In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.
The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.
One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”
I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.
“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”
“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”
“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”
She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.
“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”
I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.
After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.
Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.
Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.
On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.
I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.
This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”
I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.
There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.
When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.