Readers — A long, sad and infuriating story. Here goes:
Dear Free-Range Kids: I noticed you sometimes talk about Child Protective Services (CPS) or other official intervention and Free-Range children. I have to admit, I did always wonder if I’d get in trouble for being the only mom who doesn’t wait at the bus stop each morning or overbook my kids with extracurriculars, but intellectually I knew I wasn’t breaking any laws or even engaging in any overly questionable parenting. However, it seems the school disagreed, and they compiled a pretty extensive (if weak) case against me with CPS and CPS tried to put my kids in foster care. They’re with my parents now, and our lives have been pretty much destroyed indefinitely.
Long story short: in mid-February, my 8-year-old daughter and I got some ice cream and watched Romeo + Juliet on a Saturday night. Six days later a group of kids cornered her at recess and she got upset and said she wouldn’t be in school Monday because she was going to kill herself. A serious thing, yes, but probably influenced by watching the movie.
The school asked us to get counseling, and I said we were applying for Child Health Plus, which takes up to seven weeks to become active. After three weeks, the school reported us to CPS for “failing” to get counseling, despite the fact I told them four times, in writing, that we did not have money to pay for it out of pocket and were trying to get insurance. (I’m a single mom.) My daughter and her brother (10) were questioned at length, and she said that a single time when she’d had a tantrum, I used a pillow to block her punches. In court documents, this was worded as “on a daily basis, the mother pinches the child’s nose shut while holding her mouth closed and putting a pillow over her face, placing her in imminent risk of death.” This is patently false, but the words were deliberately chosen, because otherwise they could not remove the kids.
CPS workers later told me that the pillow allegation was a pretense to allow them to remove my kids from the home, because the counseling thing had raised a red flag. (I have a recording of the CPS worker saying he did not report the pinching/suffocating allegation, and was surprised to see it in the motion.) I was given a list of other “red flags,” things that are frightening in their averageness:
-That since I work from home, I spend “all night typing on the computer while my kids run wild.”
-That my children walk 300 feet to a bus stop unattended, although I watch from the window. They are 8 and 10 and go together.
-That when my daughter made the suicide threat, close to the end of the school day, I was unavailable by phone because I was on a business call. Apparently, this is a crime worthy of terminating parental rights, because there is an adoption date of 12/2011 on my first court paper. Seems mothers must never be more than five feet from a (non busy) phone at all times.
-That my children “never do their homework,” when in actuality, I don’t do it for them and cut it off at bedtime. If they don’t do it, they miss recess. This happens about twice a month, tops.
-That they “never have school supplies,” because my son lost a notebook once and it stayed lost for a week.
-That I said I could not commit to picking up their homework at the school each day because it would interfere with my work and asked the teachers to email me if there was a problem.
-That I communicate via email, and some of the emails have a timestamp after 2am. This became the “typing all night” thing.
None of the relations I had with the school prior to CPS involvement were hostile or even contentious. I had no reason to believe that such drastic measures would be taken. Never in a million years would I have believed that missing a phone call, allowing kids to walk to the bus stop, letting them go to school with incomplete homework or sending late emails would be grounds to place a child in foster care, but that’s exactly what happened to us.
Since this happened, most people who know us well have reacted with shock and sympathy, but an alarming number have said: “Why didn’t you take them to the bus? ” “Why didn’t you do their homework if they didn’t do it?” “Why are you up late?”
I know all this is insane. No one should be forced to raise their kids in consideration of appearances if the children are happy and healthy. I just hope you don’t get too many emails like mine. — Worried on Long Island
Dear Worried: I am sickened an appalled by the way this has unfolded. What everyone reading this site should know, however, is that I posted this story NOT because it is common — it’s not. I posted it because it shows what can happen if we allow “helicoptering” to become the only acceptable way to parent. If not walking the kids to the bus stop becomes a form of abuse, we will be living in a very different country. So for those of us here, let us keep reminding our friends and associates that our kids are NOT in constant danger, that after a certain age they do NOT need constant hands-on supervision, and that there is a range of parenting styles that work for a range of kids.
Also, if there are any reporters reading this who would like to follow up on this story, or explore the idea that sometimes CPS conflates confident parenting with criminality, please contact me and I can steer you to the letter writer. — L.