What happens when a passing busybody sees a child and assumes the worst: that the child is unsupervised, and therefore in danger, and therefore the parents are awful?
Here's a letter from Monica Jones in Colorado.
Dear Let Grow:
The last seven months were exhausting.
Over the summer of last year, from time to time, my husband and I let our 4-1/2-year-old daughter play at the pocket park 100 feet from our house. We loved this park because it’s small, situated on a quiet residential street, and very close to our house. It serves as the front yard to several houses that surround it. We worked with her relentlessly to help her be a safe Free-Range Kid. I watched from my porch with my infant to make sure she was following the rules and to intervene if she encountered anything she couldn’t handle. She never did.
She wanted the freedom so badly that she was willing to do whatever we asked. Her personality blossomed. She showed courage, resilience, intelligence and the sort of common sense people don’t expect from young children. She was brilliant.
Then, in September, we got a visit from social workers, and our world went insane. We were found guilty of two counts of "neglect, minor severity," and we faced prosecution on a municipal charge of "Wrongs to Minors," which is a catch-all for whatever police and prosecutors want it to mean. If you’ve ever lost track of your kid in a grocery store, you’ve been guilty of "Wrongs to Minors."
The investigation showed our kids were in a safe, loving home. After examining the contents of our fridge, having us strip our baby naked, and questioning us about how we argue, the caseworker concluded that, with the exception of the Great Harmless Park Event of 2017, everything in our home was well.
And yet she substantiated two counts: "Environment Injurious" (that was the park) and "Insufficient Supervision" (that was us), both minor severity. She told us before she left our house that she was finding us guilty. We got the letter confirming it a couple of weeks later.This Department of Human Services decision came with a lifetime ban on working with children in any setting that required a background check, and they could use this against us if anyone ever reported us in the future. Our dreams to this point had been very domestic. We wanted to volunteer extensively in our two daughters’ schools and in our community, and we saw that dream evaporate before we ever got a chance. So, not only would careers like teaching, child care work, etc., have been off limits to us, it's likely that things like running a scout troop or leading a robotics team (my husband's personal domestic fantasy) would almost certainly have been off limits as well, thanks to how litigious we all are now..
The first few weeks after the decision were filled with terror. We had no idea whether there would be a second visit that ended with DHS taking our children. But they never came back, and they never asked us to do anything, like take parenting classes or accept a home monitor. It became clear to us that even they didn’t think our kids were in danger: They just wanted to spank us.
Some of our conversations with the caseworker were bonkers. I told her that as a result of this issue, my daughter was afraid to walk two houses down unattended to ring her friend's doorbell while I watched from the porch. She told me that it would be inappropriate to let her do so because a car could jump the curb and kill her.
How did she expect me to stop a speeding car? With my baby’s face? If I have to be within arm's reach at all times, it is impossible for me to let my older girl ride her bike, or roller skate, or even run.
The caseworker implied that multiple neighbors had filed reports, and I talked about moving. I didn't see how we could continue to live here if our neighbors were gunning for us. She replied that the only place where this sort of thing might be acceptable would be public housing (!).
It wasn’t that my daughter was unsafe, but that I had violated the norms of my upper middle class community. But as we later learned, no one in our community had reported us. It was a nanny who didn’t live in our neighborhood, and who was caring for a kid who didn’t live there, either, as far as we know. All of this was happening because one person had some feelings.
We had a trip to the Grand Canyon scheduled, and we decided to go. While we were there, we received a notice on our door (picked up by a neighbor) that supposedly ordered us to take our kids to a family crisis center for physical evaluation. Fortunately, by this time we had hired an administrative-law attorney to deal with DHS. She sorted out that there was no such order. It may have been a ploy by the police to get us to incriminate ourselves with our children present and without legal representation.
At this point, my husband and I were each facing the municipal charges, which came with a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $1000 fine. The court offered us the “deal” of a year’s probation and parenting classes. Our attorneys advised us to turn it down. Nothing had happened to our daughter. She wasn’t nearly hit by a car or harassed by a stranger. She was fine the entire time – just without a caregiver hovering over her.
I am a stay-at-home mother. If I’d spent time in jail, it would have been emotionally devastating for my family, but jail for my husband would have been both emotionally and financially devastating. Our children would have had to live with their grandparents while we served our time, and we might have lost our home. I am enraged by how little anyone in the system cared for the well-being of my children. Their hard-on for punishment overrode everything else.
We spent this time bunkered down. I was terrified that if one of my kids fell and had to go to the ER, or my older daughter was seen without a coat, we would lose them. I went a little crazy.
After four attempts at arraignment and seven months of stress, fear and rage, charges against my husband were dismissed on March 19, the day before his trial. He had an alibi. He was at work the two days my daughter was seen at the park. I went to court March 22, ready for trial. The charges against me were dismissed because the woman who reported me was unavailable for trial, and it was unclear whether she intended to be.
It might have been more satisfying to win based on the merits of the case, but we are relieved it's over.
There’s more good news: On March 23, the state overturned the DHS decision. We no longer have a neglect charge on our record. The representative from the state was operating under the idea that we were much farther away from the park than we are, and that my daughter was 2 years old. The nanny reported "a child under 3 years old," but my daughter was 4-1/2. The mistake was corrected in the DHS report, but no one ever internalized it. People kept talking as though we had let a literal baby play alone at the park.
We've spent an endless amount of time trying to sort out why the state and the city were so determined to make us suffer. I was in foster care as a child in New York City, and I know how bad something has to be to get social services to respond. That they threw down on something so trivial -- a child playing at a park directly across the street from her own house while her mother watched from the porch -- is mind-boggling to us, and we'll never have a satisfying answer. The only thing we can think of is that in recent years, DHS in Colorado has had several instances of caseworkers making egregious, highly publicized mistakes. Maybe they were over-correcting.
We don’t dare send our daughter back to the park without one of us putting on a very public show of parenting. We can’t take another round of this. It’s heartbreaking to have to pull her back from something she worked so hard for. She did everything right.
When we asked what age would be acceptable, the caseworker said, “maybe 6 would be OK.” Another caseworker might have said 5, or 8. I’m not sure what magical ninja self-defense skills my daughter will develop on her 6th birthday, but we’ll re-evaluate then.
I want to give the credit for our good outcome to our three attorneys, who did all the heavy lifting. My husband and I just held on and survived the ride. Chris Corkadel defended my husband from the criminal charges and worked hard to connect us to Jill Jackson, my defense attorney. He also connected us to Bonnie Saltzman, who managed our DHS appeal. The three of them helped give us our lives back.
We hope to push for a Utah-style law here in Colorado that will protect other parents who just want to let their kids play outside. Given that the nanny reported a 2-year-old at the park, we likely still would have gotten a visit from DHS, and we might still have been prosecuted, but then again, maybe not. Maybe having a law like this on the books would have made someone think twice. It’s definitely worth our time.
Maybe if DHS didn't feel compelled to investigate every case of a kid playing happily outside, they wouldn't be so overworked. I have to believe that a law like the one in Utah is best for everyone, including caseworkers.Yours,Monica Jones