Vvvita / DreamstimeCorey Widen let her 8-year-old do the most normal, cheerful thing in the world—walk the dog around the block. After the girl returned home, the doorbell rang: it was the police.
The cops had received a call about an unsupervised child, and had to question the mom. After doing so, they quickly dropped the matter. But then the Department of Children and Family Services picked it up again—interrogating not just Widen but her kids, other family members, and even her pediatrician.
This was all due to the ridiculous assumption that one must leave no stone un-turned, even when the inciting incident was as benign as taking the dog for a walk—in my home town, of all places.
That's right: Wilmette, Illinois, is where I would walk to kindgergarten, just like everyone else. I was just 5-years-old, 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% percent 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.
I don't mean to imply that a town has to be this super safe for parents to allow their kids outside. But if we are investigating parents who let their kids 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? Their grasp of statistics? 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," 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, told me. "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, ages 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 the child's safety to be officially neglectful.
"It is distressing that DCFS continues to be unlawful in targeting reasonable parents," said 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 I wonder whether this phenomenon—cops investigating parents for letting their kids play outside, or wait briefly in the car—is widespread. On my end it seems rampant, because people contact me when it happens to them, and send me their stories. But I never wanted 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, though, literally brings the issue home. As The Tribune's Kate Thayerwrites:
...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.'"
BUt how many "if only someone had called us" cases actually involved walking the dog, or letting a kid wait in the car while mom picks up the pizza? When normal parenting can be interpreted as neglect or abuse, no family is safe. Not even in my sweet home town.