Just after returning home from a walk around the block with her dog, Marshmallow, an 8-year-old Wilmette girl expected a visit from a playmate. Instead, police officers arrived at the family’s door.
An anonymous caller had contacted police after seeing the girl walking the dog alone, said her mother, Corey Widen. While police never pursued charges, the seemingly common activity launched an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigation to see if Widen was neglecting her children, she said.
“For something like this to happen to me, there’s something really wrong,” said Widen, 48, who agreed to let her 8-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son get the Maltese puppy last year as long as everyone took turns walking her. Widen, who asked that her daughter’s name not be used, said the girl’s walk around the block — most of which Widen says she can see out her windows — is the only time her home-schooled daughter is unsupervised. “The funny thing is … I’m a joke with my friends because my kids are around me all the time.”
Widen’s story is not unique. Mothers in the Chicago area and across the country have found themselves at the center of investigations by police or child welfare officials after their children were spotted alone but unharmed — playing in parks or left for minutes in a car parked outside a store — activities that could pass for typical or harmless but now are perceived by some as unacceptable.
When Chicago author Kim Brooks decided to leave her then-4-year-old son in the car for a few minutes on a cool day to run an errand, she was shocked when a stranger called police to report it.
“I didn’t really understand why it was happening,” she said. “I certainly felt ashamed. Not because I thought … I did something horrible, but because whenever you are called out for behavior, especially when it has to do with mothering, (it’s shameful).”
Brooks, who was visiting her parents in her Virginia hometown when the incident occurred about six years ago, eventually completed community service and parenting classes in exchange for prosecutors there agreeing not to pursue misdemeanor charges, she said.
The 40-year-old Edgewater mother wrote about her experience in a new book, “Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear,” out Tuesday. She said she has heard from other mothers who have had similar experiences — all reported by someone who thought their children were in danger when they weren’t actually at risk.
Even if mothers are eventually cleared by police or child welfare officials — which Widen says happened in her case — the families are unnecessarily put through invasive and stressful investigations that are a waste of time and resources, experts say, adding that the problem stems from vague laws that often ensnare well-meaning parents who are trying to give their children freedom or responsibility.
And the expectation that mothers should keep a constant eye on their children, even when there’s little to no real risk, is one that does not often extend to fathers, said Barbara Risman, sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“This shaming mechanism underlies the cultural logic that women should spend all their time making sure their children are never alone,” Risman said. “The opposite is true of dads. No one presumes fathers have a moral responsibility to take care of (their children). When they do, they get praise and positive reinforcement.”
The judgment placed on moms who give their children more freedom is not logical, Risman added. “We create street myths about dangers, and then everyone fears that it will happen to their child. And then we overcompensate. Children are not allowed the freedom really to become themselves.”
Brooks said this leads to subjective reporting to police based on what someone perceives as wrong, often based on a fear of what could happen, not what actually is happening. And “in the last generation or two, we’ve had a radical revision of what is (accepted as) safe for children.”
But 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.'”
Like in many states, the law in Illinois is vague. It defines a neglected minor as a child younger than 14 left “without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor.”
But DCFS investigations are separate from criminal ones; even if police decide a parent has not broken the law, there could still be child welfare repercussions.
DCFS last year revised some of its rules pertaining to inadequate supervision cases, now offering clearer definitions. As part of a settlement this year in a class action lawsuit brought by parents who say they were wrongfully cited for neglect under the previous rules, some parents may now request a review and possibly get their citations withdrawn, Skene said. That’s important because if DCFS has made a finding of neglect, there are consequences included being barred from certain job or volunteer opportunities.
The Chicago-based Family Defense Center, which defends parents and advocates for reforms in DCFS policies, has defended mothers who have been reported for leaving their children alone for even a quick walk to take out the trash, said Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg. “They might not all eventually have a finding made against them … but it’s traumatic.”
The revised rules have made things “a little more fair now,” said Sara Gilloon, the center’s director of legal services, but “nobody can stop someone from calling police” or DCFS.
That’s what happened to Natasha Felix, a Chicago single mother. A passer-by’s call to a DCFS hotline sparked a two-year battle that eventually ended with the Illinois Appellate Court throwing out a child neglect citation. The caller in 2013 saw Felix’s three children, ages 5 to 11, and their 9-year-old cousin playing in a park, unaware that Felix had been checking on them from the window of her Ukrainian Village apartment every 10 minutes.
Similarly, in December 2007, Tinley Park mother Ellen “Treffly” Coyne was arrested after she briefly left her sleeping toddler in a parked car outside a Crestwood store so Coyne and her other children could drop change into a Salvation Army kettle. The charges were dropped a few months later.
After similar stories of responsible parents charged with neglect for letting their children go to playgrounds alone, Utah legislators last May voted to protect certain parenting freedoms by revising that state’s child neglect law. The first-of-its-kind, so-called “free-range parenting law” now specifically lists certain parenting rights, like allowing children to play at the park unsupervised, walk to and from school alone, and sit unattended in a parked car — all under certain conditions.
When Wilmette police arrived at Corey Widen’s door on Aug. 2, they inquired about the age of her daughter and how long she had been gone on her walk, Widen said. After hearing Widen’s answers, police determined she had done nothing wrong, Deputy Chief Pat Collins said.
DCFS officials said a call came into the department’s hotline reporting that the child was 5 years or younger. After investigating, DCFS found that the allegations were unfounded and closed the case. “We don’t control the calls that come into our hotline. Something made someone think there was a concern, and we don’t know without checking it out,” a DCFS spokeswoman said.
Widen said the incident has caused her entire family stress after DCFS investigators visited her home, and talked to her children, other family members and their pediatrician. After about two weeks and several interviews, investigators told Widen’s attorney last week that they did not find evidence of neglect, Widen said.
“Everyone needs to allow the parent to do what is best for their family,” she said. “No one will dictate my parenting choices.”
(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.