Photo by Heather Whitten.

Mom Investigated for Viral Photo of her Husband Cradling Son in Shower

The picture below was taken by Heather Whitten in 2014. Her son had been sick with Salmonella, so her husband took the feverish, vomiting, diarrhea-suffering boy into the shower with him and there they sat for three hours as all the crap washed out of the boy, over them both, and down into the drain. Overwhelmed by the bonding before her, Heather, a documentary  photographer, took the photo and posted it to Facebook.

Facebook took it down but Heather reposted it several times, including the story behind it, and Facebook reversed itself and said fine. It went viral, naturally evoking lots of controversy along the way. Eventually, one person complained to the authorities. But of course, that’s all it takes. Now Heather is being investigated by Arizona’s Department of Child Safety.

Uh oh.

You may recall it was Arizona where a family was put through hell when the parents had their kids-taking-a-bath photos developed at Walmart. An employee saw the pix and rather than thinking, “How cute!” thought, “Child porn!” The children, 5, 4 and 1, were taken away from the parents for a month.

So now, according to Heather in this article, while the police dropped all claims against her, the DCS is not letting it go:

“… The only claim [the investigator] is able  to suggest be substantiated against me was that I neglected to supervise our children by allowing the images to be online and so put them at an unreasonable risk of harm,” Heather says.

“Later she made it clear that she was basing most of her opinions on me because I breastfed one of my twins throughout the whole interview, without covering myself or my child. Of course, she couldn’t take action against us for any of these things … they were either complete reaches or in the case of me breastfeeding, normal and protected by law.”

To me, a million miles away, not there, not knowing the people, etc. etc. etc., it just sounds like a clash of cultures: On the one side, a mom who posts slightly envelope-pushing pictures online and breastfeeds in the middle of an interview that could determine her future. Nothing wrong with either of those things. Just that they could be provocative. And sitting across from her is a child protective services worker who possibly feels uncomfortable with both, and holds all the cards.

That’s the problem: One anonymous person’s call to CPS is allowed to trigger a potentially family-destroying investigation that may come down to a culture clash. Since no one on earth agrees on the best way to raise kids, the state should not be allowed to take any action unless a child is in immediate, obvious, egregious and statistically likely danger.

Whether or not you’d share this photo on Facebook doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is a mom who now faces being placed on the Arizona child abuse registry, which would prevent her from working with kids, or adopting again. All because she has a different set of aesthetics and boundaries, not because she is a threat to children. – L.

Photo by Heather Whitten.

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50 Responses to Mom Investigated for Viral Photo of her Husband Cradling Son in Shower

  1. Dienne January 26, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    That’s a beautiful story (the story of her husband holding their suffering child in the shower, not the story of the Arizona DCS response). And a beautiful picture.

    I’m really not getting the charge, either. Obviously it can’t be pornography because that would mean that the husband’s act of holding the child nude in the shower is considered somehow sexual. Since he’s not being charged, obviously that’s not the case. Since the act itself is not sexual, how could posting a picture of it be pornography? Nothing “obscene” is showing in the picture on either the man or the child, unless you consider bare arms, legs and chests to be obscene. If posting this picture is “endangering” the child, then posting any picture of a child in a bathing suit or shorts would be “endangering” the child.

  2. Dienne January 26, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    A further thought. Whoever reported this to the Arizona DCS apparently thought of that photo as sexual. Maybe *that’s* the person who needs to be on the registry.

  3. Chris McCauley January 26, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Lenore, you are an amazing champion of families. I don’t know of another person or organization standing up against this kind of cruel ignorant overreach of our institions where families and childrearing is concerned. Thank you for constantly speaking truth to power, reason to fear, love to judgment!

  4. John B. January 26, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    Quote:

    “… The only claim [the investigator] is able to suggest be substantiated against me was that I neglected to supervise our children by allowing the images to be online and so put them at an unreasonable risk of harm,”

    Is this all she’s got? The dreaded posting of children’s pictures online? How is a child (LEGALLY defined as any human being under the age of 18) gonna be harmed anymore than my grandmother or my grandfather or my wife or my husband or myself, etc., etc. would be harmed if I posted THEIR picture online?? This is a manufactured fear invented by these child protective agency in order to justify their jobs. The police dropped ALL claims against her; therefore, DCS should just let it go and stop their witch hunt.

    I hope she’s able to sue the daylights out of them!! BUT I’m not holding my breath.

  5. jimc5499 January 26, 2017 at 12:26 pm #

    I think people need to use a little more discretion on what they post to social media. I do agree that DCS involvement is a bit extreme, especially after the police found nothing wrong.

  6. Shawn D. January 26, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    I did the same with my son when he was that age and sick — stayed in the shower with him as he suffered with gastrointestinal distress. I’m so glad there was no combination of pictures and a bureaucratic busybody around!

  7. Betsy in Michigan January 26, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    Awful times, but I say lawyer up and sue for baseless harassment.

  8. Jay January 26, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

    22 years ago my wife took a picture of my 2 year old daughter and myself taking a shower. I was holding her and we were making faces through the glass. It is one of my favorite pictures. It also is my oldest sister’s favorite and she had it framed and it hangs in her bathroom. Nothing was showing it is just a cute picture in a time that I will always remember.

  9. John B. January 26, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    About 2.5 years ago, a very similar thing happened to the Mankato State (Minnesota) football coach but fortunately a Judge with common sense dropped all charges. Unfortunately, Mr. Hoffner was still dragged thru the mud and his life adversely affected for the negative all because of an over reacting, doe-doe brained Technician who wanted to be a vigilante. But hopefully coach Hoffner is now on his way up. Stories like this just p… me off!

    http://time.com/70230/todd-hoffner-minnesota-state-mankato/

  10. Jessica January 26, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    I’m so glad to see the nuance of this post. Because I am in agreement on every single point: The mom posts pictures I wouldn’t. She nurses her baby in a way I wouldn’t. I’d be uncomfortable, probably, if she were in my friendship group. But NONE of those things make her an abuser or a neglected. It is unfair that a CPS agent who simply feels uncomfortable can turn that into a life-altering claim of abuse.

  11. Jessica January 26, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    *neglecter

  12. Jess January 26, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    The logic is so twisted in that claim. You “neglected to supervise [y]our children by allowing the images to be online and so put them at an unreasonable risk of harm”…I’m really just trying to wrap my head around that. Unless I was Facebook friends with this person, there’s absolutely no way to identify child or parent from the picture, so what harm could possibly come to the child, even if some Michael Bay movie character saw it and decided it was an invitation? And how can you call it “neglecting to supervise”? Does this mean that not only am I not allowed to let my child out of my sight, but I have to keep positive control of all pictures of them, digital or otherwise, until they’re of an age where they can consent to have them posted? My brain hurts more trying to figure this DCS employee’s logic than when I was doing my homework last night.

    And also, if I can breastfeed in public, I can sure as heck breastfeed in my own home (not that it specifies, but I assume the interview was conducted at their house). If you don’t like it, the door’s right there. Don’t let it hit you on the way out.

  13. Jess January 26, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    As an aside, I think that picture is beautiful. There’s so much tenderness in it, and reminds me of times when my husband and I have done the same for our kids.

  14. Reziac January 26, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    Why isn’t this dad getting the world’s most caring father award?!

  15. JTW January 26, 2017 at 2:00 pm #

    ” Since the act itself is not sexual, how could posting a picture of it be pornography? ”

    Just define “sexual” and “pornography” to include any display of nudity, which is exactly where we’re heading (if we’re not there already. Newspapers screaming that “XXX was seen half naked” and the pictures show them wearing a knee length skirt and a sleeveless top show we’re not far from it).
    And in many places we’ve already crossed that line where children are concerned. Any photo of a naked or partially naked child, in any setting, even a drawing, is now in many jurisdictions considered “child porn”.
    Context or intent no longer matters, the very existence is all that’s important because “it could be stolen by a pedophile”.

    By that definition the mother is definitely guilty of creating and spreading child porn, and the father may well be considered a pedophile.
    In a way they’re lucky the police and prosecutors were reasonably sane in not pressing charges, and “all” they have to deal with is the usual overly zealous CPS busybodies.

  16. En Passant January 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Lenore wrote:

    To me, a million miles away, not there, not knowing the people, etc. etc. etc., it just sounds like a clash of cultures: On the one side, a mom who posts slightly envelope-pushing pictures online and breastfeeds in the middle of an interview that could determine her future. Nothing wrong with either of those things. Just that they could be provocative. And sitting across from her is a child protective services worker who possibly feels uncomfortable with both, and holds all the cards.

    If the “culture” of CPS workers is to bring ridiculous charges against parents just to assuage their precious feelings of discomfort about perfectly normal acts, then CPS workers have far too little actual work to do to earn their paychecks.

    Every dollar of CPS budget spent to pursue inanities like this is a dollar not spent to stop actual child abuse. Either there are no children being actually abused in that CPS jurisdiction, or the CPS “worker” is neglecting their actual duties by pursuing this case.

  17. Workshop January 26, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    It’s stories like this that make me revisit my pledge not to commit violence against numb-skull bureaucrats.

    What’s that you say?

    I never made such a pledge?

    Oh. That’s . . . good to know.

    Seriously, if I were in that situation I have no doubt I’d be in jail for assaulting the CPS investigator.

    Find a lawyer. Sue them until they bleed out their ears.

  18. BL January 26, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    @JTW
    ‘Just define “sexual” and “pornography” to include any display of nudity, which is exactly where we’re heading (if we’re not there already. Newspapers screaming that “XXX was seen half naked” and the pictures show them wearing a knee length skirt and a sleeveless top show we’re not far from it).’

    I remember when us guys would spend summers ‘dressed’ like this (that guy on the right looks remarkably like me at that age):

    https://freerangekids.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/summer-no-rites.jpg

    Probably get arrested now.

  19. Mark Davis January 26, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    Agree with Jess: that’s a beautiful picture; there’s so much love and humanity in it.

    And with DIenne: the notion that the photo is somehow sexual is the real problem here.

  20. Momof8 January 26, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    Heather, you are an amazing photographer and I can’t find words to describe your husband. Keep your chin up.

  21. Gina January 26, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    If you knew how many abused children in Arizona have died in the past few years because they slipped through non-existent cracks, you would be appalled that CPS has time to worry about this beautiful photo.

    if this state doesn’t get it’s crap together as far as our kids are concerned, there aren’t going to be many kids to worry about.

    What a waste of my tax money….

  22. donald January 26, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    This sounds like the Danielle and Alexander Meitiv story. The Maryland police thought, “How dare you to defy me? For that, I’ll make your life hell”.

    DCS is retaliating because Heather Whitten had the audacity to feed her baby during the interview

  23. James January 26, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    This is why we need to punish those who arbitrarily make accusations. This person caused tremendous aggravation and stress to this entire family for no reason, and should be charged with either libel or harassment.

    I would never take such a photo or consent to having it put online, and if my wife did so without regard to my wishes I’d be furious with her–but not because it’s inherently wrong to do so. It’s my personal view–such moments are powerful precisely because they’re private and ephemeral, something that can only truly be experienced by being there. Plus, I hate being photographed naked; I have no delusions, after being photographed without my shirt on, about how photogenic I am. But that’s MY views. Others obviously disagree. And that’s fine! My bones remain unbroken and my pocket unpicked, as it were–their views do not harm me in the least.

    And I think that’s the view that people who report pictures like this have abandoned. It’s not that this child was harmed (he obviously wasn’t); it’s not that there’s any reasonable possibility of harm (“You think that’s bad, type your address into Google Earth.” ~Parks and Recreation). It’s that this mother acted in a way that’s inconsistent with the views of some stranger, and that stranger wasn’t mature enough to accept it. Like with the man who berated the woman who let her son go on an errand in a mall (a post a few weeks ago), this person had NO interest in the child. It’s entirely about this person wanting to control this family.

    As for breastfeeding, I find it deplorable that we have decided that feeding our children is somehow immoral. If you see a woman breastfeeding a baby and think it’s in any way sexual, you are confessing YOUR inability to function as an adult, not hers.

  24. Backroads January 26, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

    “”Every dollar of CPS budget spent to pursue inanities like this is a dollar not spent to stop actual child abuse. Either there are no children being actually abused in that CPS jurisdiction, or the CPS “worker” is neglecting their actual duties by pursuing this case.””

    Amen to this. I’d love for our world to be a place where CPS folks can be twiddling their thumbs, but we’re not there yet. They need to be helping actual endangered children.

  25. Anna January 26, 2017 at 5:40 pm #

    The whole “anything nude is sexual” thing is very insular and distinctively American. When I was an au-pair in Denmark, the host family I lived with had nude photos of everybody – kids in the bath, pregnant mom in the shower, you name it. I would never have done it myself and found it a bit off-putting (though to be fair, these were private photos, not made public) but anyway, it certainly wasn’t pornography. In their culture, it was totally normal. I infer from various details of this story that the same was true of this family – they seem pretty “crunchy,” and presumably greater comfort with nudity is an aspect of their crunchiness.

  26. R January 26, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    My how I’d like to send some of these puritans abroad to experience cultures that don’t find nudity shocking or shameful. I think most people would find that the Finns, Germans, or Japanese cultures are respectible. I wonder what they would think of visiting a spa, sauna, or onsen.

  27. Fiona January 26, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

    Why are people so horrible?

  28. JKP January 26, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Frankly, any CPS investigator who has a problem with a mother breastfeeding does not belong in that job and should be fired. Talk about a no-win situation. If the mother refused to breastfeed during the interview, the investigator could have accused her of letting her child go hungry.

  29. Dale Smith January 26, 2017 at 6:51 pm #

    This garbage has got to stop. these social worker agencies need to be shut down! They need real jobs instead of breaking up innocent loving families.

  30. James Pollock January 26, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

    “All because she has a different set of aesthetics and boundaries, not because she is a threat to children.”

    These are not mutually-exclusive.

    There IS something here that should be investigated… how did the kid get salmonella?… but, as yet, there’s no sign that the government is doing anything wrong. They get a complaint, they’re investigating.. which is what they’re supposed to do. Yes, they COULD investigate, find something, and take action. Or maybe they’ll find nothing, say so, and do nothing. If either of those two things comes about, they’re doing their jobs properly.

    It’s possible that they might investigate, find nothing, and take actions That would be bad, but… it hasn’t happened yet. Worrying obsessively about unlikely events because they MIGHT happen… where have I heard of someone suggesting avoiding that kind of worrying?

  31. theresa January 26, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

    Probably some bad food that wasn’t caught till it was too late. James you hear about recalls on bad food all the time. But someone got to be unlucky enough to find out the hard way before a recall comes.

  32. James Pollock January 26, 2017 at 10:17 pm #

    “James you hear about recalls on bad food all the time.”

    And those recalls come about because of… investigations. No?

  33. elysium January 26, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    Good God, this social worker is the reason people hate social workers and give us all a bad name. I think it’s a beautiful photo – not something I’d choose to make public if I had such a photo, but not my circus, not my monkeys. The investigation is absurd.

    We social workers are not all like this! Argggghhhhh!

  34. JTW January 26, 2017 at 11:53 pm #

    “Frankly, any CPS investigator who has a problem with a mother breastfeeding does not belong in that job and should be fired. Talk about a no-win situation. If the mother refused to breastfeed during the interview, the investigator could have accused her of letting her child go hungry.”

    If they’re like our equivalent, they’re almost religiously opposed to breast feeding. The wars between those who think breast feeding is good and those who hold that a mother’s milk is bad for the child (yes…) are far from over.
    Quite likely a lot in CPS are in the latter camp and the only reason they don’t take children away because they’re being breastfed is that they can’t justify it according to their own rules.
    So they try something else. Here it’s “morality” (aka “it’s obscene to expose your breasts, you’re a bad parent and rolemodel therefore not suitable for raising children”), in this case CPS had another excuse.

  35. Richard January 27, 2017 at 1:33 am #

    JTW, I know quite a few CPS workers, and not a single one who doesn’t believe in breastfeeding or feels uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing mother. In appropriate cases, they do request no breastfeeding orders based on the risk caused by the mother’s ongoing drug use.

  36. Donna January 27, 2017 at 8:36 am #

    JTW, I work with CPS workers every day and not a single one is ant-breastfeeding. In fact, they will go to herculean efforts to see that breast milk is delivered from the mother to a foster parent if a breast fed child is in foster care. However, breast feeding is a rarity in the community that CPS is most commonly dealing with so some of the newer workers may never have encountered a situation where a mother was breastfeeding while talking to her/him.

  37. SteveS January 27, 2017 at 9:04 am #

    Sorry, but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest an investigation into abuse or neglect. CPS has discretion and doesn’t investigate every single complaint. The health department should certainly look into the issue of food poisoning, but that doesn’t seem to be happening here.

  38. Gina January 27, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    Is anyone here familiar with Sally Mann? She has photographed her kids naked over the years. …

  39. Kimberly January 27, 2017 at 7:35 pm #

    Anyone else feel suddenly inadequate as a parent?

  40. Call me Al January 27, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

    “No ‘Grey Area’”

    This is the information contained on the UK & Ireland “StopItNow” website in response to what is and what is not child pornography. “StopItNow” is an organization devoted to stopping online child abuse behaviour.

    “Many people who have accessed sexual images of children believe that there is a ‘grey area’, between material that is legal and material that is illegal.

    We believe that there is NO GREY AREA:

    Non-sexual images of children: Access to any images of children is illegal if they are being accessed to satisfy sexual needs. This includes nude, semi-nude and clothed images of children, even if they aren’t depicting a sexual situation. The police will investigate the possession of multiple images of clothed children.”

    So basically, what this means (at least in the UK) is that this image can be child pornography if the viewer wants it to be.

    I guess, it widens the understanding of the expression so that; obscenity as well as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’d rather see the beauty.

  41. BL January 27, 2017 at 8:37 pm #

    @Call me Al
    “So basically, what this means (at least in the UK) is that this image can be child pornography if the viewer wants it to be.”

    I suppose next they’ll have to abolish children. You can’t be too careful.

  42. Jessica January 27, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    Kimberly,
    Yes! I was actually thinking “Wow, my son has had stomach ailments before, and I always plop him in the bathtub and murmur reassuringly from a safe distance…”

  43. JTW January 28, 2017 at 12:50 am #

    @Call me All
    “So basically, what this means (at least in the UK) is that this image can be child pornography if the viewer wants it to be.”

    Worse, if someone decides that another viewer may possibly use it as such. IOW if it can ever find itself in the possession of anyone accused of being a pedophile, it’s child porn.
    And as people like this consider every man to be a pedophile…

    These are the people who’ve made it illegal to make photographs of your own children at school plays because “they could be used by pedophiles”.

  44. Surani Joshua January 28, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    This is awful. I know that this one story isn’t representative of Arizona CPS, but why would a complaint based on this photo warrant investigation? Long before social media you would see this type of thing 1) in photography shows, and 2) on everyone’s walls. Is there anything a fellow Arizonan can do?

  45. James Pollock January 28, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

    “why would a complaint based on this photo warrant investigation?”
    If you know the story behind the photo, as described above, it’s a beautiful photo of parental devotion. But… not everyone who saw this photo HAD that story, I’d wager, and at least some, didn’t believe it.

    If you were raised in a household where you’re born naked and that’s the last time you were naked with other people in the room until it’s time to start conceiving your own children, then this photo is darkly ominous.
    The point of an investigation is to learn, or verify, facts. (OK, political “investigations” are a different animal…I don’t think this is one of those.)

  46. Travis January 31, 2017 at 11:17 pm #

    “There IS something here that should be investigated… how did the kid get salmonella?”
    Someone at the store who handed the food could have had salmonella and got it contaminated. The child could also have a duckling or a hamster, which are likely to carry it, and didn’t wash his hands before eating or just put them in his mouth after touching his pet (or a cousin’s pet or otherwise), I don’t think it’s something worth to be investigated, especially since the parents were doing something about it.

    I agree that someone living in a really religious or conservative family could see something… off, with the picture. But a parent holding a child is not sexual by default, it is honestly a really perverse thing to think. The picture was accompanied, apparently, by the story, so even if Heather had had her Facebook setting to allow everyone to see her pictures, this person would not have a reason to not know the story behind it. That means the person was not intrigued by the picture and read the description, they literally have to have barely seen it and immediately called CPS.

    Especially because, if you see the picture for more than five seconds, you realize the man’s hands… are not even touching the kid. His right hand is away from the boy’s skin and only his wrist is resting on the child, his left hand is just hovering in front of him, possibly covering himself for the picture.

    So. How even.

  47. James Pollock February 1, 2017 at 2:51 am #

    “I agree that someone living in a really religious or conservative family could see something… off, with the picture. But a parent holding a child is not sexual by default”

    Agreed. And how very perceptive of you to be able to look at this photo and tell, just by looking at it, that this is a parent and child, particularly with one of the faces cropped out.

    “The picture was accompanied, apparently, by the story, so even if Heather had had her Facebook setting to allow everyone to see her pictures, this person would not have a reason to not know the story behind it.”
    Knowing the story, and having been told the story, are not the same thing.

  48. Cassie February 1, 2017 at 6:05 am #

    Dienne said it all.

  49. Cassie February 1, 2017 at 6:16 am #

    I took some brilliant photos of my 7yo, 5yo, and 10mo in the shower the other day. I took about 20 trying to get a photo with rude bits pointed away from the camera and faces pointed towards it. They laughed and played and I ended up with a dozen nice snaps – most displaying the genitalia of the youngest – who kept turning towards me.

    I emailed a few to my husband (who works out of town and misses out on so much of this). The conversation began with my apology for not sending the best, but I didn’t feel comfortable sending photos with genitalia. He agreed with the sentiment, not because we were concerned that someone might gain access to the photos of our naked children, but because we were concerned that naked children on a man’s phone would potentially be misconstrued.

  50. PS February 2, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    I come from a different cultural background that the US Family culture.. I myself was a free range kid. While growing up along 3 siblings, I was always the one to get most beating from my parents for anything. Many a times the beatings were so bad somebody from neighbor had to intervene. No matter how bad my parents beat me up to get back on the line…. Now years later when I have my own daughter I see their intentions clear as a day light. I dot raise my hand at my daughter however when it comes to the discipline I hold the same view and is often more strict. Its not only my daughter, If I am teaching something to my daughter along with her friends, I hold them all to the same strict rules.. and their parents like it.

    Often when it comes to parenting, I feel its a balancing act. On one hand you ought to be strict hard to the line and on other you will have to mellow and let the kid be themselves. Its often a carrot and stick game.

    When it comes to interpreting the interactions with your kid as provocative by mentally sick people, I just say I understand what her husband tried to do. When I got married my wife didnt know how to bathe a new born… for the first couple of years of my daughters life, I gave her bath. Now that’s what is my most cherished memory.