On Trial for Letting Kids Wait in the Car — It’s “Child Endangerment”

Hi Readers. Here’s the latest kids-in-car/mom-arrested story.  I know it seems like I’ve posted a flood of these cases lately and I’ll pause for a bit after this one, but this woman is asking for support and I’d like to provide some.

As you’ll see, it’s strange that somehow her 3-year-old got out of the car — that’s certainly something to look out for — but should she have been investigated by Child Protective Services? Should she have to go to court? Is she an irresponsible parent? No way. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have found you through researching issues related to child endangerment.  I have been charged with second degree child endangerment, in Arkansas, for leaving a sleeping baby and a three-year-old locked in a warm minivan on a cold day for under five minutes.

This happened in December.  I immediately hired an attorney, who explained that I hadn’t actually violated the statute, and so was not guilty.  Then, in February, I was visited by a child protective services worker.  He toured my home, and asked me questions about the incident.  I figured he was following protocol and that he would close the case.

Today I received a letter stating that I will be placed on a child maltreatment list, and that my employer may be notified, unless I request an administrative hearing, and at that hearing they overrule the family service worker’s opinion. Here is the source of all this mess:

On December 16, a Friday, which is my day off, I was driving with my two youngest children.  Benjamin is my baby, and Aurora is my three-year-old.  We had just met up with May, my six-year-old, for lunch at her elementary school.  I remembered suddenly that this was the last day I could buy a gift for May’s first grade teacher.

We were in a touristy and safe part of town, very close to the math and science school at which I work.  Benjamin had a bronchial cough, and Aurora was eating cookies (messy), and didn’t want to leave the van.

I considered the cold air outside, the baby’s cough, Aurora’s messy face and hands.  I figured that the time it would take to get the children out of the van and back into the van would be nearly twice the time it would take to just run into the shop myself.  They were both locked in their car seats.  I parked as close to the shop as I could get, locked the car from the outside, double checked the lock, literally ran into the store, grabbed two items without checking the price, checked out with no wait, since I was the only customer, and ran out of the store.

There I found two police officers standing with Aurora outside of the van, with the van’s sliding door open.  When they saw me running toward them, one of them shouted to get back, and not to touch my daughter.  He said “Sit your butt down!” so I sat on the pavement.  Aurora, who had been calmly talking to them, was upset by their treatment of me.  Finally, they let her come to me, and I held her.  The officers claimed that they stopped because they saw her standing outside.  This seemed really unlikely to me, but I figure it must be true, because how else would the door have been unlocked?  Inside, the baby still slept.  They cited me but did not call child protective services, and did not arrest me.

At the hearing my lawyer appeared and entered a not guilty plea.  A trial was set for February 4.

At that trial, the judge said immediately, “Didn’t I just see a case like this earlier this morning?”  The “similar” case was one in which a parent left children alone in a Walmart parking lot while he cashed a check inside.  My attorney started explaining that my facts were different, that the time was much less.  Then my attorney mistakenly said I left only one child waiting.  The prosecutor pounced, saying, “No, it was two children, on Central Avenue, and one was only six months old!!”

My attorney asked for a continuance.  The next date is April 5.

Since then, my attorney has changed his strategy from arguing for my innocence to making deals with the prosecutor.  He insists on waiting until the court date to show her my acceptance letter to the University of Texas Law School (I had applied when the incident happened, but I found out I was accepted right after attending that Feb. 4 trial).  He expresses doubt that she will be helpful, and he doesn’t seem to want to argue before the judge.

So I have fired him, and hired one who was recommended to me.  He seems much more willing to fight.  However, I just received a certified letter from child protective services that says they have found me guilty of neglect, based only on this incident, and that I will be placed on a child maltreatment list, unless an administrative hearing determines otherwise.  I have told my attorney.  This afternoon, more people from protective services came to my house while I was working and my husband was babysitting.  He expressed frustration and referred them to our attorney.  We are not going to speak with them.

I’m scared, and confused and angry.  I am afraid that a guilty conviction could compromise my chances of becoming an attorney.  I am afraid of being permanently labeled a bad mother from a judgment call that happened to be out of line with that police officer’s opinion of good parenting, even though my actions didn’t actually violate the Arkansas child endangerment statute, which is quite vague.

I’m just reaching out for support and strength, and maybe some good ideas.  — A Mom Who Feels Thrust Into an Alternate Reality.

More Outrage! 5th Graders Can No Longer Play Outside “Alone”

Hi Readers! The other day my brother-in-law asked me if I ever got really “down” about our culture. I told him that usually I don’t — I get so mad about ridiculous rules and outlandish fears that I just blog in a blind fury and feel better.

But this story, sent by the folks at Kaboom, actually feels like lead in my soul. It’s about how yet another long-standing, joyous tradition — 100 unsupervised fifth graders frolicking outside on Friday afternoons — has suddenly been axed. Why? Oh, the usual, spanking new “safety” concerns. Sort of like the coffee ban discussed in the post below this one. Sort of like when Amtrak suddenly upped the age kids can travel solo from 8 to 13, not because of any incidents, but out of an “abudance of concern.”

If this is concern, I’ll take neglect. – L.

Once upon a time, an elementary school in Davidson, N.C. had a lovely tradition. On Friday afternoons, fifth graders with parental permission left the confines of their classroom to play on the Village Green. And the best part? They did it all by themselves!

But the school has decided to ban on the longtime tradition—even with an OK from mom and dad, students can no longer walk to the Green from school. Instead, they must ride home on the school bus or get picked up by their parents.

Read the rest of it here. And weep wherever you’d like. And then sign this Change.org petition. — 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?

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.  

Amtrak to 12-year-olds: You Are Babies

Hi Readers! Were you planning to have your tween take the train to your ex’s this Thanksgiving? Too bad. Amtrak has just raised its unaccompanied minor age from 8 to 13.

That’s right. Five years of a child’s development are gone — poof! — in the blink of a bureaucratic eye.  It’s like lopping teens off at the knees and saying now they’re too small to go on the ride. As of Nov. 1, any traveler younger than 13 must be accompanied by someone who is 18 or older. Why? Jeff Snowden, Amtrak’s senior director of service (so-called!) delivery, said, “This is not in response to any incidents,” but “out of an abundance of concern for the comfort and safety of all our travelers.”

Got that? Amtrak is admitting there is zero REAL reason to make this new rule, just “an abundance of concern” — an abundance that somehow manages to feel not at all concerned about the legions of parents who believe their kids are ready to travel solo. And why shouldn’t they? A kid on a train is not like a hitchhiker flagging down ice road truckers. The kids know where they’re going. (It even is written on the ticket!) There are conductors to answer questions. There’s a snack car to sell overpriced, undercooked hot dogs. There’s nothing to prevent kids 8 and up from getting where they’re going — except the brick wall of baseless worry.

How baseless? You can SEE the train brains casting around for a rationale. Here’s one they tried: In the past, guardians had to bring their minors to the station, get them a wristband and then wait with them till their train departed. But sometimes, an Amtrak spokesman explained to MSNBC, “if a specific train station ran out of wristbands, we’d have to deny travel to that child because of no fault of their own.”

So to REMEDY that, the corporation is denying travel to ALL children? That’s like saying, “Because once in a while we are total boneheads and forget to order milk for the cafeteria, from now on no child gets any milk.” Must be that ol’ “abundance of concern” welling up again. And here’s another dollop: The spokesman added that these new rules are “more customer-friendly.”

Yeah, the same way not allowing fliers to bring their water bottles through security is more customer-friendly.

What this new edict does — besides dismay me, a train lover who has taken Amtrak from New York to Chicago many times and even on to Arizona once — is to make official the trend I call “10 is the new 2.” That’s the trend of treating our kids as cute little nincompoops who need parental help every baby step of the way … to college.

Remember that we are living in an era that already is selling us things such as computerized play date organizers because our kids can’t possibly make their own arrangements. And then there’s my favorite whipping boy, the child carrier backpack that’s designed to let parents schlep their offspring up to (according to the company’s website) “60 pounds or seven years of age.” So this is a culture that sees nothing wrong with treating 7-year-olds like infants.

And Amtrak is right on board. Until last week, a third-grader could travel solo. Now even a seventh-grader can’t. Yet another big institution has no faith in our kids. That should be of abundant concern to us all. — L.S.

How could Harry Potter ever have started at Hogwarts if everyone under 13 needed a chaperone on the train?

UPDATE: Um…Can a Town Actually “Not Sanction” Halloween?

Hi Folks — Okay, this is a day late, but too shocking to ignore. Go to this page of local listings of Halloween activities and check out what it says under “Frederick,” a Maryland suburb just north of D.C. Aw, heck, here —  I’ll excerpt it for you:

The City of Frederick does not sanction Halloween due to safety reasons. Times and restrictions should be determined by street blocks.

Yup, the town is officially sticking its fingers in its ears and going, “LA LA LA LA LA!” at the mere mention of trick or treating. It’s just too horrifying for the town elders to contemplate, I guess. Better the kids should miss the holiday than have those folks shuddering all day.

Yesterday I was interviewed on a radio show ( KIRO in Seattle) and the host, John Curley, asked me to predict what Halloween will look like in 10 years. I said something like, “There will be no costumes, because if they’re too tight they can choke a kid, but too loose they could trip, and if they’re too scary, some kids can’t handle it. And there won’t be props,  because those could trip or hurt a kid, and naturally no trick or treating, because that’s just asking for trouble, and no candy would be given out anyway, because of the obesity epidemic. And at the community center parties they won’t have any games, because those are covered with germs and also, sometimes a kid may lose, and that’s bad for their self-esteem, and while the adults COULD hand out fully-wrapped, X-rayed treats, kids might be allergic,  so everyone will just give out erasers — provided those are large enough not to present a choking hazard.”

And I present to you the town of Frederick as the cutting edge of what we are up against. THAT is scary. — L.

UPDATE: In the comments below, some of you were wishing we could come up with a cute catchphrase for Halloween. How about this, for would-be worrywarts and naysayers: LET’S KEEP THE “ALLOW” IN HALLOWEEN! — L

Hong Kong School Ordered to Reduce Recess Noise

Hi Readers — This story seems outrageous: A Hong Kong school lost its fight in court against a neighbor who wants to hear less noise coming from its playground.  According to the article:

The school said it respected the court’s decision but asked how the hush order could be enforced on a playground full of young children.

“Asking a child not to make noise in a playground is like asking them not to blink or a rabbit not to eat lettuce,” the school’s lawyer was quoted as saying.

Can’t imagine the judge not agreeing (perhaps he was never a child?). Let’s hope this is just one aberration,  and that, world-wide, recess continues to be boisterous  — and girl-sterous! — and maybe even evolves into that cool new kind of recess I wrote about the other day, with the shed full of inspiring junk. — L.