Readers — This essay is long, but so powerful it blew me away. As we near May 22’s “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day,” the author’s question is extremely relevant: What happens when WE believe our kids will be safe, but the authorities do not? Read on. And prepare for revolution.
WHO DECIDES IF WE’RE “NEGLIGENT” PARENTS? by Trip Grass
Years ago, when my mother and I were at the elephant seal breeding grounds in California, a guide explained to us why there were hundreds of seal pups still laying on the beach after their mothers had swum back into the ocean weeks before: “That’s the seals’ rather abrupt way of weaning their young.” Apparently, the pups make their way into the water when they become hungry enough. My mother nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, that’s benevolent neglect. That’s how we raised our children.”
“Benevolent neglect” is a phrase she reserves for polite company. In reality, at the age of eleven in 1985 I was delivering newspapers by myself at five in the morning on a stretch of road that was thick with drug dealers and prostitutes. I shared the sidewalk with drunks who were still finding their way home three hours after the bars had closed. To my parents, there was no better place to raise a child.
Now I’m a father myself and my own five year old boy is desperate for any independence I might give him. So I was naturally intrigued when I read that the Free-Range Kids author, Lenore Skenazy, was declaring May 22nd Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day. As an engineer, though, I’m sensitive to risk, so I first called Child Protective Services here in Tucson to see if this was even legal.
Looking back, I was probably a little blunt when I asked the woman exactly how far my son was legally allowed to wander out of my sight. Her silence was pretty condemning, but I continued on anyway. “Can he walk around the corner from our house by himself? Or, if we’re at the park, can he set off over the hill where I can’t see him?”
Eventually she answered. “Sir, if a 5-year-old is seen out of sight of a parent, that is sufficient cause to initiate an investigation.”
“So at what age can my son walk around the block by himself?”
“A 9-year-old is allowed to stay home without supervision,” she replied.
Despite her confident tone, there is in fact no clear law that states when a child can be on his own. The State Statute from which Child Protective Services derives its authority declares generally that parents are considered neglectful if their lack of supervision causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s welfare.1 But CPS on its website more specifically claims that neglect includes “leaving a child with no one to care for them.”2
It all seemed awfully vague to me. But then, again as an engineer, I was hoping for precise ages and time limits.
So I called another CPS agent to see if this was in fact as ambiguous as it seemed. She was more nuanced. She said if a stranger called CPS to report a child playing in the park alone, CPS might not know how to contact the child’s family and that would be that. On the other hand, if the same stranger called the police, the outcome would depend on the responding officer, but could be immediately more severe, for the officer could return the child home and pursue an investigation there, arresting the parent if the situation warranted it. In either situation, cases are determined on their particular merits by individuals operating under subjective guidance. She suggested I contact the local police department to determine their standards.
To that end I hunted down an officer, finding two on the neighborhood street. I posed to them the same question (with a less confrontational tone). Non-committal, they acknowledged that a great number of juveniles are latchkey kids and most officers wouldn’t look twice at a child alone who was behaving well. As these two men had middle-school-aged children, they both seemed to have a reasonable grasp of what that behavior should be.
Ultimately though, they were no more definitive than CPS in answering whether my son could go to the park alone. To quote them, “It depends…”
This ambiguity is extensive. I can’t even study it scientifically, because the very records that document what constitutes “neglect” — the court records and the CPS case reports — aren’t generally available to the public, as they involve juveniles. So in the end, it would seem, there is no legal certainty for us parents. The law will only be found in the courtroom, before a judge, on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late.
Despite this legislative uncertainty, we can still see how significant a role CPS plays in our community. From their semi-annual report we find that in Arizona there were 1225 substantiated reports of neglect in 20093. With a statewide juvenile population of 1.4 million, this represents about one child out of 1100. But those cases were the result of over 19,000 investigations.4 That’s the family of one child in every 70 being investigated every year by CPS.
But wait, there’s more! Those 19,000 investigations had already been narrowed down from about 34,000 phonecalls5. Which brings the total to one out of 40 children a year having someone call CPS out of concern for that child’s upbringing.
Perhaps, since there is no clear law on leaving a child at the park, the numbers give support to what many of us parents feel out in public everyday: the cultural effect of CPS, the furrowed brows of neighbors and strangers who see a young boy biking down the block and think first to call a government department instead of slowing down their car.
I don’t want to make light of their mission. CPS protects children from very real abuse and neglect, from parents who beat their children or leave them alone for days. And I want to make it clear that if you leave your child alone and your child is hurt or breaks the law, you’ll likely be arrested. It’s that simple.
But I also want to make it clear that laws on neglect are subjectively enforced. And that’s why taking your kids to the park…and leaving them there is culturally important, because it seeks to change our perspective, our world view, and the world view of every stranger who has CPS on their speed dial.
The policemen I questioned told me their personal concerns were for kidnapping and molestation. But laws on neglect aren’t intended to protect children from kidnappers and molesters. These laws are intended to protect children from their own family, where the real danger lies. So if the frontlines of enforcement aren’t clearly identifying the problem, if they intuitively believe it is about kidnapping, and if enforcement is a subjective decision, then it is critical to change that intuition, to clarify the purpose. When 96% of 34,000 calls a year to CPS are not substantiated — that is, when nearly all calls to CPS are wrong — we have a political and social problem, not a legal one. And the way to fight that is simple. It’s done by persuading your neighbors that children are okay alone. It’s done by making it normal for children to be seen acting independently. It’s done by taking your children to the park.
And leaving them there. — T.G.
4. These numbers are for cases of neglect only, for which allowing one’s child to walk around the block alone would qualify for an investigation. These numbers assume each case is a unique child.
5. There were a total of 57,192 calls in the 2009 reporting year, of which about 58% were for neglect.