Lenore Skenazy recently put up this story out of DC. The basics are that two girls, ages 6 and 7, went into their backyard. Without the permission of their parents, they wandered away and ended up in a nearby mall. A stranger spotted them and called the police. If you’re familiar with how our legal system works, you know what happened next:
The police came with admirable speed. Somewhat less admirably, they chose to put the girls in the cruiser (with no car seats) rather than, again, resorting to the completely available option of calling their parents to come get them. They brought the girls back to us a total of twenty minutes after they first walked out of the door. They could have just told us what happened and admonished us to keep better tabs on our children. They could have just handed over their official-looking little card about age restrictions (which they incorrectly believed to be law, but which in fact were only county recommendations) and told us not to let it happen again. But you see, when you call the police, this creates pressure on the police to Do Something. So what they did was arrest us—one parent from each family, our choice, with no chance for private conference to decide. They tried to arrest us for felony neglect of a minor, but apparently even the magistrate thought that was ridiculous, so they went for misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor instead. They informed us that we would be reported to the Department of Social Services and probably contacted by Child Protective Services — which we have been.
The families are now in the hell of CPS, facing trial, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees and facing the possibility of losing their children. Oh, yeah, the children. Remember them?
I find it difficult to imagine that you know what it’s like to be afraid that your own government will punish you for having done your best to be a good parent. To be arrested for absolutely nothing anyone is even claiming that you did, in the middle of a peaceful afternoon of sewing and childcare. To jump every time the phone rings, every time a car slows down. To forget for a few minutes or an hour, as the days go by, and then suddenly remember with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. To have to let a stranger into your house—a stranger with the virtually unchecked power to take your children away from you—so that she can poke around and interrogate your child and decide whether you are fit parents. To see your confident, strong-willed child afraid to play outside or let her little sister do so, because the lesson she has taken from this is to “never go outside.”
This is not an isolated incident, by the way. Parents are routinely being harassed or arrested for letting any kid on the fair side of puberty out of their sight. Our legal system is making a clear statement: kids must be manacled to their parents at all times.
The fundamental problem is that too many Americans think of the police as being like Andy Taylor. They think that if you call the police in this situation — in any situation — they’ll just give the people a good talking to. Some of them do. But the system is heavily canted against anything approaching common sense. In the initial phases, it is designed to treat everyone like a criminal. There are massive disincentives to just let something slide. And there no disincentives to going to the wall and wrecking someone’s life over something trivial.
Let’s say the judge decided this was a stupid case and threw it out. Would the cops be punished? Would CPS? No. They would be praised for “doing their job” and giving the last full measure to make sure kids are safe even if what they did traumatized kids who were doing perfectly fine. Our system sees CPS investigation as something that only does good — it is pure benefits without costs. It doesn’t care about the people whose lives it turns upside down.
The whole system is set up to make a literal federal case out of everything. And it can be even worse. Out in Texas, the cops responded to a noise complaint with a SWAT-style raid, tasering a grandmother five times and dousing kids with pepper spray. We have built a legal system that believes that you can never go too far in executing the law, only not far enough.
Frankly, if I were in charge of DC, I would see this — as I see all law enforcement excesses — as a clear indication that someone’s budget needs to be cut. If CPS has so much time on their hands that they can waste resources on a case like this, they clearly have too many people in their employ and too few cases of genuine abuse. If law enforcement has so much jail space that they can arrest some parents because their kids wandered out of the backyard, they clearly have too much time on their hands.
The only way to stop these abuses is for there to be consequences. There won’t be, of course. So you can expect the next abuse to be even worse.