Punitive, Puritanical, Sadistic Laws to “Protect” Kids — Woo Hoo!

Readers — This powerful comment came in response to my piece about the New Jersey woman who let her toddler sleep in the car for 5-10 minutes while she ran an errand. She was arrested, found guilty of abuse or neglect, and put on the state’s Child Abuse Registry. Two weeks ago, a New Jersey appeals court upheld that conviction. I love this letter:

The Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE.  (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

Often as not, the Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE. (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

Dear Free-Range Kids: I think what we’re really seeing here is just our country’s punitive mindset. It’s like we cannot imagine any way to express to somebody that we don’t like what they are doing except for calling it “abuse” and putting them on a registry.

We should all be wary of slippery-slope reasoning. That is what happened with sex offender registries in many states. Registries originally designed to be lists of people who, if a young child went missing, might [warrant being] investigated because their history made it much more likely that they’d rape and murder a child, became, in many states, lists of young men who had sex we think they shouldn’t have. The rationale for doing things like keeping the 20 year old guy who slept with a willing 15 year old girlfriend on a registry for life is that we don’t want 50 year olds to think it’s okay to sleep with 12 year olds. But that’s not how things work. Harshly punishing people for crimes we don’t really consider particularly heinous or dangerous is NOT the way to prevent people from committing heinous, dangerous crimes.

So if the fear is that people will knowingly leave their kids in the car for hours in the hot sun, for their own convenience, which would be genuine child abuse, we are not going to stop that by creating a registry of people who leave their kids in the car for 10 minutes on a nice, temperate day. What next? Registering people who spank their kids so that people don’t think child beating is okay? Registering people who withhold treats from a child so people won’t think starving a child is okay?


Whether we think she acted wisely or not, this woman was charged with CHILD ABUSE and is now on a registry of child abusers. The child abuse registry should not be a list of people who made parenting decisions we don’t like and who we think should therefore be publicly shamed for it; it should be a list of people who ACTUALLY pose a danger to children. This woman does not.

If people feel the need to call this woman a bad mom, call her a bad mom. Whatever. But we don’t want or need the state to validate those judgments, for maximum public humiliation. The point of laws should be public safety, not public humiliation, but more and more of our laws and moving in the direction of seeming to be more about shaming and humiliating and branding people who made decisions we don’t like rather than actually protecting the public from truly dangerous people. – Anonymous Mom


Criminalizing behavior we wouldn't do is different from criminalizing behavior that is parenting decisions we don't agree with.

The Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE.  (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

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37 Responses to Punitive, Puritanical, Sadistic Laws to “Protect” Kids — Woo Hoo!

  1. Tamara January 29, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    I honestly feel that this punitive method of punishment is ineffective for anyone. No one wants to have to do something that doesn’t make sense just because someone else said so. This poor woman’s situation only adds fuel to the helicopter parenting style as it is EXACTLY, I feel, why many parents act this way – out of fear of being found to be an inadequate, or according to this article, actually abusive, parent. So this is now how we are raising our kids as well. To follow the rules, even if they don’t make sense, be a good citizen and you won’t get in trouble. We should be raising our kids with love and encouragement, not fear which is why I visit this site to keep things in perspective.

  2. Coccinelle January 29, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    Wait, is that a new registry? I only knew you had a sex offender registry… What does it mean to be on it? You can’t have any child in your custody for 25 years?

  3. SKL January 29, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    So what is it about our society that makes us think shaming people for non-malicious behaviors is desireable?

  4. Havva January 29, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    That note dredged up some faint memories. I was in a private school during the satanic ritual abuse/”recovered memories” thing.

    I had a classmate who was a deeply troubled boy. I am told his parents were going through a divorce and in an apparent attempt to get leverage, the father accused the mother of knowingly putting the child into a school where the children were being abused. This came shortly after the boy had a particularly violent tantrum were he was throwing tables and chairs at other students. My teacher had grabbed him by the ear to get him (semi) under control so he wouldn’t hurt anyone. We students all thought the police involvement was about that. My parent would later tell me it had nothing to do with that and was a straight up “witch hunt.” Anyhow the cops wanted to sit all the students down with psychologists for one-on-one interviews. The parents all banded together and refused to allow us kids to be interviewed. Ultimately the accusations of sexual abuse did not hold up, in fact key elements of the story were demonstrably false, There was no finding of any abuse. Despite this, both teachers in the school, wound up on a registry for child abuse, and 7 years after they were proven innocent, I was shocked to learn they were STILL on the registry.

    Based on a law review journal I just found “In California, the penal code requires that the California Department of Justice wait at least ten years to remove a person’s name from the child abuse central index (CACI), even when a court has found that the individual is innocent.”

  5. Donna January 29, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    @Coccinelle – It is not something that exists in every state. I know that my state doesn’t have one.

    Harshly punishing people for crimes we DO consider particularly heinous or dangerous is NOT the way to prevent people from committing heinous, dangerous crimes. Once you are of the mind to commit a heinous crime, you are not researching the sentences that others have received for similar crimes in your area to weigh the pros and cons.

    This is not to say that I think that people who commit heinous and dangerous crimes shouldn’t be punished harshly, but we need to get out of the mindset that doing so deters other criminals. Study after study after study has proven that it doesn’t. It is simply a punitive measure and that may be fine for truly heinous crimes, but believing that there is a deterrent factor in harsh sentencing takes us down this slippery slope of harshly punishing everyone we disagree with in order to deter others from doing the same.

    As an aside, a short time ago I was reading an article about veterinarians who get emotional in front of their clients. One of the vets interviewed said that he always tears up when kids are present during euthanasia. One of the commentors to the article said that bringing a child to the euthanasia of a pet is child abuse, CPS should be called and the children taken away. There really is this strange contingent out there in the world that thinks that making different parenting choices should be a crime.

  6. Cherub Mamma January 29, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    @Donna – I’m pretty sure every state has a child abuse registry. As a foster parent, we have to submit ourselves to background checks, both State and Federal. To my knowledge, every state keeps track of documented child abuse (NOT every abuse makes the registry!). Teachers, foster parents, social workers and others that come into regular contact with children are checked against this registry in order for them to become licensed in their field or for volunteer purposes.

  7. Shelly Stow January 29, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    OMG; I could not have said one word better myself. And the analogy drawn between registries designed to shame those whose parenting modes we don’t like and those who have sex who we think shouldn’t–or in a manner of which we disapprove–is totally apt.

  8. Jen (P.) January 29, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    The “there ought to be a law” mentality is a big problem in this country. In fact, there ought to be a law against it 😉

  9. Donna January 29, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Cherub Mamma –

    I guess that depends on what you mean by a registry. Of course state CPS departments keep a central database concerning substantiated instances of child abuse. That makes total rational sense. Individual CPS files are generally kept on a county basis and people should not be able to defeat CPS by simply moving to a different county. These databases are indeed called registries.

    However, the PUBLIC nature of these registries vary by state. In no state is the child abuse registry akin to the sex offender registry where anyone who wants to can look up a name online. Nor can we look up our address to find out the child abusers living in our area. But, some states allow certain people outside CPS access to information contained in the registry. Who can get access to that information varies by state. In many states, schools and other childcare providers can request information on potential employees. A handful of states allow parents to obtain information on potential childcare employees. Some allow the release of information in the case of fatalities.

  10. Cherub Mamma January 29, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    I see what you mean Donna.

  11. John January 29, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    It’s amazing that according to American laws today, Jesus’s stepfather, Joseph, would be on the national sex offender registry since he was 25 and Mary was 14 when they got married and probably had sex shortly after. In fact, it was common during that time for men in their 20s to marry teenage girls. But by our crazy standards and judgment today, Joseph would be branded a pervert and a danger to children.

  12. Papilio January 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    @John: So that means god should be on the Sex Offender Registry as well? I KNEW something was off about that guy 😛

    @Havva: “In California, the penal code requires that the California Department of Justice wait at least ten years to remove a person’s name from the child abuse central index (CACI), even when a court has found that the individual is innocent.”
    That IS shocking! Guilty until ten years after proven innocent?? I thought people had rights in the USA???!!!

    @Donna: I read recently that most people in jail eh (how do I put that) gain insights about what they’ve done and what they should change in their lives about, what was it, like 4-7 years (??) into their sentence, and that they just develop (more) psychological problems after about 19 years in prison. I know the USA likes to put people away for way longer than two decades, so… Any thoughts on this?

  13. anonymous mom January 29, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    Hey, that’s me! Thanks, Lenore!

    Yes, I’m tired of slippery slopes. I’m tried of us not having any sense of moderation or of punishments that fit the crime. Is there not some common sense that might tell us that, even if 16 is the age of consent, a 22 year old having sex with a 15 year old is a less serious offense than a 50 year old having sex with a 13 year old? That leaving your child in the car for 5 minutes on a cool spring day is a less serious issue than leaving your child in the car for 20 minutes on the hottest day of the year?

    I was just talking the other day about how we have all of these 0-to-60 laws, especially with minors. Like, it is just *bizarre* that it is totally legal for a 45 year old guy to have sex with a 16 year old, but it’s an incredibly serious felony that will land him on a sex offender registry for a 21 year old to have sex with a 15 year old. How does that make ANY sense? It’s just not how human development works,and it’s not how our laws should work. In most places, driving 10 miles an hour over the speed limit will get you in far less trouble than driving 100 miles over. Possessing a small amount of marijuana will get you in far less trouble than possessing a huge amount. Stealing a small amount of money is less serious legally than stealing a huge amount. But when it comes to laws around minors and sex, whether you are talking about a girl 2 months below the age of consent and a guy six years older than she is or a girl 2 years below the age of consent and a guy sixty years older than she is, you see the same charges and the same penalties. That just strikes me as a bad, inefficient system that takes the kind of zero-tolerance approach that we know doesn’t work. Should sex between a 23 and 15 year old be illegal? Maybe. Sure. But, it seems odd that it’s an extremely serious felony when sex between a 43 and 16 year old is totally legal, and that it’s treated no differently than sex between a 53 and 14 year old. I can’t be the only person who believes that?

    Anyway, so many of us just want people shamed. We want everybody to know what a bad person, bad parent they are. That’s not the job of our legal system. The job of our legal system is to protect the public. But it seems like more and more often what we really want is for the legal system to solve our interpersonal disputes and to make moral judgments for us, whether it’s arresting a neighbor who makes parenting choices that we don’t like or going after the 18 year old who dated our 14 year old.

  14. Donna January 29, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    “I read recently that most people in jail eh (how do I put that) gain insights about what they’ve done and what they should change in their lives about, what was it, like 4-7 years (??) into their sentence”

    I’d like to see that study since in my experience the majority of criminals never intentionally change their lives. Prison is largely just a revolving door. The clients I handled at the start of my career are still clients today. Their kids will be my clients tomorrow and their grandkids my clients next year. In fact, one of my very first criminal clients just killed someone.

    And there is little by way of counseling or psychological treatment in prison or help after they are out. Even if they do gain insight into their lives and what they need to change while in prison – honestly most of them know this before they go into prison – they never put those insights into effect. It is hard. They leave prison for the exact same house, friends and family as they had going in and now even fewer options for anything other than crime.

    Those who do change largely do it because of age rather than great insight gained in prison. The thug life is a young man’s game. They simply grow too old to be interested running the streets every night and going in and out of prison. They stop whether they are in prison at the time or not. For many who change, we do see a gradual dwindling of criminal behavior as they age from their teens. Their arrests get spaced out farther and farther until we don’t see them anymore.

    “and that they just develop (more) psychological problems after about 19 years in prison.”

    Psychological problems start long before then. Prison is 100% control over everything in your life. It doesn’t take long before your decision-making ability is completely shot (and these guys don’t start with a real high ability in that area). Compound that by the real dangers of survival in prison and the need to be on high alert constantly. Not to mention you now have an interesting new set of friends.

    All in all, I’ve yet to see a single thing positive coming from prison. It should be viewed solely as retribution for a crime. Rehabilitation is not even on the agenda and nothing positive should be expected for anyone locked up there.

  15. anonymous mom January 29, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    @Donna, it’s always shocking to me when I realize that, in the 1970s, we were having serious discussions as a nation about abolishing the prison system. Then, somehow, we went in the complete opposite direction and started incarcerating more people than any society ever has in history. It’s like we totally forgot all of the things we knew about the negative outcomes of the prison system.

    I do think there are some people for whom prison is a good option. If somebody poses such a threat to their community that they have to be contained to ensure public safety, then we have to contain them, even if doing so isn’t going to be in their best interest. But, for so many crimes, we can have sentences that are less punitive and more restorative, and that do not involve prison time.

  16. Donna January 29, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

    anonymous mom –

    Quality drug programs and mental health treatment would go a long way toward killing my job. Beyond that, we need to deal with poverty. Only by reducing poverty, will we reduce criminality.

    Most people have no idea how different my clients’ mentality is from normal. While none of them want to give up their freedom, prison carries absolutely no stigma in their world. They aren’t embarrassed for committing a crime or going to prison. Their families are not shamed. Most of the people they know have been there at least once. They don’t think they have any real life options anyway so they aren’t failing at anything.

    In fact, they come from communities where prison is viewed as more real life than college. Studying is not encouraged and is often ridiculed. If you do well in school, you are putting on airs and, in the black community, trying to be white. Their family and friends understand prison; they don’t understand education, working, trying to get ahead. Doing those things cuts them off from their family and friends while going to prison keeps them connected.

    Until we defeat those attitudes, we are just warehousing poor people with prison.

  17. Andy January 29, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    @Donna I think that Papilio is not from United States, so those stats may be for some other country. I Scandinavia tend to have very good results. Not surprisingly, they run prisons in quite a human way.

    I tried to find stats of recidivism rates for various countries now, but failed. The closest I found is this http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/feb/25/norwegian-prison-inmates-treated-like-people which states that Norwegian have 30%. The article compares it with UK which has 70%.

  18. Warren January 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    Prisons and huge sentences have nothing to do with rehabilitation or protecting the public. They have everything to do with making the scared feel safe. Unfortunately the public in general do not believe rehabilitation is attainable. They do not want a covict released no matter what.

    I can remember when a fellow out on parole, after being sent to prison for manslaughter applied at a company I used to work for. They wouldn’t hire him, for fear he will kill again. Not understanding that most people that have been convicted of taking a life, that it is a one off. All forces alligned perfectly at the time, to make it possible for that person to kill. And that now, he is not a risk.

  19. CLamb January 29, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    I agree with Jen. It’s not so much the punishment mentality as an artifact of the democratic system. When you’re a legislator the only tool you have that no one else has is law. By responding to problems with a law you gain positive publicity for yourself when leads to more votes. Witness the concept of naming laws against victims. The solution is for the voters to be more discerning.

  20. JBS January 29, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    I would go further and say that those proposing registries are worthless, good for nothing busybodies.

  21. Gary January 29, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    “Two weeks ago, a New Jersey appeals court upheld that conviction. I love this letter:”


  22. anonymous mom January 29, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    Oh my goodness, I had no idea this happened at Middlesex Mall! That’s the local mall in the town where I grew up. I’m pretty sure my mother left me and my sister in the car while she ran inside that exact mall to pick something up many times in the 1980s.

  23. Maggie Moon January 29, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Oh so well said! I just really don’t understand why this country has become so punitive. If you dare to disagree with this attitude you are demonized… Thanks, Lenore, for making it ok to be sane.

  24. Backroads January 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

    I also read the comments and entirely regret doing so.

    I couldn’t find the answer to this question, so does anyone know if this mother still has custody of her baby through this nightmare?

  25. Papilio January 30, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    @Donna and Andy: No, I’m certainly not from the USA! It must have been Dutch.
    And of course it doesn’t help if people don’t get much of a fair chance on a satisfying, good-enough life in the first place, let alone when they get out of prison. From what I’ve understood, it’s pretty much over then, as no-one will hire you, live near you, etc etc.
    The more I read here, the more often I wonder what the USA is doing to their people / what the US people are doing to themselves, and each other :-(

  26. Donna January 30, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    “The more I read here, the more often I wonder what the USA is doing to their people / what the US people are doing to themselves, and each other”

    I frequently wonder that myself, Papilio.

  27. Steve January 30, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Personal risk assessment by free “individuals” seems to be un-lawful today.

    In the article about the ruling that decided the mother was guilty of child abuse for leaving her child in the car for 5 or 10 minutes, it quotes the judge:

    “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel.

    Does this mean in the future Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. will say:

    “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone sleeping in a bedroom all night by itself out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly?”

    Or… “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in the living room while the parent is doing the cooking in the kitchen?”

    Or…”A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years playing on the kitchen floor when the mother is busy at the stove WITH HER BACK TO THE CHILD?”

    After all, Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. did say, “…out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly…”

    Can you imagine the kind of horrific, nightmarish, fantasy world Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. and the other judges on this court must inhabit? What movies do they watch? How many crime shows? Or is it simply the amount of contact Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. has with criminals in his courtroom day in and day out. He obviously has a distorted picture of the number of cases of children being snatched from cars.

    I wonder if Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. also uses Worst-First-Thinking when it comes to his children or grandchildren attending college? After all, many bad things happen at college. Can we imagine him saying: “A parent invites substantial peril when sending a child off to college out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly.”

    Since we know the truth about the very real risk of death from car crashes, which few people allow to influence their behavior, would we ever hear Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. say: “A parent invites substantial peril driving family members in a car, no matter how briefly?” I think not.

  28. John January 30, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    I think in all or at least in most cases, prison is meant for justice and not reabilitation. If some pervert, for example, brutally beat and raped my 10-year-old son, there needs to be consequences for his behavior and as a parent I would want that person to pay for his crime. Same if he bludgeoned and robbed my 85-year-old mother. Even if you could reabilitate these people, there is a sense of justice that needs to be carried out first and foremost. Now I’m all for their reabilitation but please place priority on making them pay the consequences of their crime first!

  29. John January 30, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    But in getting to the subject of this article, I definitely agree that the penalties for breaking laws intended for “protecting” children are meant to shame and humiliate and is a result of our 0 tolerance mentality when it comes to children. A teenager foolishly streaking across a football field is treated the exact same way as if he sodomized a young boy. “Well, we’ve got to protect the kids!” is the battle cry. As if a 10-year-old kid is somehow gonna be ruined for life from seeing a teenage streaker.

    I believe in some states, anytime a convicted sex offender moves into an approved neighborhood, he (or she) is required to visit each one of his new neighbors and tell them the crime he committed. Some zealous politicians have even proposed the requirement for signs posted on the person’s front lawn that says “Convicted Sex Offender”. This, to me, is draconian and “dark ages” mentality and nothing short of vindictive!

    A few years back, a convicted sex offender was murdered by a vigilente somewhere up in New England and what was he on the sex offender registry for? He had sex with a willing 16-year-old girl when he was 19. As far as I’m concerned NEVER should have been on that registry in the first place! Same thing with “sexting”. OK it’s wrong to do but for gosh sakes, there is no need to put a 15-year-old kid on a sex offender registry for possessing and sending out nude pics to his friends of his 14-year-old girlfriend. How about a written apology to the girl and community service instead of ruining the kid’s life forever? Now if I, a 58-year-old man, has nude pics of 14-year-old girls on MY cell phone that I’m sending out? Then YES, put me in jail and throw away the key but not her 15-year-old boyfriend or now ex-boyfriend!

  30. lollipoplover January 30, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    The judging doesn’t stop:

    Since when is 28 degrees dangerous? And 20,000 bail like mom is a hardened criminal we need off the streets- the child was asleep!

  31. Melanie Jones January 31, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    Ah criminey! The whole language of that is what bothers me. It is all “the good Samaritan called”…and police were just preparing to break the window because they didn’t know if the child was unconscious or sleeping…and my favorite the child was removed to the hospital for observation and released. All of this, as if it were the work of a hero, when clearly none of it was actually necessary and in fact all of it was just a show to really hammer home the point about how dangerous it is to leave your kid in the car.

  32. John January 31, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    Well lollipoplover, this gets back to our crazy 0 tolerance mentality ANYTIME a child is involved no matter how harmless the situation turned out to be.

  33. Papilio January 31, 2014 at 7:45 pm #

    Lenore & Donna: Sorry for killing you with my grammar! (Plural country names, I’ll never get used to those.)
    It is sad, especially when realizing it’s such a wealthy country, yet there doesn’t seem to be much interest in doing things that would benefit the whole population. And if there is, (other) people are fighting it tooth and nail…
    (My impression anyway.)

    @John: Yes, of course people need to be punished in the first place. But please realize that someone who whacks his business partner on the head after being caught on the spot stealing lots of money is a completely different kind of killer than someone who’d rape and murder your 10-year-old.

    @Melanie Jones: Wouldn’t it make some funny satire to have this anti-hero who “rescues” people from perfectly normal situations that aren’t remotely dangerous?

  34. Beth February 1, 2014 at 1:26 am #

    Under what definition of the word is 28 degrees “frigid”?

  35. Daniel February 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    I wonder how many other people realize that this isn’t really about registries, or child safety. This is about restricting freedom. In some states, this mother would not be allowed to choose to homeschool her children because she has been convicted of child abuse. In others she (nor her spouse or adult children) would not be allowed to have a firearm in her home because of the conviction.

  36. Emily February 2, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    >>“A parent invites substantial peril when sending a child off to college out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly.”<<

    Who goes to college "briefly," besides a dropout? I know that that sounds sarcastic, but it really does happen–when I was in university, I saw a few of my peers drop out, because they just couldn't handle being away from home. In second year, my next-door neighbour in the residence had an all-out meltdown over the idea of her parents leaving her there. They did, but she only lasted at that school for about a week. She didn't drop out altogether; she just transferred to a different university closer to home, but I knew a few others who completely gave up on university altogether, because their parents weren't there to clean up after them, and make sure they went to class, and ate semi-healthy food. So, these people slacked off, did drugs (and sometimes sold them), and subsisted on ramen noodles and take-out food, day in, and day out. Most of those people didn't last the full four years, and several of them didn't even last one.

  37. Book February 3, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    I think this is the most articulate argument against these lists that I’ve ever seen. Thank you, Lenore!