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Child Protective Services

Readers — I am honored to present this brilliant piece by Jan Macvarish, a research fellow at the University of Kent and co-author of the book Parenting Culture Studies, which asks how come the way we feed, talk to, and play with our kids has become the stuff of public debate and government policy? (Boldface is mine.) – L

Babies’ Brains and Intensive Parenting by Jan Macvarish

Last week, a Free Range Kids’ post, We Cannot Mold Kids Into Exactly Who We Want Them to Be, kindly drew attention to our latest report. Now I’d like to say a little more about our analysis of the adoption of ‘brain claims’ by British politicians in recent years.

UK parents have become accustomed to hearing that they need to be more involved in their children’s homework, to monitor screen time more closely, to second-guess the school’s latest rules for what constitutes a healthy lunchbox, to ensure that little girls don’t dress in ways which might be construed as ‘sexualised’, not to mention the overwhelming admonition, from conception onwards, that  ‘breast is best’.

From the late 1990s, British politicians of all shades have talked of parenting as a problem.

Amongst other social problems, parents have been blamed for poverty and lack of social mobility, physical and mental health problems, obesity, crime and violence. And so the everyday choices of family life are said to be significant not only for individual children and their families, but to be the very stuff which determines society’s future. A growing feature of policy directed at improving parenting has been the incorporation of ‘brain claims’: citations of neuroscientific studies, dramatic statements from child neuro-psychologists and images of brains, apparently atrophied by parental neglect:

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

US parents will already be familiar with brain-based parenting expertise, advising parents to maximise their babies’ cognitive development from gestation onwards, to fully exploit the 0-3-year-old window of the ‘amazing’ infant brain. Many UK parents, too, will have bought into the brain-stimulation trend, playing Mozart CDs to their bumps, sitting their babies in front of Baby Einstein DVDs and hanging black and white toys above the crib.

But what is noticeable in policy’s use of neuroscience is that it never speaks of maximising chlidren’s intelligence but rather employs the authority of scientific ‘evidence’ to make doom-laden ‘now or never’ pronouncements on the need for ever earlier state intervention into the lives of families. If parents are not trained to attune to their baby’s neurological development, it is argued, their offspring will not develop emotionally and socially, this will, in turn, impede their intellectual development when it is time for formal school. Ultimately this will impede social mobility and reproduce current social inequalities.

Although brain advocates argue that novel insights from neuroscience mean that ‘we now know’ what babies require and what kind of training parents need, in fact, brain claims entered a culture in which there is already a strong presumption that ‘something must be done’ about parenting.

The images and vocabulary of the brain are used to strengthen an imperative for particular interventions with parents assumed to lack the skills or emotional sophistication, to relate to their babies in ways that will secure their development.

As readers of this blog will be well aware, the idea that the early years have lifelong consequences because of their significance to brain development places incredible pressures on parents to get it right. This applies to the twenty-something with a surprise pregnancy, who worries how her partying might have affected the fetal brain, to the thirty-something professional mother worried about achieving a sufficiently strong attachment before the end of her maternity leave, and to the poorer young mother, assigned a specialist nurse practitioner as part of the Nurse Family Partnership, to school her in ways of singing, reading, touching and talking to the baby that will ‘fire up the neurons’.

Concerns are also being raised by scholars of social work that ‘neurotrash’ [shoddy or mis-interpreted brain research] is being used to argue for increasing numbers of forced adoptions, with birth parents prejudged as inadequate, having their babies removed by social services and placed in adoptive families, before irreparable harm can be done to their neurological development.

As respondents to Lenore’s post about our study clearly illustrate, thinking through the prism of the infant brain unhelpfully reinforces parental determinism — the idea that parents are the ultimate ‘architects’ of the grown child’s life — and reinterprets family practices of love and care as socially significant, therefore meriting external evaluation and improvement from experts, whether commercial or state-led.

Further information about the project and its findings can be found here.

Project findings are also discussed in more detail in the book Parenting Culture Studies. – JM

Readers — Why do I keep blogging? It’s to remind us, literally daily, that there are HUGE CONSEQUENCES when we believe the BIG LIE that our kids are in constant danger. One consequence is that we interpret normal parenting behavior through the lens of both sanctimony and fear, seeing danger where there’s just the usual chaos of raising kids. The consequence of that consequence? Read on:

Dear Free-Range Kids: When my son, now 15, was about a week shy of his fourth birthday, I ran out to pick him up from his preschool, located four short blocks from home, with just my keys and no purse, something I had done many, many times before.  (I know — stupid.  No ID.  REALLY stupid.)  I picked him up, and in the course of walking home, he decided he was going to have a meltdown because he wanted to walk down a street that would have taken us far out of our way, and I was in a hurry to get back, so I said “no, not today.”

Well, he proceeded to try and run down the street he wanted to take, screaming and crying, and almost ran headlong into oncoming traffic because he was so worked up that he wasn’t paying attention to anything.  I grabbed at him to keep him from going into the street and caught the hood of his jacket and yanked him back to me, whereupon he screamed louder.  Out of nowhere, a woman materialized, yelling, “I saw the whole thing!  She’s beating that child!  I was across the street and down the block and I saw the whole thing! Call the cops!” 

A crowd began to gather, screaming at me and telling me what a lousy mother I was, which of course terrified my son, and he clung to me, but he was still sobbing and crying.  I yelled at the crowd to please leave us alone, couldn’t they tell that my son was upset, that I wanted to calm him down and go home, but they kept converging and screaming and flinging invectives at me — it was terrifying.  I sat down on the sidewalk and cuddled my son to me, and he began to calm down…until three police cars and no fewer than TWELVE cops, guns drawn, descended upon us, wrenched my screaming child from my arms (at this point he was struggling to get back to me and yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!  I want Mommy!”), tackled me, HANDCUFFED ME behind my back and forced me to await the arrival of a city ambulance. 

A man in the crowd did take pity on me and let me use his phone to call my husband at work (which HE had to hold up to my ear, since they would not undo the handcuffs), but the cops would barely let me speak to him and it was hardly enough time to let me tell him what was happening.  They would not tell me where my child was, and of course since I had no ID on me (I have NEVER done that again, lemme tell ya! Stupid!), they apparently branded me a crazy woman who was trying to beat and abduct a child. The ambulance came, and they hustled me into the back (all the while refusing to tell me where my son was) and took me to the PSYCH WARD at the hospital, where they kept me for several hours in a room locked from the outside and refused to let my husband (who had arrived by that time) in to see me, though apparently he had gotten enough information to track down our son, who had been taken to the precinct and was being guarded by a detective.  We found out much later that he had been “examined” for physical and sexual abuse PRIOR to my husband’s arrival — which I believe is illegal.  They did let me call my therapist, who, thank God, answered the phone — but it was all she could do to get them to release me to my husband.  Fortunately, they HAD released my son to him instead of slapping him into foster care — I shudder to think what would have happened if not.

We were eventually allowed to go home, but I was contacted several days later by a worker from Child Protective Services, who said he was required to visit us, unannounced, every couple of months for a year to be sure that our son was not being abused. The first night he came to see us, I had a chicken roasting in the oven and even offered to feed him if he wanted. What he WAS required to do was look at our son’s bedroom to be sure he was being cared for (he had a big bed with lots of stuffed animals and shelves full of games and books, which I actually think surprised the guy, given what he was probably used to seeing in his work), examine our son physically to be sure there was no evidence of abuse, and ask him some very pointed questions about whether Mommy or Daddy ever did nasty things to him.  (He was FOUR, for God’s sake!!  Admittedly a precocious and highly intelligent four, but holy crap…the continual insinuations of sexual abuse turned my stomach!)

Anyway, of course no signs of any kind of abuse were ever found — but we lived for SEVEN YEARS with the threat of having him taken away from us, because that is how long these cases stay open on the books.  We worried about every bump, every bruise, every argument we had — because of course he was also smart enough to know that he could hold it over us and threaten to “tell at school” if we had an argument, not understanding what the consequences would be if someone believed that we had hit or abused him, or if someone at school noticed a bruise or scrape on his body and thought we had inflicted it.

I swear to you: all I ever did was grab my kid’s coat and yank him back to prevent him from flinging himself into traffic because he was screaming himself blind.  He was four, he was having a meltdown. But a bunch of total strangers who were “down the block and across the street but who saw the whole thing” and called the cops as a result could have totally and utterly destroyed our family and ruined my son’s future.  He was, and is, a smart, beautiful, charming, talented boy; he has gone to gifted programs throughout school and currently attends a magnet high school, and he has nothing but promise ahead of him. But the actions of one “well-meaning” stranger who thought that a mother struggling with a screeching four-year-old was her business and that she had to “protect” the child, and who was able to draw a crowd around her, could have ripped a family apart and destroyed that child forever.

We are lucky — truly lucky — that eventually cooler heads did prevail and he was allowed to come back to us immediately.  I know that in some cases, this does not happen, and it’s a nightmare for the family to get the child back, sometimes going on for years. But let me tell you that I TOTALLY understand the fear of the mom who wrote to you when she said she was afraid that the woman who yelled at her outside the post office had called the police and that they were going to track her down…because I LIVED something like that.  It is, quite possibly, the most terrifying thing that can happen to a parent. And I must ask when it became everyone ELSE’S business regarding how to be a good parent to one’s own child.  It’s hard to be any kind of a parent these days, especially Free-Range, but we MUST stick to our convictions and raise our kids as we, their parents, see fit.

Thank God for this blog. – Shaken Mom

A toddler screaming, a busybody assuming the worst, and then -- the authorities.

A toddler screaming, a busybody assuming the worst, and then — the authorities.

From my piece on Time.com today. (Time writes the headlines, not me):

How Kitty Genovese Destroyed Childhood

We once may have been too slow to call the cops. Now we’ll dial 911 if we see a couple kids walking alone to get pizza.

by Lenore Skenazy

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death 50 years ago today. She was 28. A tragedy. The press reported 38 onlookers heard her screams and decided not to intervene. That account has since come under fire, but it nonetheless created a perception of ourselves (and certainly New Yorkers) as unconscionably reluctant to get involved.

We’ve been making up for it ever since — and that’s too bad.

We may once have been too slow to call the cops (though that’s still disputed), but today we are definitely too fast. Oh, I don’t mean we shouldn’t dial 911 if we see someone being murdered, or threatened, or hurt. Of course we should! In fact, the simple 911 number to call for emergencies was developed partly in response to the Genovese murder: Now everyone could have a quick, easy way to summon the cops anytime, anyplace. A great leap forward.

The leap sideways, or perhaps downward, came as the general public gradually became convinced that it not only had an obligation to help anyone in danger, it had the obligation to call the cops anytime it noticed people who could be in danger, especially kids, even if they were fine and dandy at the time. This has given rise to a near mania for calling the cops when people spot a child on his or her own anywhere in public.

Read the rest here.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

 

Readers — Here’s my piece that’s in today’s New York Post! The site doesn’t take comments, but if you want to write a letter to the editor, drop one to: letters@nypost.com.

NJ court takes ‘child neglect’ to extremes

by Lenore Skenazy

Did you ever wait in the car while your mom ran an errand? New Jersey says you were abused — and your mom was a criminal.

In an appeals court decision last week, three judges ruled that a mother who left her toddler sleeping in his car seat while she went into a store for five to 10 minutes was indeed guilty of abuse or neglect for taking insufficient care to protect him from harm.

Not that the child came to any harm; he seems to have slept through the whole non-incident.

But when the mom emerged from the store, she was confronted by cops, who’d been summoned by a mall guard when he noticed the sleeping child.

She was arrested and placed on the child-abuse registry — even though a Division of Child Protection and Permanency agent visited her home that day and found the kids well cared for.

If this had been the law back when I was a kid, Rahelen Skenazy — the lady who loves me more than the stars — would be on that registry. …

Read the rest here!

Unattractive clip art that nonetheless illustrates the story.

Unattractive clip art that nonetheless illustrates the story.

Readers — This is an outlier of a case: A mom was walking with her baby on a promenade when someone saw them, judged the child under-dressed for the weather, and called the cops.

The cops came a-running and the mom (a nutritionist with two other kids) gave them no truck. Wisely, I’d say! (Maybe she reads this blog?) According to the Daily Mail (which I know is not the New York Times):

…After refusing to reveal who she was, Mrs Andrew, from Scarborough, was asked: ‘So you don’t want to co-operate?’ She said: ‘I told them that it was a mother’s right to play with her daughter and it wasn’t a co-operation thing.

‘I added that they’d be taking her to the social workers next if I gave them my details. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, so I walked off.’

A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said yesterday : ‘All reports concerning the safety of children are taken very seriously by North Yorkshire Police and must be properly checked out.’

But Stephen Hayes, an ex-policeman and writer, said the case typified what was wrong with modern policing.

‘This is by far the barmiest cold case I have ever come across,’ he added. ‘Do officers now need a thermometer to take children’s temperatures along with their truncheons? The mother is clearly not committing a crime by taking her child for a walk along the promenade.

Read more here. And shake your head, and then go about your day. And just don’t call the cops if a child is not in danger! – L.

Let's second guess all moms and the clothes they have their kids wear.

Let’s second guess all moms and the clothes they have their kids wear!

Dear Readers — When you live in a society spasming with fear, it is hard not to flinch. That’s why we are here on this blog together. To support each other when the world mistakes our confidence and rationality for neglect and abuse. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just finished reading Free Range Kids, over the course of 1.5 days. I never send fan mail, but I couldn’t keep my gratitude and relief to myself.

I am the mother of a 22-month-old boy, and I have been parenting him in a Free-Range style without really having a name for it.  He has always been very independent, so I’ve always given him as much freedom as I feel a toddler can have.  Parents who follow their children around the (fenced-in) playground have always confused me, and I’ve gotten my fair share of concerned looks when he has climbed on top of something really high (again) and I haven’t been rightbyhisside.

Though I knew my parenting style was more hands-off than most of my counterparts, I always felt confident in my choice to trust my son and let him set his own limits (within reason of course – I have yet to let him sit down to play with cigarette butts in a busy parking lot).  But about a month ago, something happened that really made me wonder if I was a terrible parent and wrong to think “stranger-danger” was overblown:

After an afternoon of running errands, my son and I made a last stop at the post office. I needed a flat-rate shipping box.  He was getting sleepy, so I decided that he could stay in the car while I made the 20-second trek to go inside, grab a box, and come right back out.  It was a mild October afternoon and I was able to snag a parking spot that would allow me to keep the car in my line of vision.  I handed him a book, told him I would be right back, locked the doors, and was back within literally 20 seconds.  We were about to be on our way when:

“IS THERE A BABY IN YOUR CAR???”

Oh jeez.  An elderly lady parked in the car next to us was hanging out of her window staring at me. I rolled down the window and hesitantly replied, “Yes?”

“DID YOU LEAVE IT IN YOUR CAR?!”

Oh crap.  “Well yeah, just for two seconds–”

“YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN! YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN!”  Her screaming drew a crowd and I was absolutely mortified. Even thinking about it makes my hands shake and my face flush.  My first instinct was to f-bomb her, but my son was with me and she was well, old, and you can’t f-bomb an old person, even if they are telling you that you should be sterilized.

I decided to roll up my window and just drive away. Then I became worried that she had probably written down my license plate and was on the phone with the police.  I began to wonder if I have actually been making choices that were endangering my son.  My stomach was knotted for days and I couldn’t sleep.  My husband was assuring me that she was crazy, or maybe she knew a child who steamed to death in a car.  Either way, my confidence was gone.  Never had my parenting skills been so publicly condemned, and never had I felt so much FEAR about parenting.

Then I read your book and found this blog. Ahhh (that is a sigh of relief).  I stopped feeling so alone and fearful.

Parenting is hard enough without living in fear. Thank you a million times.

Sincerely, Catherine in Richmond, VA
It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.

It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.

Readers — This story from The Telegraph makes Kafka look like Louisa May Alcott. I don’t share it as a tale of, “Look what’s happening all the time!” because, thank God, it is unique. What it does illustrate is what happens when the government is allowed to make parenting decisions. Drastic ones. Always, of course, “for the sake of the child.”- L.

‘Operate on this mother so that we can take her baby’

A mother was given a caesarean section while unconscious – then social services put her baby into care

by Christopher Booker

Last summer a pregnant Italian mother flew to England for a two-week Ryanair training course at Stansted. Staying at an airport hotel, she had something of a panic attack when she couldn’t find the passports for her two daughters, who were with her mother back in Italy. She called the police, who arrived at her room when she was on the phone to her mother. The police asked to speak to the grandmother, who explained that her daughter was probably over-excited because she suffered from a “bipolar” condition and hadn’t been taking her medication to calm her down.

The police told the mother that they were taking her to hospital to “make sure that the baby was OK”. On arrival, she was startled to see that it was a psychiatric hospital, and said she wanted to go back to her hotel. She was restrained by orderlies, sectioned under the Mental Health Act and told that she must stay in the hospital.

By now Essex social services were involved, and five weeks later she was told she could not have breakfast that day. When no explanation was forthcoming, she volubly protested. She was strapped down and forcibly sedated, and when she woke up hours later, found she was in a different hospital and that her baby had been removed by caesarean section while she was unconscious and taken into care by social workers. She was not allowed to see her baby daughter, and later learnt that a High Court judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, had given the social workers permission to arrange for the child to be delivered. In October, at a hearing before another judge, she was represented by lawyers assigned to her by the local authority and told she would be escorted back to Italy without her baby.

…Read the rest here.

You'd scream, too, if you'd been taken from your mom and given to strangers without her consent -- or even knowledge!

You’d scream, too, if you’d been taken from your mom and given to strangers without her consent — or even knowledge!