 0.0048% as far a free-range kids go.

    Disability-causing injury? I don’t have time right now, but I am looking into it. I think this will be hard to find, but I know there are some decent statistics on brain injuries, because I saw them when I was looking for helmet data. Other disability-causing injuries will be harder to find I think. The rate of child brain injury requiring hospitalization is said to be 165,000 of about 80,000,000, or 0.2%, year unspecified (early 2000s?). More than half are from vehicle accidents, and many are from falls in the home, which wouldn’t have much to do with free-range parenting. It didn’t say how many of those hospitalizations resulted in permanent damage.

    So, CPS getting called on me is orders of magnitude more likely than serious crime against my child outside the home as best I can tell. It is statistically likely to happen to 2 or 3 kids in my children’s school.

    Then there is the issue that CPS being called on you once greatly increases the odds of further interventions later, which is not the case for most crimes committed by strangers. So the fear is somewhat multiplicative – 23% of unsubstantiated and closed cases will have a repeated involvement. Of course, some of those will be warranted, but many will not be.

    I have calculated my personal odds at about 1 in 4, since I intend to be somewhat free-range, and my husband had an unwarranted-and-case-quickly-closed involvement a few years ago before (which was still embarrassing and traumatic). We retain a lawyer just in case this happens some day.

    So, I wouldn’t say we are being entirely anecdotal about CPS. You might try offering some facts or statistics of your own instead of just making snide remarks.

    That said, though my husband and I are afraid, we won’t let it stop us entirely from being free-range parents. We just have to prepare ourselves and our kids as best we can, same as we would for any danger. It will occasionally keep us from being quite as free-range as we’d like. I’m not sure where my statistical line is – it’s something each of us have to judge for ourselves, given how we know our children, ourselves, and the situation/environment. Too bad the state would rather judge for us.

  47. Excellent point. I bet dollars to donuts that the reason we’re so fearful is because we’re able to see more on TV – both of the world and in the entertainment aspect.

  48. My partner and I have always questioned Maison Atlanta Blog » Tmas two nights before Christmas, your write-up really does a great job presenting it.

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