Parents of Kids who Get Too Many Bruises May Be Charged with Neglect

Hi Folks — This story comes to us from Australia, where the federal government is telling child protective workers to consider — and classify  — kids who “often” hurt themselves as at a “high risk of neglect.” “Accident-prone children might be the victims of poor parental supervision,” is how AdelaideNow sums the reasoning up.  Thus, anyone treating (or seeing?) bruised or clumsy kids is told to assess the role that parental supervision — or lack thereof — played, even in minor accidents.

The theory behind this isn’t bad. It’s true that severely neglected children, especially young ones, may be hurting themselves because their parents are (as this study suggests) totally out of it, on drugs, or passed out on the couch.

But I have to think this call for scrutiny and immediate suspicion would have a chilling effect on any parents ready to let their kids have some Free-Range, old-fashioned fun and independence — like riding a bike, or climbing a tree. If a kid wipes out on his bike one week, bonks his head on a branch the next, is he a lovingly tended child with parents who believe kids can (and even should) endure a couple bruises? Or is he  a neglected child? And how can we be sure the evaluator will be able to tell the difference?

Or even believe there IS a difference?

My fear is not so much that the authorities will mistake normal childhood injuries for the negligence endured in the home of severely drug-addled parents. I fear that, increasingly, normal childhood injuries won’t be considered normal anymore, period. So any kid sustaining them will automatically be considered neglected, because why weren’t the parents right behind him on that tree, or standing under it with a safety net?

The New South Wales Children’s Commissioner quoted in the aritcle, Megan Mitchell, said, “I don’t think we can expect parents to be super-parents but they need to know what their child is doing as best they can.”

What the heck does that mean? Is it enough to know my kid is playing outside and will be home by dinner? Or should I know every activity he will be participating in from 10 a.m. till 6 on a Saturday, including that he’s going to jump off a swing at 12:16? The commissioner went on to say that she would “hope” that prosecuting parents “would be reasonably rare and that people in authority would establish a relationship with the families and then make a good judgment about whether there is a real problem or not.”

But where we see no problem, the authorities could. And the authorities have…authority. Therein lies the problem. – L.

So if he falls off his bike and gets a little banged up — say, twice or three times — are his parents “neglectful”?

You Can Babysit at 12…But You Must Be Dropped Off at the Babysitting Class by Your Mom

Hi Readers! Let’s call this a “Catch 12”: you are old enough to do something independent, but not allowed to do it independently: 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve got my 11 & 12 year old sons registered to take a babysitting class through our local children’s medical center.  The reminder email stated:

Accompany your child into the building and to the classroom. Please allow 5 minutes to park, find the room, and to check your child in.

Please send a water bottle, lunch and snack with your child. There is no cafeteria available.  (Because clearly, neither I nor my kids would think of this on our own for a class that runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.!)

Class ends promptly at 2 p.m. Please arrive to the classroom by 1:50 p.m. for a summary of the day and to pick up your child. For your child’s safety please let the instructor know if you plan to have someone other than yourself pick up your child from the classroom.

So I replied:

Hi, my kids have been learning how to bus around town this summer.  Are they not allowed to arrive without an adult?  What about leaving on their own?

Thanks, Cheryl

Here’s their response:

Cheryl,

We really appreciate you checking in on this ahead of time. Due to safety concerns, it is our standard practice to ask that a parent or caregiver accompany the child to the class. The instructor checks each student in and confirms an emergency contact number with the adult. We also ask that the instructor see each child leave with a parent, caregiver or designated adult.

I apologize if this causes any scheduling concerns for you. If you’d like to schedule your child for a different class that occurs when you can accompany them, we’d be happy to waive the transfer fee and schedule them in a class with availability. Let me know if you want to do that or if you have any questions.

Thanks again for contacting us with the question. I hope your child enjoys the upcoming class!

And my reply:

I can make it happen, it’s just kind of silly that kids who are to be responsible for little ones aren’t given a chance to be responsible for themselves. It’s also not good for the environment, my time or our gas budget.

Does it make a difference if it’s two siblings that would be traveling together?

I haven’t heard back from them yet.  Isn’t this just ridiculous?!  I won’t stop being a Free-Range Parent, but goodness, sometimes it’s just so dang tiring dealing with friends, family, society, etc. that think I’m crazy for letting my kids do things like walk, bike, and bus around town; for working for neighbors; and you know the rest! ~~Cheryl 

Outrage of the Week:Mom Sentenced for Letting Her 4 y.o. Draw with Chalk

Well, readers, from what I can tell from the news reports I’ve just read and watched in utter disbelief, a 29-year-old mom in Richmond, Va., was found guilty of letting her 4-year-old daughter draw with chalk on some park rocks. For this the mom received 50 hours of community service to be spent weeding the area around 200 boundary posts like the one you see below, then scraping the peeling paint off them, then re-painting them. The operative word for me being “paint.” If the county is so concerned about her daughter’s crime, shouldn’t she just have to chalk them? After all, the cop and judge acted as if the girl had permanently damaged the rocks, with her mother goosing her on.

The mom was convicted two years earlier of actually painting on the rocks. In the TV report below, it says that this time when the mom was confronted by the (same!) cop, she said, “You must hate your f***ing job.”

How about hating a f***ed up system that is allowed to treat childhood like a crime? – L

Warnings, Waivers & Wild Worries! Like the Pre-K That Keeps Kids’ Photos in a “Secure Location”

Hi Folks! I’m trying to gather examples of warnings, waivers and official worires that annoy, amuse or outrage you, especially regarding your kids. For instance, over in England  schools are forbidding parents from taking pictures at plays. One sports program requires shutter-happy parents to wear a special ARM BAND if they’re going to snap pix. In this amazing article, Josie Appleton, head of The Manifesto Club, writes that the “Robin Hood primary and nursery school in Nottinghamshire says its photographs are stored in a ‘secure location’ for not more than four years, after which they are ‘privately destroyed.'” Like government secrets!

I’m speaking at a conference about this kind of stuff in November and I’ve got a lot of wonderful examples from you already. But if you’ve got any more — let’s hear! L.   (who can’t quite figure out why, at the end of this video, you go right into my next-to-latest video…but so be it) 

How Should a School Respond When ONE Parent Says, “That’s Too Dangerous!” ?

Hi Readers! Over in jolly ol’ England,  there’s a man I revere named Tim Gill who runs the blog Rethinking Childhood, and wrote the book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society. This most recent post of his is SO GOOD — and asks such an important question — I asked if i could run part of it here. Replied Tim, “Take the whole thing!” See what I mean? A great guy. – L

WHEN ANXIOUS PARENTS ARE THE PROBLEM, WHAT IS THE SOLUTION? by TIM GILL

How should schools, nurseries, kindergartens and other education, childcare and play services respond to anxious parents? I was asked this question recently by an Australian early years educator who heard me speak a couple of months ago.

She explained that her setting’s outdoor space was very small and sparse, but that it was located in some more extensive school grounds. She was keen to take the children into the grounds, so they could play games that they do not have room for in their own yard. She wanted to do this, not only because of the extra space, but also to prepare the children for the transition to the ‘big school’ that many of them would soon be joining. She continues:

Unfortunately, one parent has refused permission for their child to have anything to do with the school, because “she’s not going to that school next year”. I’ve spoken to my managers, and there’s nothing I can do about one parent preventing all the children from going to the school. I am not able to ask the child to stay home on those days. I am not able to leave her with one staff member at the setting. I am not able to leave her at the school office. And when I appealed to the mother she said that it is my problem.

It is amazing that one parent can determine what all the other children will be able to do! I asked my managers if they could make it a compulsory policy from next year’s enrolments that parents give permission before enrolling to access the school grounds. However, they said no, as I am supposed to engage with our community, according to regulations.

They did say they would look into it, as they hadn’t come across a parent like this before. I said they should, because there’s always one parent! If a parent doesn’t give permission then it’s certainly to their child’s detriment, but to affect everybody else’s rights to go on an excursion or to do an activity that is deemed beneficial and educational is not right.

Note the real problem here. It is not parents as a group. It’s that because of the policies and procedures of the setting, the views of a single parent are enough to derail things.

baby-knee-padsParents, like the rest of us, are on a spectrum when it comes to their attitude to risk. At one end of this spectrum, some parents apparently feel the need to protect their children through against all possible harm, even the harm from crawling on a hardwood floor.

All too often, systems and procedures effectively give risk averse parents a veto. Schools, services and settings feel under pressure to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. Often, the result is that all children lose out on some vital learning experiences.

My take-home message to services – and especially service managers – is simple. If you want to allow all children the chance to spread their wings a little, you cannot set your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. In the nicest possible way, you need to be assertive with the ones at the fearful end of the spectrum. They should not be allowed to think that they have a veto on what you offer to children.

Readers: How about you? How worried are you about the influence of anxious parents? What messages do parents get about your values – for instance, in your publicity materials, or your mission statement – and how well do these values square up with your practice? Have you succeeded in winning the more risk-averse over to the idea of expanding children’s horizons? Or do your procedures get in the way? I would love to hear your views and ideas. – -T.G.

Me too! – L.S.

P.S. You might want to check out the comments on Tim’s blog. Some good ones! 

 

What Do Lawsuits Have in Common with Predators?

Hi Readers! Here’s a really thought-provoking piece about the OTHER fear haunting parents — and schools and parks departments and congregations and day care centers and scouting groups and…you get the idea. Read on! – L
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Dear Free-Range Kids: This blog is all about how the fear of injury, disease, abduction, or low IQ has turned parents into helicopters and locked our kids inside.  After reading “Commandment Five: Don’t Think Like A Lawyer” in Lenore’s (utterly awesome and enlightening) book, Free Range Kids, I was prompted to write to her about a different fear: the fear of lawsuits. I am a lawyer, and today I want to help debunk the myth that our country is a collection of litigious jerks against whom we must protect ourselves diligently (a myth which persists even though most of us have never actually met one of these litigious jerks).  First, I want to talk about lawsuits in general, and then I’ll talk about lawsuits and parenting.

Things to know about lawsuits in general

I am a law clerk for a judge in a trial court. “Trial court” just means we don’t handle appeals–we’re the lowest level court, which all judicial matters have to go through first. My courtroom handles a civil docket, which means we handle handle almost everything that isn’t divorce or criminal matters–this predominantly means lawsuits. I have been in this job for two years, and I have seen over 2,000 individual cases just in my courtroom alone. I also chat with the other law clerks in the other courtrooms about our most interesting cases.  Frequently, we talk about the most  ridiculous ones. What’s most striking to me, though, is how infrequently those cases come up.  Keep in mind that each of us has approximately 1,000 cases a year, and 300 going at any one time.

In my time at court, I have seen perhaps 2 cases that were truly bunk.  These cases really stick out.  Of all my cases, that means that less than one percent of of them should never have been filed; one-tenth of one percent, in fact.  Most of my cases have some value.  And guess what?  Both of these bunk cases resolved in favor of the defense.  I’ll do you one better — neither were about crazy parents suing for stuff that happened (or could have happened) to their kids, nor were they brought against parents.  They were about adults doing stupid things and then suing to paper over their embarrassing mistakes.  Point being: the risk of a lawsuit by or against a parent is simply not that great.

The best stats I could find regarding the filing of bad lawsuits in general is here: http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/kritzer/research/rule11/rule11Jud.htm.  After doing the math from these statistics, I (with help from my engineer husband) determined that in only 28 out of every 10,000 cases were sanctions imposed on lawyers for bringing a frivolous case.  Once again, that’s less than 1%.

These are not perfect statistics, but it appears that they’re the best we have.  They also don’t speak to the issue directly at hand (i.e., how often parents, and not just people in general, sue for ridiculous reasons), but we can probably at least accept that parents just aren’t running to lawyers every time their kid stubs a toe.  Just as with all these other fears that Lenore highlights, the media hypes up the craziest cases, and the rest of us come away with the feeling that everyone is just looking for an excuse to sue. But that isn’t really the case.

Do people sue when they really have no reason to?  Yes.  But it’s such a tiny, fractional risk, it’s practically not worth worrying about.

If you do get sued, keep this in mind: when you finally get in front of a jury (which may not ever happen — the statistic thrown around in law school is that 94% of cases don’t ever get that far), the jury frequently assumes that the plaintiff is sue-crazy.  It’s unfortunate, but people really believe that we live in an era where everyone hires an attorney for every little bump.  And even if the plaintiff convinces them that their case has value, they get just enough money to handle medical bills and court costs – IF they’re lucky enough to get all that covered at all.  Contrary to popular belief, plaintiffs don’t just get an arbitrary amount of money according to how much a jury thinks they deserve — they have to prove it up, and show how much money an accident has cost them.  No one is getting an Italian villa, and even if a jury does try to award exorbitant damages, judges are able to reduce an unfair damage award.  Furthermore, most organizations have insurance in order to defend against lawsuits, and many people who may have children in their home are already covered by homeowners insurance.  So while a lawsuit is not fun, and can cause considerable expense and stress, it is also not likely to be the end of the world.

Lawsuits as they relate to parenting

I wish I could give more concrete stats about unnecessary lawsuits brought by or against parents, but they don’t exist.  (Although I’m sure that at this very moment, some anal retentive lawyer is carefully picking through every single case ever filed in the United States to compile them for you.)  I think we can agree that the statistics would probably follow along the same lines as the more general statistics listed above.  In other words, such a tiny risk that you shouldn’t even bother to worry about it.

But what if the school/daycare/supervising parent does make a mistake, a serious one, and a lawsuit is warranted?  We’re talking here not about frivolous suits, but the ones that could actually result in money awarded.  Obviously, this happens – but not as frequently as people think.  Please remember: (1) your child is unlikely to get injured or abducted in the first place, and (2) most people are reasonable and don’t want to be embroiled in a draining lawsuit even if they do have a really good case.  To repeat: even when parents may have a perfectly good lawsuit, that doesn’t mean they’re going to go to a lawyer.  I bet most of you have never met someone who was involved in one of these suits.  I asked around, and NONE of my fellow law clerks (about 20 of them), NOR the Judge that I work for (who has been on the bench for over 20 years), has seen a case brought by a parent to recover for an everyday childhood accident or violence by a stranger, even ones that have merit.  (I’m not including car accidents and medical malpractice – the types of things that are just as likely to injure adults.)  This is despite the fact that our court encompasses a very large school district.  That doesn’t mean these kinds of lawsuits don’t happen, but it does mean they don’t happen very much.  Most parents just want their kids to be ok, and maybe want medical bills paid for if it has come to that; they aren’t out to make your life miserable.

As a lawyer, I need to sign off by saying that I am NOT your attorney, and none of this constitutes legal advice.  But I hope it does make you feel a little bit better about the world your kids are living in.  The bottom line is that people aren’t as litigious as you’d think, and lawsuits by parents for normal childhood injuries are rare.

So what can we do about this massive, unwarranted fear of lawsuits?  We’d love to hear your ideas.

All the best! —Tiffany Gengelbach

Here are some ideas for helping to cut down on the fear of lawsuits:

(1) Try to spread the word that lawsuits really aren’t that common.  People love to talk about our litigious society, but that really isn’t true.  Most people would rather forego a completely reasonable lawsuit than be labeled “litigious” and go through the very difficult process that a lawsuit entails.  While you’re at it, maybe point out that lawsuits are seriously no fun, and are extremely stressful, time-consuming, and expensive – maybe that will discourage unnecessary lawsuits!
(2) Shame the heck out of the people who bring frivolous lawsuits (as opposed to constantly suggesting that “you should sue for that!!”, which I see all the time on internet comment boards).  The blog “Lowering the Bar” is a great resource for this: http://www.loweringthebar.net/
(3) Where you have the influence or power, try to get organizations to self-insure so that they aren’t subject to arbitrary rules by insurance companies.  Even though you pay them to defend you against lawsuits, insurance companies are afraid of having to spend their money on an unpredictable suit even though it probably won’t ever materialize.  It’s not their fault – they need to protect their business just like everyone else.  Still, they are looking out for every single little thing that could cause a lawsuit, no matter how unlikely.  This kind of thinking encourages fear and contributes to the feeling that a lawsuit is just a matter of time.
(4) Ask your state legislature to provide greater governmental immunity to schools for injuries.
(5) Ask your state legislature to add rules saying that parties who lose in court have to pay attorneys fees.  Right now, under the “American Rule,” each party must pay his own attorneys’ fees, except in certain limited circumstances.  Under the “English Rule,” the loser pays.  The English Rule could cut down on filing lawsuits and encourage people to talk things out ahead of time.
(6) Don’t be afraid to apologize when you’ve made someone upset.  Though you shouldn’t admit that you are liable for any damages, just connecting on a personal level can do wonders to avoid lawsuits.  A simple, “I’m so sorry little Kimmie got hurt,” is often a great way to soften someone.

Remember When We Fingerprinted CRIMINALS? Now We Fingerprint Coaches

Hi Readers: Two words — Jerry Sandusky — will be invoked for the next umpteen years to justify background checking every male who interacts with children. Let’s remind those folks that if anyone HAD background checked Jerry Sandusky he’d  have looked as trustworthy as a golden retriever. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My hubby who has been coaching our boys hockey for 16 years just received a letter from our police to come in and submit fingerprints in order for him to continue coaching.  The new policy requires this. Fingerprinting!! Never mind that we already have ‘safeguards’ in place.  Each team has at least 3 coaches and there must always be 2 coaches present with the players at all times if parents aren’t there.  Now they have to submit to not only a background check but be fingerprinted in order to ascertain that you haven’t changed your name after a conviction.  What can you do? If you want to keep involved in your child’s sport you don’t have a choice.
Sad that volunteers are under constant suspicion and offensive to have to be treated this way. — Nathalie Delage

If you are male, you’re guilty till fingerprinted innocent.