Shaken by Shaken Baby Convictions that Could Be All Wrong

Hi Readers! I just wanted to call your attention to this amazing piece in Slate by Emily Bazelon. It’s titled, “Are Innocent Parents Being Prosecuted for Killing Their Babies?” And the subtitle is: “The Doctor Who Came Up With ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ Thinks So.”

The gist of the piece is that the symptoms doctors automatically used to assume indicated abuse may sometimes be the result of natural causes. The Free-Range angle for me is that while we have become sensitive to child abuse — which is good —  sometimes we now go overboard and see it when it’s not there. That’s why  CPS will get called in to “protect” children whose parents are simply letting them exercise some independence, for instance. And why, on that same continuum, sometimes prosecutors will charge caregivers for murder when they were just wretchedly unlucky enough to have babies who died.

These days it is hard for us to remember that we can’t protect everyone from everything because Fate intervenes. And we can’t blame parents for every ill that befalls a child for the same reason. The sad, stark fact — that terrible things happen, even to innocent little kids — is a truth we have a hard time understanding in our “Fix it, outlaw it or blame someone!” culture.

Bazelon’s earlier work on the shaken baby topic in The New York Times Magazine was equally excellent (but a lot longer). Here it is. Read it and work to keep our concern for our children from curdling into injustice. — L.

Keep Overprotective Parenting from Becoming the LAW!

Hi Readers! I am thrilled to present to you a post by David Pimentel, a professor of law and author of a scholarly article on how to keep overprotective parenting from becoming the law. As he writes in his abstract:

…the powerful influence of media has sensationalized the risks to children, skewing popular perceptions of the genuine risks children face and of what constitutes a reasonable or appropriate response to such risks. Consequently, individuals who do not buy into Intensive Parenting norms, including those from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, may be subjecting themselves to criminal prosecution for child neglect and endangerment.

The criminal statutes are, for the most part, very vague, leaving these prosecutions—which amount to little more than one person’s second-guessing the parenting choices of another—in the discretion of prosecutors, who bring the charges, and of juries, who render verdicts. If prosecutors and jurors share the media-fed misperceptions of risk, overprotective parenting becomes the de facto legal standard of care.

Terrifying!! He’s fighting it where it counts — in the court of legal opinion. Please click on his site and then download his article to show that there is genuine, even passionate interest in the topic! (The legal world takes note of how many downloads he gets.) And later this week  I will share a post by him. — L.

Where are their parents? Headed for jail?

Australian Police Chide Parents Who Let their Children Walk Outside

Hi Readers! Down in Australia I’m sort of happy to say a tempest is brewing over whether it is up to parents or police to decide when a child is “old enough” to walk around outside. According to this story  on the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Officers told a Hornsby mother it was ”inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father whose seven-year-old son walked alone to a local shop that while they would not alert DOCS [Dept. of Community Services], they would file a report.

Really? File a report to say a child was suspiciously…fine? Tell another parent that her  child is doing something “inappropriate” by…being competent?

Are these officers doing anyone an ounce of good? Don’t they realize that if they have nothing to do but warn parents about their perfectly poised offspring,  there probably isn’t a whole lot of crime going on for anyone to worry about?

And of course the bigger issue is, as always: Who decides what is “safe enough” when it comes to our kids? Free-Range Kids would rather not leave it up to   power-drunk, horror-hallucinating, infantilizing  busybodies with badges. – L.

Outrage of the Week: Mom HANDCUFFED for Tardy Kids

Hi Folks — This blog, as you know, is always trying to distinguish between real threats to children and the over-hyped ones. In this case, the fear of children being neglected or falling behind has gone overboard.  The mom is due in court this morning  — Wednesday. I wish her a lot of luck, and a judge with compassion and common sense. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Here in Loudoun, VA,  I am a the mother of three little girls at an elementary school who was just ARRESTED for getting my girls late to school. After the fifth offense there was a meeting with a truant officer. We were late twice since then, which resulted in the surprise of three officers showing up on this Sat night ( 1.21.2012),  where I was literally handcuffed and brought to the Adult Detention Center to meet with the magistrate who chose to release me with a $3,000 bond promised to be paid if I fail to show up for the arraignment in a few days.  [N.B. The court date is Weds., Jan. 25.]

The charge is “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children.”  The VA code is written that after five absences the truant officer meets with parents and then works with them in cases in which students are absent without awareness and notification from a parent.  My truant officer seems to miss the rather obvious distinction between ABSENCE without a parent’s knowledge, and TARDINESS.  Our lateness has been, on average, less than ten minutes.

Considering that all four of us — the kids and me — have had medical care for disabilities (some with a diagnosis of ADHD, others with other psychological issues, which the school is very aware of),  I find it not only a waste of resources and taxpayer dollars to engage our police and courts for this, but  also an absolute failure on the part of our school to service those with disabilities with any sort of empathy and understanding. There is nothing short of animosity in their treatment of me as a mother, as if I am incompetent due to the one problem of having difficulty getting my children to school on time.

While it is debatable whether or not I am a decent mother, EVEN IF I WERE NOT it would hardly be CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR to be so imperfect. — A Virginia Mom

Lenore here again: I agree. Once we start criminalizing imperfect parents, all of us are at risk…because there are no perfect parents.  

Paper Airplane? Late for School? Shouting Too Loud? You’re Under Arrest!

Hi Readers — Here’s an incredible report on how the “School to prison pipeline” plays out in Texas, as published in The Guardian:

In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanour” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.

The other appalling fact is that parents who don’t or can’t pay the fine, which can be $500, sometimes ignore it. Which means that when the kid turns 17,he or she can be arrested and go to jail — adult prison — for non-payment.

The draconian nature of this situation has not escaped notice. Reports The Guardian:

 Texas state legislature last year changed the law to stop the issuing of tickets to 10- and 11-year-olds over classroom behaviour. (In the state, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.) But a broader bill to end the practice entirely – championed by a state senator, John Whitmire, who called the system “ridiculous” – failed to pass and cannot be considered again for another two years.

Two more years of criminalizing everything from shenanigans to defiance? All in the name of “safety”? What about keeping kids safe from an unwarranted,  lifelong criminal record?

This is a Free-Range issue because, once again, we see what happens when we lose perspective on crime. Usually I write about how we keep our kids inside because we wildly over-estimate the chance of kidnapping. Now we see what happens when schools, politicians and police wildly over-estimate the chance of “another Columbine.” Either way, childhood is compromised.  Either way, out kids pay the price for our paranoia.  — Lenore

My Son Went Outside Barefoot. Is This a Crime?

Readers — This letter means so much to me. It’s from a mom in Massachusetts, reminding us that Free-Range isn’t just an idea. It is real. It can change lives. (And it believes in barefoot kids.) — L.  

Dear Free-Range Kids: Imagine my surprise as I looked out the second story window only to see my 10 year old son walking into our driveway with a police officer’s car creeping along with him!  You see my son was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes” and this was apparently alarming to law enforcement.

Actually, he was outside, without shoes, waiting for his friend to arrive, and in his great anticipation, had decided to walk a few houses up the street.  (How terribly childlike of him!)  The officer asked him, “WHY ARE YOU OUT ALONE WITHOUT YOUR SHOES?”  And my son (quite nervous and experiencing an anxiety-induced brain freeze) said, “Uhmm, I don’t know.”  The officer took note of his name and address and drove away after he was safely inside.  I am left to wonder if there’s a file at the police station with my child’s name on it with a note about the boy who was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes.”

This year has been one of fantastic liberation. We’ve taken a great leap of faith and allowed our first-born to roam and ride his bike alone and with friends.  He also has the free will to decide if he wants to wear shoes or a coat (unless we’re going to a public place or it’s 20 degrees. 🙂  Since adopting a “Free-Range” parenting style I have noticed that others view this as somehow neglectful and/or dangerous.  Interestingly, I have also seen a dramatic change in my child’s well being since he’s been “let off leash.”  He’s lost weight, he noticeably smiles and laughs more, and he has had many wonderful experiences to brag about — like catching a giant catfish at a pond down the street (alone) and carrying it through town with its tail flapping around, half hanging out of a lemonade container, and then summoning the help of a “stranger” to get the hook out.  He has stories to tell because he is LIVING and I am so happy to give him one ounce of the joy I was allowed as a child.

Recently, as dusk became dark and he was not yet home, I wondered if I had made a mistake.  Where was my boy?!  My heart began to race as I thought of every horrible thing that might have happened to him.  I jumped in the car and as I started down the street I saw the outline of his human shape chugging up the hill to our house.  He made it, in one piece, with rosy cheeks and the smell of childhood all over him.  Free-Range is the way to go!  There is risk in everything.  Freedom is a risk I am willing to take.  Thank you,  you have changed our lives! — Carla English, mom of two

Criminally Confident in Our Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s my syndicated column from last week. Sorry it took me to long to get to the Tennessee bike rider story. Got overwhelmed by other stuff. Here goes! – L

CALLING ALL COPS…OFF

So, a mom in Tennessee, Teresa Tryon, has been told by the police that she was wrong to allow her 10-year-old daughter to bike to and from school. Do it again before the police discuss this with Child Protective Services, she was warned, and she could face charges of child neglect.

Though Tryon believed her child was safe, the police officer didn’t. And that was enough to put the mom on thin legal ice.

The bike ride is less than 10 minutes each way. The mom herself said she passed a total of eight cars on her two journeys on that same route that same day. Moreover, she had her daughter take a bike safety class before any of this.

Does it get any safer than that? Perhaps the girl should just never get on a bike at all. That would probably satisfy the cop. But what about the kid, who wants a childhood? And the mom, who wants an active, independent little girl? And the town, which could be buzzing with kids playing outside or could be just a barren expanse of empty lawns?

The cooped-up kids and lifeless lawns are collateral damage in the war against terror — the terror we are supposed to feel whenever we think of children doing anything on their own. If you don’t share that terror, you risk trouble with the law.

I know because it happened to me, too. After I let my son ride the subway solo at age 9 a few years back, I also let him ride the commuter train out to the burbs when he turned 10. He went back and forth to his friend’s house many times, but then, one time, one of the conductors noticed him and went ballistic. “You should NOT be riding alone!” he said. Izzy offered to let the man talk to me on the phone, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he radioed ahead to the cops, who were waiting when my son got off the train.

Also waiting, by the way, was the family of the kid my son was going to see.  They always pick him up.

You’d think that would be proof enough that this was a situation both families felt comfortable with, but instead, the train was held for several minutes while the police questioned the friend’s family and then called me. Finally, the cop conceded this was probably OK, so the conductor got back on the train, and that was that.

Until about a month later, when it all happened again.

The same cop called me. And when I said that Izzy was now carrying a printout from the train’s own website that said kids as young as eight can ride alone,  and that furthermore that I personally felt my son was safe — at rush hour, surrounded by hundreds of commuters — the officer said, “But what if someone tries to abduct him?”

I said that in that very unlikely scenario, I thought the other people would help him.

Countered the cop: “What if TWO guys try to abduct him?”

This is what I call “Worst-First” thinking — jumping to the very WORST scenario FIRST and acting as if it were likely to happen. Two guys waiting at a commuter train platform just in case a 10-year-old might happen to be riding by himself that day and they could somehow grab each arm with no one noticing? (And as my son asked later,  “Isn’t the policeman there to KEEP me safe?”)

Of course, there are police officers who understand that kids are not in constant danger and allow them to go about the business of learning to navigate the world. But when a cop comes knocking on your door or calling you from the train platform, you realize that until we abolish “Worst-First” thinking, kids can’t be kids — and the police get to parent.

Don’t You Step on This Blue Swede (or her shoes)

Hi Readers — Forgive the belabored headline. Here’s a story one of you alerted us all to in the post below this one:  A Swedish woman left her baby outside a Massachusetts restaurant for 10 minutes while she ordered inside. Someone saw the boy, called the cops and the cops called Department of Child and Family Services to file a report of “potential abuse or neglect.”

Now, I know that leaving your kids outside is common in Scandanavia and uncommon in the States. But as Pentamom put it in a comment:

If I were empress of the universe, when someone came across a well-cared for looking baby left in a stroller outside a decent-looking establishment in broad daylight, and reported it, the cops would say, “Ha! Another European! I’ll find the parents and speak to them about it” and that would be the end of it. Only if the conversation with the parents gave the cops something to worry about, would it go beyond that.

Not only do I wish Pentamom (or me) WAS the empress of the universe, I wish that she (or I!!) could change this country into one where we DO trust our babies to be fine for a few minutes outside, because we all look out for one another, rather than all distrusting one another.

On another, but related, note, I am up in Canada filming my TV show (that still is looking for a few more overprotective families to participate), and what do I see FIRST THING as I sit down to eat my breakfast in the diningroom where the TV is, of course, blaring? “Body of 3 year old found in Missouri.”

That’s right. The local Toronto news is reporting a dead child found in another country.Because beyond traffic and weather, that is what sells. And that is why it seems crazy to leave a child unattended anywhere, ever. When all you hear about, day in and day out, is children meeting gruesome ends, that is what you come to expect:   Sadness, shock, psychos (and sometimes Swedes). — L.

No one at my side? I must be officially abused and neglected!

Outrage of the Week: Don’t You DARE Throw This Woman in Jail!

Readers — I am SO SICK of our finger-pointing culture ever-ready to criminalize a normal, if tragic, parenting moment. In this case, a woman named Felicia Tucker is being charged in the drowning death of her toddler nephew Joshua because he got out of house and she didn’t realize it quickly enough. He drowned in a nearby lake. According to an article in The Courier Post Online:

Tormenting Tucker on Friday was whether Joshua had suddenly learned to open the front door or whether it had not been latched. Tucker said she and her sister had taken “every precaution” in recent weeks — such as emptying out a backyard pool and ensuring the doors to the home were latched — after a co-worker’s toddler son drowned in a Monroe pool in June.

Note to police, prosecutors, judges: This is hardly a woman who is negligent! What happened is HUMAN, NOT CRIMINAL! Quit pretending it isn’t, just to feel smug or safe or superior. You could be a wonderful, even saintly parent, and it could happen to you. How would sending this woman — a mom herself — to ten years in prison make anyone safer or rectify anything?

That’s easy — it won’t. It’ll just teach us all a lesson: Unless we are absolutely perfect, we have absolutely no business parenting. (Or even being allowed to set foot in the community.) — L.

Cops Collar 12 y.o. for “Walking Alone” in Downtown Toronto

Hi Folks — Now that the notion, “How could anyone let their kids walk alone outside?” is back in heavy rotation,  here is the blog post of a mom whose 12 year old son was brought home to her by the cops. He wasn’t  in any trouble. He was simply scooped up because the cops didn’t think a middle schooler should be walking, by daylight, in an urban area. It freaked them out.

I always worry when people in power are scared of non-scary, formerly normal childhood activities.

As this boy was picked up in pretty much the same area that I’ve been staying in while I film my “Free-Range” reality show in Toronto, I can attest that it is not a scary nabe. It is bustling. But even if it weren’t, since when do police pick up boys who are doing just fine, walking home? From the blog post:

“I just wanted to walk home” he said dejectedly. “He’s not in any kind of trouble” the first officer said cheerfully. But then more sternly added “but he was walking on the downtown streets”. “We live downtown” I said, becoming confused. “Where is his school?” asked the second officer. “He’s in a camp this week, at the Jewish Community Centre – it’s at Spadina and Bloor”, I said wondering why two policemen would think a kid was in school in the middle of July. “Well ma’am, we picked him up at Yonge and Adelaide” he says, looking all strong and concerned. “Yes, I said, he was walking home, is that a problem?”. “He was walking…. alone…… downtown……….!!!” the officer gritted his teeth at my stupidity and spat out. “He’s 12”, he added as if this would make it all clear. “Do you not see the issue” he spurted? “So are you trying to tell me that because my child was getting exercise, being environmental and increasing his geographical skills, rather than sitting in the basement playing a video game, or hanging out in a mall, or sitting in a fast food restaurant filling his gutty wuts with hydrogenated trans sugar chemical slop, you were worried about him? Do you realize that at 12 he is old enough to babysit?” I asked.

Her fight is our fight: The fight against irrational fear, and a Worst-First mentality that assumes if a child is outside, he is likely to get in terrible trouble. When, in fact, the opposite is true. A child outside is a great thing for a city, a family, a kid. — Lenore