Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

Hi Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L

THE HIDDEN “PRIVILEGE” OF AN UNPRIVILEGED CHILDHOOD, by DARRELL HAMMOND

When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.

Sorry, My Yahoo Email Account was Hacked

Hi Readers — I just want to apologize to anyone getting a weird email message from me today. My Yahoo email account was hacked.

And just in case Yahoo is reading this: It is impossible to get a hold of you, so let me state my complaints here:

1 – Your new email template is frustrating, and your FAQs don’t answer any of the Qs I happen to have about it. I’m sure I’m not alone.

2 – If anyone using your email service is unfortunate enough to get hacked, there is no way to get help from you. No phone number, nothing.

3- Perhaps someone from your “help” desk can contact me via email or this blog. That would be lovely! — L.

 

Perv Alert! Man Seen Photographing Boy at Park!

Hi Readers — This just in! A creepy old guy was seen taking pix of some young boy in Idaho. The cops were called! The media alerted! Hearts pounded, rage burbled, all because…

Um, a grandpa was photographing his grandson.

He left when some crazy lady started yelling at him. Here’s the story.  — L

LESS OF AN OUTRAGE! “Vehicular Manslaughter” Mom Gets Probation

Hi Folks — Here’s good news. The Atlanta mom who was convicted of “vehicular manslaughter” after her 4-year-old wriggled away from her and was killed by a drunk driver, does not have to do jail time. While she could have been sent away for three years, she will instead do a year of probation and perform 40 hours of community service. She also has been offered the option of another trial.

The driver, meantime, already did six months in jail and was released in October. He will serve  the remained of his five-year sentence on probation, reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Here’s my original post on the topic. The case ended up getting a lot of attention — including on The Today Show — and over 100,000 folks signed a petition asking the powers that be to throw out the mom’s conviction and install a crosswalk instead. Whether or not the judge, Katherine Tanksley, was moved by the furor, she showed compassion and common sense.

That’s what we want from all our judges. Now let’s hope Atlanta builds that crosswalk.  – Lenore

“Leiby’s Law” Would Not Have Saved Leiby

Hi Readers — This post was sent to me by Mendel Klein, a Brooklyn father and a pediatric occupational therapist who writes about the benefits of letting children fail over at, yes,  Let Your Child Fail. — L

Leiby’s Law Wouldn’t have Prevented Leiby Kletzky’s Death

Here we go again. While Leiby Kletzky’s parents and sisters were still sitting the seven days of shiva,  mourning the brutal killing of their son, politicians in our community were already announcing a law in reaction to the terrible tragedy that struck them.

No need to guess what the law is called. It’s Leiby’s Law. The politicians are proposing that homeowners and store owners be able to voluntarily  submit themselves to criminal background checks and, if cleared, get a large, bright green sticker symbolizing that location as a safe-haven for lost children.

It has now become customary to propose and pass laws in reaction to tragedies that involve children. Some of these laws are helpful, but others, like this one, aren’t.

In reaction to Caylee Anthony’s death, or rather in reaction to her mother’s acquittal, there’s been a push for Caylee’s law, which would make it a crime not to report a missing child. As was pointed out here, Caylee’s law could make many of us criminals. And as Lenore wrote, next people are going to propose a law against mothers buying duct tape.

Here’s what’s wrong with Leiby’s Law. Levi Aron, young Leiby’s confessed killer, would have passed a criminal background check with flying colors. The New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly, made it clear that Aron had no criminal record. Even Aron’s ex-wife was saying how great he was with kids.

I don’t want to accuse politicians of opportunism, so I’ll stay away from that angle, although you may fill in the blanks. Still, this law (if you even want to call it a law) is ridiculous.

In the aftermath of tragedy people propose new regulations thinking that if only that law had been in effect at the time, the tragedy wouldn’t have happened. But in this case, while little Leiby Kletzky could have gone into a store or home sporting a green sticker on its window, that store or home could have been owned by a killer with no previous criminal record.

That is actually what happened.

Levi Aron was a person of Leiby’s community, my community. He looked like a community member to Leiby. Leiby likely trusted him. It’s exactly the same as if he had a green sticker. And that unfortunately didn’t prevent Leiby from being kidnapped and killed.

And yet, I can already imagine people starting to say, “Oh we only shop at stores that have green stickers, you know — the good stores. We are supporters of Leiby’s Law.” Or, “That store owner must be a child killer. Why else doesn’t he have a green sticker?”

Passing laws might boost politicians’ profiles. Petitioning for these laws might make us feel good. But reacting in these ways also boosts our fear and paranoia, while making our children no safer. It’s time to vote nay on these retroactive, post-mortem, feel-good laws, no matter whose name is attached. — M.K.

New Outrage: Sex Offender or Teenage Jerk?

Hi Readers! Ever look at a map of the local sex offenders, the ones with little dots showing where the guys live who prey upon helpless little children? Well, as of this week, there are two dots that won’t come off until the guys die of old age — which could be quite a while.

Right now, they’re both 16.

The boys committed their crime at age 14. And just what was it?

Horseplay. Stupid, disgusting horseplay. According to NJ.com, the kids pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-olds’ faces for the simple reason that they “thought it was funny” and were trying to get their “friends to laugh.”

That’s how one of the teens explained himself to a Somerset County, N.J., judge back in 2008. (His friend headed off a trial by pleading guilty to the same act.)

The judge then considered what he had in front of him, and rather than think, “These punks could use some community service time and maybe a suspension from school — plus an in-person apology to the kids they sat on,” he thought, “These two are sex offenders.”

After all, what they had done was, technically, “criminal sexual contact” with intent to humiliate or degrade. And so sex offenders he ruled they were. That meant they were subject to Megan’s Law. In New Jersey, such offenders, even as young as 13, have to register for life.

This past week, the young men appealed their sentence and lost.

What does it mean to be on the sex offender list? First of all, the public knows where you live. Websites and newspapers can publish your photo. So can TV news. Parents can warn their kids never to go near you.

In many states, registered sex offenders have to live a certain distance from where kids congregate, be that a school, day care center, park or bus stop. So these young men may have to move to the sticks.

When they get a job (Good luck! Not many places are dying to hire registered sex offenders), they have to notify the authorities of where they’re working.

They also have to re-register four times a year, and if they miss an appointment, they can go to jail. In some communities, they have to turn their lights off on Halloween. In others, they have to answer the door saying, “I’m a registered sex offender.” All because of this stupid prank they pulled at age 14.

And meantime, their presence as a dot on the map is terrifying everyone in their neighborhood. After all, they’re on the sex offender list!

“These lists were originally conceived by most of the voters who cheered them on as lists of people who had some sort of psychological compulsion to sexual predation,” explains Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. People assume anyone on it is “a permanent menace.”

These guys are more like Dennis the Menace, which is why we have to change the criteria that land folks on the registry. These young men were never “predators.” And as the years go by, the idea that they pose a danger to children will become even more ridiculous. When you’re 20, 30, 40 — 80! — you don’t do the things you did as a 14-year-old trying to impress your buddies. Why is Megan’s Law blind to human nature?

If it were making kids safer, maybe we could overlook how obtuse it is. But a 2008 study found that, in New Jersey at least — where little Megan Kanka, for whom the law is named, was murdered — the law showed no effect in reducing the number of sexual re-offenses or reducing the number of victims.

It’s time to change the law and the registry. Otherwise, too many of the dots on a sex offender map will be victims, not criminals. — L

Remember Leiby Thru “Acts of Lovingkindness” — Statement By His Parents

Hello, Readers: This is a wonderful thing, this statement by Leiby’s parents, asking the world to remember him by doing good deeds for each other. It doesn’t mention anything about distrusting strangers or men or the  “crazy world” we live in, it is about bringing us together, not apart. Bless them and their son’s memory.  – L