Monday. Late-morning. Hotter than hot. Not even 24 hours home from vacation, and I was going through the piles of mail. There was a knock at the door, which was weird because no one ever knocks on our door unless it’s the UPS guy, and he doesn’t come until dinner time. Corralling the crazy barky dog, I looked out the front door window and saw a woman I did not know — and my six-year-old.
I whipped the door open, trying to figure out what was happening. The woman smiled. My son frowned. And as soon as the door opened he flew into the house, running as far away from the woman as he could.
“Is that your son?” she asked with a smile.
I nodded, still trying to figure out what was happening.
“He said this was his house. I brought him home.” She was wearing dark glasses. I couldn’t see her eyes, couldn’t gauge her expression.
“Yes. He was all the way down there, with no adult.” She motioned to a park bench about 150 yards from my house. A bench that is visible from my front porch. A bench where he had been playing with my 8-year-old daughter, and where he decided to stay and play when she brought our dog home from the walk they’d gone on.
“You brought him home… from playing outside?” I continued to be baffled.
And then the woman smiled condescendingly, explained that he was OUTSIDE. And he was ALONE. And she was RETURNING HIM SAFELY. To stay INSIDE. With an ADULT. I thanked her for her concern, quickly shut the door and tried to figure out what just happened.
Chalking it up to a well-meaning but over-vigilant neighbor, I went back to the huge, post-vacation stack of mail and my son went to get himself a drink of water (shocking that a 6-year-old has the complete faculties to not only play outside but to get himself a cold beverage!). A few minutes later there was another knock at the door and the dog again went nuts. I could feel my hackles rising to match his. I didn’t want to engage with this woman about my parenting practices. I didn’t want to have a discussion about how children should be allowed to play outside. I didn’t want to talk about how he’s the youngest of three, has been under constant surveillance since he was born, has rules and perimeters for playing outside, and had been outdoors a total of 15 minutes that morning. I didn’t want to get into it with a stranger. Not at all.
I opened the door, ready to politely and firmly tell her to go away, but it was not her. It was a police officer.
The police officer asked if my son had been outside alone. She asked why I thought it was OK for him to be unsupervised. She took my ID. She wrote down the names and ages of the children.
There are not a lot of times in one’s life when you can use a word like “flabbergasted” without hyperbole, but this was one of those times. I was nearly struck dumb. I answered her questions until I gathered my senses about me and began to explain the situation. I asked if she was *really* there to question me about letting my children play outside WITHIN VIEW OF MY OWN HOUSE. We seemed to agree that this was a little ridiculous. She offered a half-hearted warning that “you never know what can happen in just a few blocks” and I choked back my retort of “you never know what can happen when you get out of bed in the morning.” I choked back my, “The fact that this particular 6-year-old can play outside on his own is a miracle in and of itself, do you think I would ever, EVER tempt fate with him?” I choked back my, “We celebrate everyday that he is independent and healthy enough to play outside.” I choked back so many things.
The police officer left with a curt nod and without filing a report.
The children were awestruck and worried that a police officer had just questioned their mother in front of them. I was mortified. And angry. They were *just playing outside*. I can’t emphasize that enough.
I tried to shake it off and go about the rest of the day, but I was so, so upset. Then, that night, my 6-year-old cried because he thought someone would call the police when he couldn’t fall asleep at his bedtime. We talked about how that would never happen, how this was an isolated incident, how much we love and care for each other in our family. We talked about how the neighbor thought she was doing a good thing and that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding and everything was all over now.
The week moved slowly on. Preparations were made for the imminent start of school, seventeen tons of post-vacation laundry was cleaned, doctors appointments were attended. And then… later that week we were at the pulmonologist’s office when I got a voice mail from a Child Protective Services investigator. She wanted me to call her back immediately.
I think, if it was possible to base jump onto a diving roller coaster, the swooping feeling in your stomach would still be only half of what I experienced at that moment. I felt lucky to be at a pulmonologist’s office, because surely they’d be able to help me when I started hyperventilating.
I somehow drove us all home without having a heart attack. Made lunch. Called an attorney friend to see if I needed to start getting really, really worried, and then I called back the CPS investigator. Within an hour she was at the house, interviewing the kids one at a time, alone with her, while I had to sequester myself upstairs. I wanted to argue. I wanted to protest. I wanted to stamp my foot and say, “No, ma’am, you are NOT allowed to speak to my children without me being present.” But I was cowed. And I understood why the process had to be that way. I didn’t like it. I DON’T like it. But I understood. I understand. I complied.
My kids reported that she asked questions about drugs and alcohol, about pornography, about how often they bathe, about fighting in the home. And again, I understand the need for these questions. I understand CPS investigators have an incredibly difficult job. But the conflict I feel is immense. My children were playing outside, within sight of the house, and now my 6yo and 8yo and 12yo have seen their mother spoken to — multiple times — as if she, herself, was a child being reprimanded. They have all been questioned, by a stranger, about whether they’ve ever been shown movies of other people’s private parts. And no matter what I say, I can tell that they think they’ve done something wrong.
After the children were interviewed, I was interviewed, my husband was called (again, making me feel as if I had acted like a disobedient child), even our babysitter got a phone call. Then, finally, once the case worker consulted with her supervisor, I was reassured that because the kids really were just playing outside, and their stories matched mine as well as the police officer’s account, the incident would be marked as a non-event and the case would be closed. (The case is now officially closed, I waited to blog about it until I knew for sure.)
But I was also warned: the neighbor can call CPS as many times as she wants. If she truly feels there’s neglect, she can’t be prosecuted for making false allegations. We could try to sue her for harassment. We could try to press charges for kidnapping if she approaches our son again and tries to get him to move from where he’s playing. But in all reality, when children are involved, the person who makes the complaint gets the benefit of the doubt. For parents, it is guilty until proven innocent. I understand why the system works this way, but it makes me feel like we are prisoners in our own home. It makes me feel helpless and at the mercy of someone I don’t even know. It makes me incredibly, guiltily relieved to enjoy the privileges that I do.
Do I know how lucky I am to be able to call friends who are attorneys, to be able to google my questions, to have a working phone to call the CPS investigator to get updates, to have a circle of friends I can trust to be supportive and indignant along with me? I see my privilege. I want to apologize for it. I know this has been just a taste of what others go through. Just as I have had tastes in the past of food stamps and medicaid and being at the mercy of government support. I get it, Universe, you have thrown open the floodgates of perspective. I am drowning in it.
I am drowning in it.
Our neighborhood is small, there’s a wide open green space with walking trails right across the street from our house. The lawns are (sometimes forcibly through the Homeowners’ Association) well-maintained. There’s a playground at the top of the hill. And there are no children outside. Anywhere. It is a creepy vista of green grass and beautiful trees without a living soul marring its surface. It is a place where, when a woman is screaming in the middle of the night, she has to knock on the doors of three houses before someone will answer, but it is also a place where, when children are playing outside alone, the police are called immediately.
The real estate literature says “Perfect for families!”
This whole incident has left me very angry and disillusioned. And sad.
I could list statistics about how America is safer now that it’s ever been. About how child injury stats can be interpolated in such a way that leaving a kid with a stranger is actually statistically safer than leaving a child with a parent or a friend of the family. I could talk about helicopter parenting and a 24-hour news cycle that is making the country paranoid and couch-bound.
But what I want to talk about are children who don’t feel safe outside – not because of stranger danger or threat of immediate injury, but because the police will be called if they’re just playing like we played when we were young. What will the Always On Screens Generation be like when they’re adults? When they weren’t afforded the ability to play and explore and test limits and problem solve, when everything was sanitized and supervised, when the crimes committed against them were more likely to happen online than in the park across the street? What will this do? How will society be affected?
I guess we’re about to find out, aren’t we? Because my children aren’t allowed outside until we can sell our house and move to a more hospitable neighborhood. Though I wonder… do more hospitable neighborhoods even exist anymore? Is everyone so terrified of the world that they sit in their Wall-E chairs, watching 24-hour “news,” rifles on their laps, and their phones pre-dialed to 911? How do we make sense of the dichotomy that our country is safer than it’s ever been and yet small town police departments have tanks and automatic weapons? How do we teach our children that it’s OK to play outside and to learn on their own, to enjoy a taste of freedom – but to be very, very careful when wearing a hoodie especially if they have dark skin?
You’d think with all this perspective that I could see far and wide, that I could find an answer for these questions, that I could help cobble together a solution (“All Kids Play Outside Day”? “Look We Can Climb Trees Without Dying Day”? “National Don’t Shoot Anyone In A Hoodie Day”?) . But I haven’t been able to. I can’t reconcile anything. All I know is that my family, while still feeling kind of bruised and grouchy, is lucky. And that my neighbor, if given the resources, would probably write a blog post about this terrible mother down the street who lets her babies play outside all alone.
So for now we stay in the house. And we try not to fall victim to fear like everyone else. We try not to be afraid of the outside world. We try to learn from our privilege. We try not to be daunted by the view perspective affords us.
We just try.
Really, really hard.