Corey Widen let her 8-year-old do the most normal, cheerful thing in the world -- walk the dog around the block. When the girl got back home and the doorbell rang, it was the police.
They'd gotten a call about an unsupervised child. They had to question the mom. They did and quickly dropped the case. But then the Department of Children and Family Services picked it up and interrogated not just the Corey but her kids, other family members, and even the pediatrician.
All on the ridiculous assumption that one must leave no stone un-turned even when the inciting incident wasn't a mother asking her little girl to go get mommy some meth. It was a girl. Taking the dog. For a walk.
In my home town!
Good old Wilmette, Illinois, where I was walking to school, age 5, in kindergarten, just like everyone else. And my crossing guard was a 6th grader! No one arrested my mom, or shut down the school for allowing a tween to direct traffic.
Can it be that the world has become so dangerous in the intervening years? Here are the Wilmette crime stats:
- The overall crime rate in Wilmette is 59% lower than the national average.
- For every 100,000 people, there are 3.18 daily crimes that occur in Wilmette.
- Wilmette is safer than 83% of the cities in the United States.
Not that a town has to be this super safe for parents to allow their kids outside. Just that if we are investigating parents who let their kids to go outside when there is almost every reason to believe they are going to be fine, what ARE we investigating them for? Trusting their kids? Their neighborhood? The actual, factual odds?
And if we can investigate parents for not doing anything dangerous or unusual, do parents have any rights at all?
"This case should have been screened out immediately and not sent for an investigation," says Diane Redleaf, a long-time family defense attorney and author of the forthcoming book "They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families At Risk." Under DCFS's new rules, she said, this is actually not neglect. Adopted in 2016 in the wake of the Natasha Felix case -- the mom investigated for letting her kids 11, 9 and 5 play in the park across the street from her home -- the new rules state a parent must have exhibited "blatant disregard" for their child's safety to be officially neglectful.
"It is distressing that DCFS continues to be unlawful in targeting reasonable parents," says Redleaf. "Letting a child walk the dog isn't a dangerous decision that needs to be penalized -- with the risk of the parent losing their job if they land on the child abuse registry -- it needs to be encouraged in order to help children grow into responsible adults!"
Sometimes over the years when I have been writing about parents getting arrested for letting their kids play outside, or wait briefly in the car, I wondered, really, how widespread is this? On my end it seemed rampant, because people end up contacting me when this happens to them, or sending me stories. But I didn't want to be the Nancy Grace of parent arrests -- flogging the few stories that actually happen, as if they are legion.
Hearing of this particular investigation in Wilmette literally brings the issue home. People are calling the cops on good parents, and government agencies are going into overdrive pretending that all these "cases" are crucial to investigate. It's like the TSA wanding every last passenger with a can of Coke. As The Tribune's Kate Thayer writes:
...those charged with investigating child abuse and neglect cases say it’s important to thoroughly check out all allegations, and it’s hard to create a system that doesn’t have at least some level of subjectivity.
“We want to investigate … because you just don’t know,” said DCFS spokesman Neil Skene. “You also don’t want to say (to the public), ‘Don’t call us unless it’s serious.’ There are all these other cases where we say, ‘if only someone had called us.’”
Yes you DO want to say to the public DON'T CALL UNLESS IT'S SERIOUS. DO NOT call if a child is playing happily, or walking the dog.
How many "If only someone had called us" cases actually involved either of those activities? How often is letting a kid wait in the car while mom picks up the pizza a hint of something truly heinous? Or is DCFS saying that it would just like an excuse to investigate ALL parents, so that it would never miss anything?
When normal parenting can be interpreted, however obtusely, as neglect or abuse, no family is safe. Not even in my sweet home town. - L