The Criminalization of Parenthood: Why Are Good Parents Being Charged With Child Neglect?
A generation ago, letting your child play unsupervised was commonplace. Today it’s likely to get you in serious trouble.
Johnny Miller for Reader's Digest (Photograph), Nick Dauphin for Reader's Digest (Illustration)
It was a steamy August day in the sleepy town of Hood River, Oregon—perfect for Erika Doring to take her almost-three-year-old, Elaina, to the local lake. She buckled Elaina into the car seat and was on her way when Doring, then 45, suddenly realized: She’d forgotten her daughter’s life jacket.
It was in the back of the children’s consignment shop she owned, a few blocks down the street from their home. She parked her car with Elaina inside, left the AC on, and ran in, not even stopping to say hi to her employee—just, “I’ve got to grab the life jacket!” Racing out a few minutes later, Doring saw the neighborhood parking enforcement officer standing beside her car. Her heart slammed in her chest. Had something happened?
A few moments later, two police officers arrived (the parking officer had called them). As Doring tried to explain, they looked at her coldly. “I would never leave my kids in the car, even in the driveway,” one said, according to Doring.
The officer handed her a citation: She was being charged with child neglect. The doting mom—a part-time social worker who worked closely with child protective services, or CPS—had 24 hours to turn herself in at the local police precinct.
A Pendulum Swung Too Far
Doring’s story is emblematic of a disturbing trend. Parenting practices common a couple of decades ago—letting your child play outside or stay in the car so Dad could run a quick errand—are now considered neglectful, even criminal.
“The pendulum has swung hard in favor of highly protective parenting,” according to David Pimentel, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho and an expert on how the legal system addresses child neglect. “The legal standards for child protection and the agencies entrusted with it are likely to keep it there, despite compelling evidence that it should be allowed to swing back.”
[pullquote] Parenting practices common a couple of decades ago are now considered neglectful, even criminal. [/pullquote]
I get at least one e-mail a week from parents like Doring. They stumble upon me—the founder of the movement Free-Range Kids and the accompanying book and blog—while Googling late into the night, too upset to sleep. “I just ran in to drop off a book at the library … ” or “I didn’t want to wake up my son,” their notes begin.
It’s hard to estimate how common this trend is because neglect is classified differently from state to state and because the reasons parents are charged vary widely, but dozens of experts I’ve interviewed—including lawyers, economists, sociologists, and embattled parents—agree it’s a growing problem. Take Illinois: In 2012, there were 26,343 reports of inadequate supervision made to the state’s Department of Child and Family Services. But only 26 percent were “indicated”—meaning that some level of neglect was found, according to a 2015 analysis from the Family Defense Center, an advocacy group for families in the child-welfare system.
National data on the number of kids taken away from their families by CPS show a troubling increase. In 2003, about 206,000 children were removed from their homes following investigation (for reasons including but not limited to neglect), according to government data. Five years later, that number rose to 267,000—a nearly 30 percent increase. But more than 41 percent of children removed were not found to have been mistreated.
That statistic is even worse when you consider the consequences parents face. Being investigated can add your name to a child-abuse registry, which comes up during employment background checks. There’s the threat—or reality—of being separated from your children. Legal fees. Criminal charges. Erika Doring was ultimately acquitted of her child- neglect charge, but only after she spent a quarter of her annual income on legal fees.
Of course, no one wants to stop CPS from intervening where there is legitimate emotional or physical abuse or neglect. But that’s not these folks.
“Parents feel like they don’t have the option of leaving their ten-year-old home to dash out to the store, because somebody could call the cops and start some legal nightmare,” says Pimentel. “They can’t let their kid walk home from school, because what would the neighbors think?”
Johnny Miller for Reader's Digest
Bullied into Overparenting
That’s exactly what happened to Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, a Silver Spring, Maryland, couple who made national headlines after they let their then–ten- and six-year-old children, Rafi and Dvora, walk home from a park in December 2014. The Meitivs believe in giving their kids freedom to help them become independent. “I see a lot of kids who don’t have confidence or competence,” Danielle told me. “I want my children to be able to take care of themselves.”
The kids had made it only about halfway home when a police officer stopped them after a call from a worried onlooker. A couple of hours later, the local CPS agency showed up; a worker required Alexander to sign a “safety plan” promising not to let the kids out of sight for 48 hours. Alexander says CPS told him that if he didn’t comply, his children would be removed. A few months later, police picked up the kids while they were walking home from a different park; the children were detained by the police and CPS for more than five hours before they were reunited with their parents.
“What CPS considered neglect, we felt was an essential part of growing up and maturing,” Alexander told the Washington Post. “We feel we’re being bullied into a point of view about child rearing that we strongly disagree with.”
All charges against the Meitivs were eventually dropped, but it was an emotionally traumatic six months. CPS workers visited their home on multiple occasions, insisting on searching it. Social workers went to the kids’ school—without their parents’ knowledge—and even pulled the kids out of class to interview them. The Meitivs had to hire lawyers. The children had nightmares and saw a therapist. Parenthood itself has been criminalized, says Danielle. And even worse, she adds, “it’s the criminalization of childhood. In one generation, we have changed the definition of what it means to be a child.”
Are Kids Really Unsafe?
On the tape recording, the bystander who called about the Meitiv children tells the operator he was walking his dog and spotted “two kids that are unaccompanied, and they’ve been walking around for about 20 minutes by themselves.” He doesn’t seem sure this merits a call but doesn’t want to be an apathetic onlooker in case, God forbid, something terrible happens. But therein lies the problem. Our assumptions about threats to children’s safety are totally out of whack.
In 2008, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that the rate of violent crime was 19.3 per 1,000 people over age 12—less than half the rate from 1973, when the agency began tracking data. Kids under 12 are much safer: Their assault rate is about one seventh; their robbery rate, about one twelfth; and their forcible sex rate, about half, according to George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan, PhD, in his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Stranger kidnappings—the threat parents fear most—are much rarer than people think. They account for only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children, according to David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
[pullquote] Our assumptions about threats to children’s safety are totally out of whack. [/pullquote]
You might be wondering: Could crime rates be down because of stricter, more supervised parenting? Experts like Caplan and Finkelhor, who’ve extensively crunched these numbers, say no. They attribute the decline in crime rates to more policing, aggressive prosecution of wrongdoers, the prevalence of cell phones, and greater use of psychiatric meds.
So objectively, childhood has never been safer. But media reports that misrepresent risks about kidnappings and other dangers get burned into parents’ minds—and those of community members who might call the police when they see kids alone or even those of jury members who have to decide whether a parent behaved negligently.
“If the public is misinformed about the risks children face in the world and driven by irrational fears inflamed by sensationalistic media reports, the jury may be in a poor position to judge the actions of a parent,” Pimentel has argued. “Because jurors can quickly and easily recall examples of child abductions, they will assume that such events are common … and will be quick to condemn parenting choices that fail to guard against such ‘common’ and well-known risks.”
This can unintentionally expose kids to more harm. A perfect example: Letting your kid walk to school is dangerous, right? She could be hit by a car or abducted by a stranger. But statistically, being driven to school in a car is the most dangerous way to get there. According to an American Academy of Pediatrics report about school transportation safety, 75 percent of fatalities and 84 percent of injuries to kids occurred in passenger vehicles. Just 6 percent of injuries occurred among walkers.
Johnny Miller for Reader's Digest
The Decline of Neighborliness
Thirty years ago, if an adult saw a kid wandering around the neighborhood, he or she might have said hi and asked if the child needed anything. Call the cops? Never. For one thing, the adult didn’t have a cell phone tucked into his or her pocket. But chances are the adult also knew the kid—and his or her parents—much better than neighbors know one another today.
Only about 20 percent of people regularly spend time with those living next to them, and one third report never interacting with their neighbors, according to a 2015 report from economist Joe Cortwright. Four decades ago, one third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only 25 percent had no engagement.
[pullquote] There’s a fear of taking responsibility for kids in the neighborhood. A neighbor’s interest may seem invasive or even creepy. [/pullquote]
“There’s a fear of taking responsibility for kids in the neighborhood,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior correspondent at theweek .com, wrote recently. “A neighbor’s interest may seem invasive or even creepy. Lacking church or community, bystanders in a neighborhood refer their concern about a suboptimal parental situation to the only other institution empowered to look out for the welfare of children: the state.”
The Way to Real Reform
So what can a bystander, like the dog walker who called the police about the Meitiv children, do differently? For starters, take a step back. Is the kid really in danger? Would you still call if you knew his family might face a months-long investigation? If you’re worried, talk to the child—and try to also talk to his parents—before you call the police.
“Say ‘Hey, it looks like your kid might be lost or frightened,’” suggests Pimentel. “Then the worst thing is maybe you’ve made the parent unhappy because you’re being too nosy, but calling the police is such a terrible act of aggression. And it’s a series of events that can’t be stopped once you make that call.”
Policy changes are also necessary. State laws need to define neglect with more specificity, agree Pimentel and Diane Redleaf, executive director of Illinois’s Family Defense Center. The Family Defense Center calls for clearer guidelines to help CPS investigators evaluate the actual likelihood of harm to a child as a result of being left alone—not just a theoretical threat. “If a child is entirely unharmed by being left alone, if a child felt safe in the situation, if the parents made a deliberate decision to let the child be alone, and if there are no reasons to believe the child was in danger, there should be no basis to find neglect,” the group says. “When these factors are present, investigations should end.”
Redleaf also argues for removing personal judgment from CPS investigations. “It’s a problem anytime the child welfare system decides ‘I wouldn’t let my children do this’ but doesn’t at the same time say ‘But a reasonable, non-neglectful, caring parent who has his child’s best interests at heart might decide to do this.’ We want a system that lets parents make their own decisions for their children without being second-guessed,” she says.
Pimentel calls for CPS to be rebranded as an agency that supports parents in the difficult task of raising kids rather than an adversary that threatens to break up families through child removal. For that to happen, he told me, “it almost certainly requires a statutory change. Elected officials have to say, ‘Parents are the most embattled people in our community, and we need to stick up for them rather than threaten them.’”
The Town That Got It Right
Several months ago,” the e-mail to me began, “our youngest son was accosted by an officer for riding his bicycle in front of our house. The officer told my husband, who was home at the time, that our son wasn’t allowed to play on the sidewalk ‘without supervision.’”
The writer, Heather Head, went on to describe two occasions when her older son, age ten, was stopped by the cops while walking a few blocks from home. Both boys became too scared to leave the house alone. This was in Belmont, North Carolina, a suburban town of 10,000 outside Charlotte with a bustling Main Street, a beautiful botanical garden, and summer concerts held downtown.
“Let me publish this on my blog!” I wrote back. But Heather wasn’t sure that humiliating the police or lawmakers was the way to go. Instead, she spoke to the city manager and assistant city manager. They, in turn, talked to Belmont’s chief of police. Heather and her husband began encouraging their boys to walk to the park, the library, and the convenience store by themselves again. “It took some convincing, but gradually they started to feel comfortable,” Heather says.
Then, a few weeks ago, Heather’s seven-year-old charged rosy-cheeked into Heather’s room after a walk to the park by himself—to tell his mother he’d been stopped by a police car. “My heart pounded, and I held my breath,” she told me. She had to restrain herself from running outside to confront the cops again. But Heather wanted to hear her son’s story first.
The police car stopped beside the boy when he was halfway between his house and the park. The officer leaned out the window and asked him if he was OK. He said yes. Then the officer asked him if his parents knew where he was. Again, yes. Then the officer did something shocking.
He said, “Great. Have a nice day.” And went on his way.
Heather’s levelheaded tactic worked. By harnessing the impulse that had precipitated all those interventions—concern—she helped get the town’s government and law enforcement on board to bring kids back outside. If Belmont residents see children playing unsupervised, now they might be encouraged to ask “Hey, how are you doing?” instead of dialing 911. If the Belmont police are nonetheless called, they can ask the same thing, instead of assuming the worst of the parents. And if child protection workers are summoned, they, too, can proceed from an innocent-until-proven-guilty stance rather than the opposite. The love we feel for kids can be turned into a safety net—instead of a snare.