Why is the State Arresting So Many Parents?

This summer has produced a series of banner headlines about parents who made the mistake of allowing their kids to spend time alone.

  • South Carolina mom Debra Harrell was arrested because she allowed her nine-year-old to play alone at the playground a mile from her work.
  • Florida mom Nicole Gainey was arrested when her 7-year-old son was spotted walking to a park by himself.
  • Another mom was arrested for letting her seven-year-old play alone at a Long Island mall’s LEGO store while she shopped elsewhere in the mall.
  • And this mom was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for (conscientiously!) standing outside her van to smoke a cigarette, leaving her three kids inside.

This is not a comprehensive list, just the most prominent of past few months, and all have been ably chronicled by Free-Range godmother Lenore Skenazy on her blog and at Reason.com.

Once you get over the insanity of all this overzealous state-sponsored parental punishment and you remember that this isn’t happening quite as regularly as the headlines make it seem, it is worthwhile to parse out what is actually going on here. There are three basic issues at work:

The really bad news is that parents are being punished for doing the right thing because as we all know, kids need some freedom. The kind of behavior that is judged criminal today was not even considered unusual a generation ago. Commentators like Megan McArdle have remarked that she was allowed to roam the then-unsafe streets of New York City when she was a child. Today we have the luxury of much safer urban and suburban areas. Why shouldn’t parents be encouraged to take advantage and let their kids develop their sense of independence and competence? But knowing that kids should be let off the leash and doing that are two different things that parents find hard to reconcile. Here’s how one mom commented on one of the recent arrests:

We’ve been reading the “Ramona” books with my nine-year-old, and Beezus walks 4-year-old Ramona to the library at age 9. Ramona walks herself to kindergarten.

I am so, so torn about it. I want so much to just shove the kids out the door in the [morning] and tell them to be home by dinner, the way it was for me. But I’m scared to death to do it! Other than (apparently) the risk of arrest, how could I live with myself if something bad happened?

Call it Nemo Syndrome.

The second element is the Nanny State taking over from parents who are judged to have done the wrong thing. When police handcuff women for “abandoning,” “neglecting,” or “leaving a child unattended” and in every instance the child was unharmed, the state authorities are sending a message that you can be guilty for doing nothing at all.

These women were punished for the potential harm their choices could have caused. The children in the car could have died of dehydration and heat stroke. The girl who played unattended at the playground could have been abducted. But the potential for harm has never served as our basis for crimes and misdemeanors. It used to be about what you actually did. This shift from actual wrongdoing to potential harm is a worrisome trend that every citizen—parents and non-parents—ought to realize and work to change. One mother I spoke to after she was threatened with arrest for letting her 10-year-old walk alone to soccer practice, told me she complained to the police chief who ended up working together with her to improve sidewalks and educate police about allowing kids to fend for themselves.

The third element of these incidents is no less troubling but represents more of a cultural  shift. What has happened to the concept of being a good neighbor? In just about all of these cases (and the many others over the past two decades), an adult who witnessed and worried about a child—a kid alone at the playground, walking by himself on the street or sitting alone in a car—didn’t actually take responsibility for making sure everything was alright. Instead of going over to the child and finding out why they were alone or just staying around long enough to see if the child was in any immediate danger, the concerned individual called the police. It is as if these people wanted to get another adult in trouble for behavior they decided wasn’t right. These are busybodies on steroids. Instead of complaining that parents are making bad choices, these people involved the police, which in turn forces the hand of the authorities who fear litigation if they “miss” something. As a result we get arrests, misdemeanors, and citations instead of people showing genuine concern and actually involving themselves in other people’s lives.

It is almost worse than the arrests themselves, to think about the sinful pride these “concerned” individuals must feel for getting members of their community in trouble with police.



29 responses to “Why is the State Arresting So Many Parents?

  1. “In just about all of these cases (and the many others over the past two decades), an adult who witnessed and worried about a child—a kid alone at the playground, walking by himself on the street or sitting alone in a car—didn’t actually take responsibility for making sure everything was alright. ”

    That’s feasible for a woman (maybe), but a guaranteed trip to the police station for a man. If I stopped a strange child in the park to ask if they were all right, every bystander in sight would peg me as a pervert.

    1. Regretfully, as a mom of two girls, I must agree with you on this. Although, I recognize it is a sad truth. If I saw an unfamiliar male speaking to my kids , I wouldn’t like it.

  2. This is the result Liberalization (sic) of Our Country. Raise punishments on the innocent while allowing “human rights” to the criminals.
    If the world was governed by realistic People then Child Predators would be hung immediately with the death penalty.
    Wanna decrease criminals activity? Increace the punishment to severe levels!

  3. I’m not sure that I agree that people are relishing in getting their neighbors in trouble. I think that in a lot of cases, people are worried about the repercussions for NOT speaking up should something actually occur. Years ago, there was an incident in our community where an 8 year old boy was hit by a car while he walked on a street near his neighborhood pool. He darted out from between two parked cars and luckily the young woman who hit him was going well under the speed limit. As it turned out, he was alone and had been to the pool unsupervised many times that summer while his mom was at work. The pool management got in trouble over the incident because they didn’t notify anyone that this boy was by himself during the day. This happened in 1987. The pool was closed the rest of the summer, and when it reopened there were age restrictions and parental requirements for participation in the community pool. This punishment behavior has been going on a long time! Very sad.

  4. Those children are much too young to be left alone without parental supervision. Arresting the parents is going too far but, at the same time, those parents need to take some responsibility and do their job as parents. They would feel terrible if something bad happened to their kids due to their neglect.

  5. The first incident happened in my home county. The mother had no choice but to let her child go to the playground, which by the way is across the street from the police department, while she worked. Then last week, this over zealous department arrested another mother for dropping the f bomb to one of her children. The police chief apparently apologized a few days later, but I imagine we’ll see a lawsuit over that one.

  6. While I don’t agree with letting ill behaved kids run free as it has caused difficulties for me, I think people need to consider calling the parent rather then calling the police. 2 days ago i saw 3 very young (1,3,4) kids walking down the street, the two older ones crying. I stopped my van and asked them if they were alright. They were upset their babysitter had sent them to the store to get milk and didn’t even know what store carries milk.
    Instead of calling the police i asked for their mothers phone number. No police involved. The mother got her kids, and the babysitter hopefully will soon be facing charges brought on by the mother not me a person who simply saw something that wasn’t right.

    Now why I don’t like kids running around free. I have a service dog and often kids left to play in the toy isle at the store do not stay there, I walk past and have had unattended kids run up and pull his tail, his ears, try to grab at his leash, jerk his harness handle out of my hand causing me to fall. In all these cases I called the police because it was posing a danger to my safety. If your child cannot handle themselves then don’t let them run fee.

    1. I stopped my van and asked them if they were alright.

      And, as a man, that’s probable cause for an arrest. Plus, most children are taught not to approach a strange car. If it were me, I would have called the cops.

      1. You are part of the liberal asses that just CANNOT mind your own business. That’s okay, you and others like you are destroying this country, I’m old and don’t have to see the carnage you are bring to us but You will and I wish you many children of your own who will ultimately reap the rewards of what you have caused! How do I know you are a f-ing liberal? You people are the ones who pull this kind of thing, people on the right tend to MIND THEIROWN BUSINESS!!!!!

  7. “Instead of going over to the child and finding out why they were alone”

    I’m sorry but this is reckless and irresponsible advice. I’m a 39 year old male who doesn’t want to spend his day sitting in jail charged with child enticement or charged with another crime.

    It happened in Illinois: http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2012/03/16/man-who-offered-lift-to-teen-girls-says-hes-victim-of-good-deed-gone-wrong/

    If I see a female child alone, I’m not stopping for pretty much anything. It’s just not worth me having my name plastered all over the media as a potential abuser.

  8. Overprotective neighbors aside, I wanted to know about the actual legal limits of giving children independence. I found a document from the Department of Health and Human Services via their Children’s Bureau which provides some guidelines and even more helpful, links to state specific guidelines. For example Maryland guidelines actually specify ages, where others are generalized to maturity. Hope this helps.

  9. American society is mentally ill. The majority of young people in american society are unable to live one day in the woods without breaking down in tears, Weak people created by a weak society. The Dept of Defense report in 2010 states the unfitness of Americans in body and mental toughness is a national security threat.

  10. What you’re not considering is the complete cultural shift – the population of the world has nearly doubled since I was a kid in the 70’s, and that means at least twice as many predators LOOKING FOR KIDS WHO AREN’T BEING WATCHED. I’d say significantly more child predators targeting kids online and drawing them into years of abusive relationships, right under your nose. If you leave your kid alone, you are making them a perfect TARGET for predators, especially if they spot your kid habitually being left alone (a mile away from you while you work isn’t the same as in the front yard where you can see & hear them), and that is neglect. It’s not the same world we grew up in anymore. Many of us were abused by adults when we were kids, but won’t talk about it; it’s even more common now. Open your eyes.

    1. Your assumption that a doubling of the world’s population equates to an automatic doubling of child predators is dubious — the US population is actually in decline (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jun/28/birthrate-continues-decline-us/) and crime rates are down overall (http://www.freerangekids.com/crime-statistics/).

      But statistics aside, you are the one who should probably open your own eyes to the larger problem. If you call the cops because you see a kid alone and YOU FEAR he or she is in danger, YOU are the actual danger to the kid. Please think about that for a minute. That kid was most likely doing just fine, but if you call the police they are likely to face the awful, scary, and confusing situation of a parent being arrested. There’s a high likelihood they will find themselves dealing with the institutional nightmare of CPS and foster care, where there is a good chance they WILL be abused and/or neglected. Even if the family is lucky and they avoid parental arrest, jail time, CPS and foster care, by calling the police you almost certainly lay a substantial financial and legal hardship on that family, with fines, legal expenses, time away from work for court dates, etc. You may wish all this bad on what you consider to be a neglectful parent, but please remember that the kid you wish to help will feel the pinch in a big way when the family has to put all their time and money into dealing with the system. That kid will also be adversely affected mentally and emotionally by the stress this puts on the family, and may suffer long-term damage from being suddenly removed from his or her family and forced to live under a system that is infamous for how badly it cares for children.

      Even if a parent made a less than optimal decision that day, by calling the cops you make a child’s situation much worse than it would have been had you simply minded your own business, surveyed the scene for actual present danger, or stopped to help personally.

  11. To all the men who claim they have concern for said children but would NEVER approach one to ensure his/her safety, allow me to offer a solution: speak to the child at a distance. Speak LOUDLY if necessary. Don’t turn a blind eye and don’t walk up closely in way that could be deemed suspicious. I think grown up men can make an effort and still protect themselves. I am a woman (mom of many) and if I ever approach a child I do not know, I speak from a distance and keep it casual – “Everything alright?” If you are really concerned, find another adult and ask around. Reject the idea that we can’t be good neighbors to one another for fear of misunderstanding; putting unnecessary police attention on a family can be devastating. If you truly care about the child/ANY child, then you should care as much about what happens to their parents.

  12. Fear is the destroyer. Ignorance is the greatest evil. Live and let live. “Police” have no fear of parents, whom they may assault without consequence. We need better specifics for the control of the State. How do you vote?

  13. How about the responsibility of the Judicial System in regards to our streets having child molesters (many repeat offenders), gang members (many repeat offenders) and drug dealers (many repeat offenders) wandering the streets putting our children at risk? They are faster to arrest and charge a parent who lets her 9 year old walk a few blocks to play at a park (which is precisely why the park is there) than they are to properly deal with an individual who would stake that park out in hopes of abducting the child. How has the community at large (parents and children) become the scapegoat of law enforcement and the judicial system? How about putting the Judge in prison who let the repeat child molester out of jail and commit another heinous crime against an innocent child? Why must we raise an entire generation of “shut in’s?” Why must we fear criminal prosecution for allowing our mature, well rounded trustworthy child to walk a few blocks to a park when there are parents out there raising (or NOT raising) evil, out of control sociopaths carrying guns and dealing drugs at the same age who ARE NOT being held responsible for their children’s actions? How many stories do we see where a 10 or 12 year old child has been convicted of carrying a weapon, or stealing, or attacking another child? How many headlines come along side that story where the parent was actually arrested for the actions of their child? I don’t ever recall seeing one! But I send my child that knows right from wrong down the street and I get arrested??? As parents, we need to stand up to this outrageous attack on OUR morals and values led by the Judicial System…. If the streets are not safe for our Children it is THEIR fault!!!! Not ours!!!! Let’s start voting with common sense and start demanding the proper representation we elect into office….. and NOT be afraid to throw them out on their incompetent butts when they do not do their job!

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