OUTRAGE OF THE WEEK: Cops Threaten Mom for Letting Son Play Outside

Hi Readers! This mom, Kimberlee Morrison of kimleeisawesome, needs a pep talk from all of us — and perhaps some legal advice. You’ll see why. L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been warned. Literally. By the police. My son left the park, went to El Pollo Loco and asked for water. A stranger asked him if he was hungry, the Boy, thinking the guy was being nice, said sure. The guy bought him some food — and called the police.

The police called me and insisted it was not safe for me to let my 8-year-old “wander the streets alone.” They hit me with the normal fear tactics: He could have been hit by a car, he could have been kidnapped. What if he had wandered off somewhere else and the stranger hadn’t been nice enough to involve the authorities?

To which I countered that there is no law against letting my son go to the park, and that the only problem right now is that the supposedly nice person HAD involved the authorities, even though my son was fine. My son was not lost, he wasn’t injured, he wasn’t afraid, he was just thirsty. I was told that since others thought something was wrong, I should too. Now I’m questioning my Free-Range philosophy.

By law, he is old enough to be alone, but the police insisted that the only reason I wasn’t going to jail is because they had decided it wasn’t necessary. They did, however ask to see where we lived, which I agreed to in the spirit of being cooperative.

Now we’re a little shaken up here, mostly by the threat of, “I could take you to jail right now,” and the fear that the Boy might not be allowed to go to the park anymore without me hovering. None of the other kids in our community are allowed outside the gate. So what do I do? Keep him locked inside? Hover? I want to be Free-Range, but not at the risk of my son being thrown into the system because of it.
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Oh, yeah, I asked what age would be appropriate for him to go to the park and was told 13 or 14. So he has to be a teenager before he’s allowed to navigate the world without me at his side.
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I’m so sad. Kids are supposed to be able to go outside and play. But everyone is so afraid. I don’t know what to do. I could use a pep talk right now, and some guidance. – Kimberlee
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Dear Kimberlee: I’m shaken up, too. My blood curdles when the authorities use their own fears and prejudices to decide what is “good parenting,” or even “safe,” rather than consulting the law OR the actual statistics, which show we are living in very safe times. (Crime has been going down for 16 years and is now back at the level of 1974. It was higher in the ’70s and ’80s, when most of today’s parents — and cops — were growing up.)
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The idea of curbing your son’s happy, normal childhood and locking him inside for the next five years is tragic. It’s ironic, too, considering that cops are supposed to MAKE the town safe, not tell people, “We can’t! Just stay inside.”
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I know, that beyond this site, many folks would say, “The boy CAN go outside! She just has to supervise him.” But since when do adults spend from 3-6 p.m. outside, then come in for dinner, and then head outside again? And spend all day Saturdays outside? And Sundays? A summers? The idea that parents should be in the same place as their 8-year-old children all the time is a new one, born of unreasonable fear.
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So what should this mom do?
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Well, I’d certainly arm my son with a note from me that says I approve of him being outside, and that he knows how to contact me, and you, concerned stranger, can, too.  Then I’d include my phone number. As in my Free-Range Kids membership card (you can find it in my book), I’d add some statistics about things like the fact he’d be more in danger IN MY CAR than in the park.  And I guess I’d go Xerox any local ordinances that say a child of his age can legally be outside, unsupervised.
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Then again, I actually did that when my younger son was 10 and taking a commuter train. I gave him a phone, I printed out the Transit Authority’s home page that said children age 8 and up are allowed to travel unaccompanied, and I still got a call from the police after the conductor felt “nervous” about seeing a boy traveling alone and called the cops. They ended up letting my son go (after asking me the inevitable, “What if some guys had tried to abduct him?”), but the whole thing was unsettling. And who wants the threat of legal action going any further?
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After that episode, we continued to allow our son to travel solo, but it became a little nerve-wracking. And Kimberlee had an even closer police encounter regarding an even more everyday activity: playing. I’d like the cops to think about what the parks are for if NOT for kids to play? No wonder so many playgrounds are empty!
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So my suggestion, heart-in-mouth, Kim, is to let your son go back outside. If he can find a friend to go with him, so much the better. If you want to give him a phone so he can contact you, I guess that might make some sense (even though, if he’s anything like my own sons, then he’ll spend at least part of his outdoor time fiddling with the phone).
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Our Free-Range goal, when you get right down to it, is to change this terrified society. I am pretty terrified of the authorities myself. But I am really terrified of a society that keeps children locked inside — just like the kidnappers it is obsessed by — for no reason other than misplaced fear.
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I wish you and your son everything good. And, for what it’s worth, I am in your corner and will support you whatever way I can, if and when you need it. But I sure hope you don’t. — Lenore

CNN’s Great Idea to Get Kids Playing Outside!

Hi Readers! Friday night I was on CNN with Rick Sanchez, talking about how Take Our Kids to the Park & Leave Them There Day went. (Just fine, thanks!) The affable anchor then lamented the fact that he and his family live in a lovely suburb of Atlanta, but the playgrounds are always EMPTY. And then — he had a great idea of how to fill them again.

How?

Put a cop in the park! (“Ah, but what if the cop is a kidnapper?” asked my smart aleck 12-year-old who is getting used to the way most Americans think.)

Anyway, the point is: This is an idea that is doable and doesn’t seem to have a downside. Towns have cops and cops are supposed to be outside, on the beat, getting to know the community.  Put a cop at the local playground from, say, 3 to 7 on weekdays (more hours on weekends) and it’s like sprinkling a parched field. Suddenly, it blooms anew! Parents are no longer scared to let their kids go to the park. The kids who go, run into other kids. The kids start to play together, they get exercise, they make up games, they create community and the cop is making the neighborhood family-friendly again.

“It’s just like the old days, when we had parkies!” said Curtis Sliwa, when I mentioned the idea on his radio show  yesterday. Before my time, apparently, the New York City Parks Department used to have an adult or two in each park to watch the kids, lend out equipment, maybe even start a game of this or that.  If parks can’t afford parkies anymore, maybe the police department can afford, well, coppies, since it is in everyone’s interest to make the streets and playgrounds safe, and that’s what a local cop can do.

So: What do you think of this idea? Especially if you happen to be in law enforcement, I’d like to know if it makes as much sense to you as it does to me! And if it does make sense — let’s figure out how to make it happen! — Lenore

Wouldn't it be nice if kids gathered at playgrounds on their own? Rick Sanchez has a way to make that happen!

“What Fantasy World Does Lenore Live In?” (And An Answer)

Hi Readers! As you know, one of the reasons many folks are too scared to let their kids go outside and play, or walk to school, or breathe without a bodyguard, is that they assume “times are different” — and worse. Here’s what a lady wrote to her local California paper yesterday:

What fantasy world does Lenore live in where kids can play in a park unattended?  I live in a very nice neighborhood in Whittier and I won’t let my 10 year old granddaughter go get the Daily News off the driveway without me watching her.

In fact, in a lot of places — including America, and England — crime is going down. How can we get that message out to help calm people down and return life to the streets? (Which, in turn, makes those streets even SAFER?)

Here’s what one community across the pond came up with! A great and simple idea! — Lenore

What The Authorities Can Do If We “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There”

Hi Readers — This essay is long, but so powerful it blew me away.  As we near May 22’s  “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day,” the author’s question is extremely relevant: What happens when WE believe our kids will be safe, but the authorities do not? Read on. And prepare for revolution.

WHO DECIDES IF WE’RE “NEGLIGENT” PARENTS? by Trip Grass

Years ago, when my mother and I were at the elephant seal breeding grounds in California, a guide explained to us why there were hundreds of seal pups still laying on the beach after their mothers had swum back into the ocean weeks before: “That’s the seals’ rather abrupt way of weaning their young.” Apparently, the pups make their way into the water when they become hungry enough. My mother nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, that’s benevolent neglect. That’s how we raised our children.”

“Benevolent neglect” is a phrase she reserves for polite company. In reality, at the age of eleven in 1985 I was delivering newspapers by myself at five in the morning on a stretch of road that was thick with drug dealers and prostitutes. I shared the sidewalk with drunks who were still finding their way home three hours after the bars had closed. To my parents, there was no better place to raise a child.

Now I’m a father myself and my own five year old boy is desperate for any independence I might give him. So I was naturally intrigued when I read that the Free-Range Kids author, Lenore Skenazy, was declaring May 22nd Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day. As an engineer, though, I’m sensitive to risk, so I first called Child Protective Services here in Tucson to see if this was even legal.

Looking back, I was probably a little blunt when I asked the woman exactly how far my son was legally allowed to wander out of my sight. Her silence was pretty condemning, but I continued on anyway. “Can he walk around the corner from our house by himself? Or, if we’re at the park, can he set off over the hill where I can’t see him?”

Eventually she answered. “Sir, if a 5-year-old is seen out of sight of a parent, that is sufficient cause to initiate an investigation.”

“So at what age can my son walk around the block by himself?”

“A 9-year-old is allowed to stay home without supervision,” she replied.

Despite her confident tone, there is in fact no clear law that states when a child can be on his own. The State Statute from which Child Protective Services derives its authority declares generally that parents are considered neglectful if their lack of supervision causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s welfare.1 But CPS on its website more specifically claims that neglect includes “leaving a child with no one to care for them.”2

It all seemed awfully vague to me. But then, again as an engineer, I was hoping for precise ages and time limits.

So I called another CPS agent to see if this was in fact as ambiguous as it seemed. She was more nuanced. She said if a stranger called CPS to report a child playing in the park alone, CPS might not know how to contact the child’s family and that would be that. On the other hand, if the same stranger called the police, the outcome would depend on the responding officer, but could be immediately more severe, for the officer could return the child home and pursue an investigation there, arresting the parent if the situation warranted it. In either situation, cases are determined on their particular merits by individuals operating under subjective guidance. She suggested I contact the local police department to determine their standards.

To that end I hunted down an officer, finding two on the neighborhood street. I posed to them the same question (with a less confrontational tone). Non-committal, they acknowledged that a great number of juveniles are latchkey kids and most officers wouldn’t look twice at a child alone who was behaving well. As these two men had middle-school-aged children, they both seemed to have a reasonable grasp of what that behavior should be.

Ultimately though, they were no more definitive than CPS in answering whether my son could go to the park alone. To quote them, “It depends…”

This ambiguity is extensive. I can’t even study it scientifically, because the very records that document what constitutes “neglect” — the court records and the CPS case reports — aren’t generally available to the public, as they involve juveniles. So in the end, it would seem, there is no legal certainty for us parents. The law will only be found in the courtroom, before a judge, on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late.

Despite this legislative uncertainty, we can still see how significant a role CPS plays in our community. From their semi-annual report we find that in Arizona there were 1225 substantiated reports of neglect in 20093. With a statewide juvenile population of 1.4 million, this represents about one child out of 1100. But those cases were the result of over 19,000 investigations.4 That’s the family of one child in every 70 being investigated every year by CPS.

But wait, there’s more! Those 19,000 investigations had already been narrowed down from about 34,000 phonecalls5. Which brings the total to one out of 40 children a year having someone call CPS out of concern for that child’s upbringing.

Perhaps, since there is no clear law on leaving a child at the park, the numbers give support to what many of us parents feel out in public everyday: the cultural effect of CPS, the furrowed brows of neighbors and strangers who see a young boy biking down the block and think first to call a government department instead of slowing down their car.

I don’t want to make light of their mission. CPS protects children from very real abuse and neglect, from parents who beat their children or leave them alone for days. And I want to make it clear that if you leave your child alone and your child is hurt or breaks the law, you’ll likely be arrested. It’s that simple.

But I also want to make it clear that laws on neglect are subjectively enforced. And that’s why taking your kids to the park…and leaving them there is culturally  important, because it seeks to change our perspective, our world view, and the world view of every stranger who has CPS on their speed dial.

The policemen I questioned told me their personal concerns were for kidnapping and molestation. But laws on neglect aren’t intended to protect children from kidnappers and molesters. These laws are intended to protect children from their own family, where the real danger lies. So if the frontlines of enforcement aren’t clearly identifying the problem, if they intuitively believe it is about kidnapping, and if enforcement is a subjective decision, then it is critical to change that intuition, to clarify the purpose. When 96% of 34,000 calls a year to CPS are not substantiated — that is, when nearly all calls to CPS are wrong — we have a political and social problem, not a legal one. And the way to fight that is simple. It’s done by persuading your neighbors that children are okay alone. It’s done by making it normal for children to be seen acting independently. It’s done by taking your children to the park.

And leaving them there. — T.G.

SOURCES:

1. http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/8/00201.htm

2. https://www.azdes.gov/main.aspx?menu=154&id=2072

3. https://www.azdes.gov/CMS400Min/InternetFiles/Reports/pdf/child_welfare_apr_09_sept_09.pdf

4. These numbers are for cases of neglect only, for which allowing one’s child to walk around the block alone would qualify for an investigation. These numbers assume each case is a unique child.

5. There were a total of 57,192 calls in the 2009 reporting year, of which about 58% were for neglect.

Outrage of the Week: Boy Scientist Sent for Counseling

Dear Readers:  OMG, as I rarely say, because I am over 22.  Here’s the latest crazy thing, according to the San Diego Union Tribune: An 11-year-old boy did a science project on his own (tsk tsk!) and brought the results to show his buddies at Millennial Tech Magnet Middle School.  Yes, a school DEVOTED to nurturing tech-loving kids. The project was a Gatorade bottle filled with wires and when the vice principal spied it, he immediately did what any sensible adult would do: He asked, “Son, what is that?”

Oh wait. No he didn’t. Or at least there’s no indication that he did. What he DID do was:  Call the  cops! So the school gets put in LOCKDOWN. Then the arson squad careens over, interviews the boy, all 400+ kids get evacuated, the squad X-rays the bottle — and guess what? Turns out the invention is some kind of motion detector.

Too bad it wasn’t a hysteria detector — could’ve saved everyone a lot of time. Afterward:

Both the student and his parents were “very cooperative” with authorities, [San Diego Fire Department Spokesman Maurice] Luque said. He said fire officials also went to the student’s home and checked the garage to make sure items there were neither harmful nor explosive.

“There was nothing hazardous at the house,”  Luque said.

The student will not be prosecuted, but authorities were recommending that he and his parents get counseling, the spokesman said. The student violated school policies, but there was no criminal intent, Luque said.

If there’s no criminal intent, why does the boy need counseling? To convince him never to do anything on his own? And do the parents need to be counseled on how to bring up a duller kid? Couldn’t we just take away the family soldering iron and give them a big flat screen TV?

I, for one, cannot wait to see how America turns out a generation from now when the kids graduating from our “tech” magnet schools don’t invent anything anymore — or the ones that do end up in straight jackets. — Lenore

Outrage of the Week: Mom Who Let Kids Play Outside Threatened by Cops

Hi Readers! Let’s give this woman some good ideas. She needs them — as do we all!

Dear Free-Range Kids: My name is Shaylene Haswarey, and I want to share a story with you today.

This morning, my doorbell rang, and two police officers were present.  They asked me if I am the mother of my children, and I said yes.  They said someone called them because my three oldest kids (ages 9, 7, and 6) were walking around our GATED town-house complex, unattended. I said, “They found a cat, and I let them go out and feed it.”

The officer said that he’d been called by a concerned neighbor who’d added that yesterday he’d seen my oldest child  outside in his pajamas in the rain. (My son was wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt.)

I told the officer I am from Idaho, and kids play outside like this all the time.  He said my kids are too young to be out,  because we do not have a yard, and this is a complex.  He also told me there are predators around here.  He finally told me if I let my kids out again he will have to call social services because I am endangering my children! What is wrong with this picture???

1.  Is it against the law to go out in the rain in your pajamas?
2.  My kids know how to watch for cars.  They were following the cat and feeding it.
3.  There are NO predators in my neighborhood. I looked on Megan’s Law, and there are only 6 in our whole city, and none are in my neighborhood.  I live in Aliso Viejo, CA.  Aliso Viejo is a small city in between Irvine and Mission Viejo.  These cities rank #1 by the FBI for the safest cities in America with a pop. of 100,000+.  Therefore, Aliso Viejo is safer than the city I grew up in in Idaho!

After the police officer asked for me and my husband’s name and birthdates, I freaked out!  I am NOT going to let my kids go outside without me again!  I don’t want social services knocking on my door.  What do you think I should do if anything, about this?  My husband’s family is from India.  They have a big house there.  I am thinking of going to their village this September and staying there for a few months, so my kids can be normal kids. — Shaylene

Dear Shaylene: Isn’t it incredible that you are living the “American Dream” — a house, four kids, nice town — and longing for the kind of childhood a kid can get in a much less affluent country? Meantime, I put this question to readers: What can this mom do to prove to the cop that she’s not off base? How can we she convince him (and other cops and other neighbors) that being outside is normal and healthy for kids? Should we all call the police department there? Start a petition? Any ideas? — Lenore

Cop Collars Kids Selling Lemonade

Seven of the little rascals. Together, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Going door to door, trying to gin up some cash with the cold stuff. Read all about it here. One brilliant neighbor realized how incredibly dangerous this was. After all, it was teaching children all sorts of terrible lessons like: Get to know the folks on your block.  Be independent. Have adventures.  So, naturally — like everyone who sees any child doing anything without an adult these days — he called the cops.

In the cop’s defense — just barely —  I will say that  when he wrote up the kids for the crime of peddling without a permit,  he didn’t know the law actually only applied to folks old enough to spell “mooron” correctly. That is, peddlers over age 16.

And the Haverford chief of police immediately realized this whole thing was a “public relations nightmare,” and got the department to apologize for its overzealousness.

But so far the neighbor does not seem to have apologized for his. Seven kids working  together on a classic childhood endeavor  is just too great a risk, I guess, for anyone to stand by and watch. — Lenore

Six-Year-Olds Build Nuclear Reactor (Or So the Cops Think)

Another story of strangely advanced kids — or is it strangely inept cops? — this time from Germany. Enjoy! — Lenore