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The 10 Worst Free-Range Stories of 2022

What did 2022 do to parents who were just trying their best? It scared, scarred and disheartened them — and once it a while it really cheered them up! Herewith, The 10 Worst Free-Range Stories of 2022 — and one REALLY great one!


The Lower Merion school district outside of Philadelphia cancelled all six of its elementary schools’ parades because, “Just the thought of having an entire school population of young children in a field surrounded by adults that we couldn’t possibly screen was worrisome,” said the district’s community relations director. Yes — kids near any unscreened adults. Awful! Speaking of which –


As I was walking past my local Queens, NY, elementary school in May, I paused to watch the kids at recess. The playground is behind a one-story chain link fence. Nonetheless, the playground monitor told me: “You’re not allowed to watch the kids.”

“I can’t stand on a public sidewalk?”


When stand I did, security was called. We chatted, I was told I was a danger and had to leave. So I did. Because kids near unscreened adults — awful.


The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) gets about $40 million a year in federal funding. This is the agency that put the missing kids’ pictures on milk cartons back in the ‘80s and never mentioned that most were runaways or taken in a divorce dispute. But it launched a sort of mea-culpa campaign in 2017, telling parents NOT to teach their kids “stranger-danger.”

But old habits die hard, and this fall the agency sent an email blast to parents across America warning that, “Attempted abductions occur more often when a child is going to or from school or school-related activities.” In other words: Kids are in grave danger anytime they’re not in a school, car, or home. So just keep the kids cooped up all day long and everything (other than soaring levels of childhood depression, anxiety, and diabetes) should be fine!


A Halloween infographic from the Consumer Product Safety Committee warned parents to “follow CDC advice” and make sure their trick or treaters wore masks – the COVID kind. Except that in September the CDC had announced it no longer recommended universal mask wearing, even in health facilities, whose inhabitants are presumably less healthy than happy kids running around grabbing candy. (Or is it Rainbow Fentanyl???)


Shenandoah, TX: The daughter of a dying, bed-ridden 79-year-old on the sex offense registry asked for permission to provide her dad’s end-of-life care in her home. But local law says Registrants are not allowed to live within 1000 feet of a playground. The daughter lives 894 feet from one. Request  denied!


In July, Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins of suburban Boston took their sick 3-month old to the hospital. A routine X-ray found a small bruise on his ribcage which a social worker immediately labeled abuse. Authorities came to the family’s home at 1 a.m. and seized the baby and his brother. A month and $50,000 in legal fees later, the parents regained full custody of their kids. The bruise? Turns out to be super-common in infants. Most likely this one was accidentally caused by grandma when she pulled the baby out of his car seat.


A Teaneck, NJ, Ring camera videotaped a boy being followed by a car. He told its occupants, “I do not accept rides from strangers,” but they laughed and said, “We have candy!” ” Keith Kaplan, a Teaneck councilman who helps run the Teaneck Today website, said, “I bet you a dollar it’s nothing.” But the piece was published anyway and went viral, terrifying the town. When local mom Debra Passner saw it, she immediately called the police. That’s her son, she told them — and her and her husband in the car. Their kid was walking home from a party, they offered him a ride, and because he’s a smart alec, he pretended his parents were strangers. HOPEFUL NOTE!!! Just last week, Kaplan got Teaneck to pass a Let Grow-inspired “Reasonable Childhood Independence” ordinance. It says that giving kids some normal independence – like walking or playing outside – is NOT neglect!


Researcher Dale Farran spent a decade tracking over a thousand Tennessee kids who went to a free, state-run pre-kindergarten—and a control group of kids that wanted to, but didn’t get in. She was shocked to discover that by sixth grade, the preschool kids were doing worse. They scored lower on reading, math, and science. They were more likely to have learning disorders. And they had more disciplinary problems. “It really has required a lot of soul-searching,” Farran told NPR.  Commented Boston College Psychology Prof. Peter Gray, a leading advocate for more childhood free play (and my Let Grow co-founder): “If this study doesn’t put the nail in the coffin of academic training to little children, it’s hard to imagine what will.”


At the beginning of COVID, Georgia mom Melissa Henderson had to go to work, but  her kids’ daycare center shut down. So she had her daughter, 14, babysit the four younger siblings. One, age 4, wandered off to his nearby buddy’s home and was gone perhaps 15 minutes. The buddy’s mom called the cops. They charged the mom with reckless endangerment, because, they said, the boy could have been kidnapped, run-over, or “bitten by a venomous snake.” In February, David DeLugas, founder of Parents USA filed a new motion to dismiss this case. If she loses, Henderson can face up to a year in jail.


Last year around this time, Heather Wallace asked her son Aidan, 8, to get out and walk the half mile home if he couldn’t stop bothering his brothers in the car. Aidan was a block from his suburban Waco, TX, home when someone called the cops. Three raced over to Wallace’s home. One asked: “Would you do this again?” Wallace said she wasn’t sure. “That’s when the cop replied, ‘Okay, I’m going to have to arrest you.'” He proceeded to handcuff her in front of the kids and take her to jail. Wallace could only talk to the press now, a year later, because she successfully completed her parenting classes / drug tests/ 65 hours of community service and personal essay of contrition, all part of her guilty plea. Had she gone to trial and lost she’d have faced a 2-year mandatory minimum for child endangerment.


The bi-partisan bill passed unanimously this spring! Now Colorado parents can be investigated for neglect only when they put their kids in serious, obvious and likely danger – NOT any time they take their eyes off them! Bill Maher loves this law so much it’s the first thing he talked about with his guest, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

This coming year Let Grow will be working to pass similar laws in Connecticut, Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia. Wish us luck! More info here.

One Response to The 10 Worst Free-Range Stories of 2022

  1. Mark Headley December 31, 2022 at 12:54 am #

    Very awful, indeed. Bravo to you, Lenore, and to Colorado!

    I’m ashamed to say how eye-opening this was for me. Police who consider their mission to curb “worrying”I’m hoping very different in other countries, even most of the US. I’d hope you getting booted off the public sidewalk wouldn’t survive a court challenge? Heck, our Constitution protects “freedom of assembly”: a whole gang of scary Lenores watching recess. But we live in a police state?

    Why the qualification “attempted” abductions. Such attempts esp likely to be thwarted? How? Why? And more likely than what? Wouldn’t the pertinent stat account for frequency and duration of where children unmonitored out and about? Given all the helicoptering, I gather the children getting themselves to/fro school w/out helicoptering are likely poor, living in more dangerous neighborhoods. I/my peers all expected to get ourselves to/from school in our small NJ town some 35 years ago. I recall no reports of attempted abductions.  I’m surprised we didn’t have more vehicular accidents, but I do recall reports — including all 3 of our rescued mutts: separately breaking their hips. 

    So what has Dr. Farran’s soul-searching yielded. Dr Gray’s reaction puzzles me. Key to a seminal study is for it’s results to be reproduced in other hands. What’s happening here?

    Why were Mrs. Henderson, Wallace prosecuted but not their husbands? Only mothers get hammered by thes accusations of neglect, abuse? Sounds to me like sexism run amok? Retaliation geared, however unconsiously, to hamper working mothers; not fathers. Why?

    My babysitters, as I recall were typically 14 year-old girls: sometimes a  bit older, younger. We moved when I was 7, same town. My parents never hired a babysitter there that I can recall. I took care of myself and my brother, 3 years later. Most always without incident. He seemed always on his best behavior — as I tried to be.  

    Hopatcong kids were walking over 1/2 mile to school or the busstop incl in inclement weather, with bad roads, ice and snow, no sidewalks or necessarily even shoulders that I can recall. 

    Kids who face no dangers have upbringings that will not prepare them for dangers. To be successful as teens, adults, parents themselves. Batman emerged, naturally, from key experiences Free Ranging. “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”