Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

When To Call the Cops on a Kid

You saw the ten-year-old girl walking down the street -- a bright sunny day in the neighborhood, the perfect day for riding a bike or playing in the park. Her yellow sundress looked like summer, and perhaps that's the only reason it stuck in your mind, until you saw the picture that night on the evening news: Body of local girl found in park after brutal slaying. You might have been the last person who saw that girl alive and happy, the last person until her killer who is still on the loose.

That seems to be the sort of scenario that people all too often imagine, as they worry that they need to call the cops when seeing unattended children in public. A Washington Post piece which is making the rounds asks, "Would you call 911 on another parent?"
Would you call 911 if you saw a child sitting in a car parked outside a store, alone, engrossed in a video game?

Or a 9-year-old playing alone at a playground?

Or a 10- and 6-year-old walking purposefully, hand-in-hand, toward home?
It's easy to paint a terrifying scene -- like something from the first few minutes, pre-commercial break, of a cop show -- in which the only thing which saves an innocent child's life is calling the cops when parents have been so foolish as to allow that child to wander without an armed guard escort, or at least a hovering parent. But the fact is, most of the time calling the cops because a ten year old is walking down the street alone will only result in scaring both child and parents, and making them feel under assault by a malevolent society.

Certainly, there are genuinely dangerous areas, and times when you see a genuinely dangerous situation. Anyone who sees an infant or toddler left strapped into a car seat in a closed car on a hot, sunny day would do well to do something about it immediately. However I think it's also important, more so in our disconnected society where we live surrounded by strangers, that people no be over-quick to call the cops over things that honestly aren't dangerous except in TV shows.

If you see a property or violent crime being committed, by all means call the cops. Or if a kid is doing something which seems likely to directly result in death or injury. If a child seems genuinely lost, upset or hurt, and you're not able to find an adult connected with them (especially if you've taken the time to ask the kid if she needs help and she says yes) then by all means summon help.

But keep in mind that calling the cops on a family can have traumatic (and at times even fatal) consequences. "I wouldn't let my kid walk home alone," is probably not a serious enough reason, unless you happen to live rather literally in a war zone.

16 comments:

Literacy-chic said...

Color me cynical, but I don't think that your opening scenario is why people call the cops. I think that is why they think that people shouldn't parent the way they do. But I don't believe that they call the authorities because they truly feel that in this particular instance there is imminenet danger to the child. Rather, they are policing the parenting. By calling the cops now, they can pat themselves on the back that they have taken corrective measures toward bad parenting, and prevent the possibility of that scenario for the rest of the child's life. It's some sort of perverse humanitarian impulse. It's complete busibodiness. These are the people who used to spy on the neighbors with binoculars, but most of the neighbors are at work. So they pick on your kids. And saying this, I am NOT raising free-range kids. I DO worry about those scenarios. But I don't police parenting style.

Literacy-chic said...

Oh wow. Parden the typos. :P

Brandon said...

This issue always reminds me of another issue. In a lot of police jurisdictions, police have numbers where ordinary citizens can call the police with the license plate numbers of people driving dangerously or recklessly. There are a surprising number of people who are quite enthusiastic about this sort of thing, and make fairly regular use of the service to report plates of people who (e.g.) cut them off in traffic. They generally assume that the police act on it somehow -- the police obviously cannot ticket people for violations alleged without proof; what the service is for is (depending on the department) to assess whether there are areas where traffic cops are particularly necessary or as possible evidence if an actual crime is committed. I've always found it very unsettling that you can find free citizens in a free country so eager to sic the cops on people who have not actually done real damage even if they were technically in violation of the law.

I think we get this here, as well, except in this case it's something that the authorities will have to follow up on, just to make sure that the child is OK. There's an eagerness to turn the police on people who aren't doing what one thinks they should do -- as Literacy-chic says, it's a kind of busibodiness, but it's an especially disturbing one for a free society. They are the kinds of people who inform on their neighbors to the police in totalitarian countries and get them sent to gulags for technicalities; it's somewhat harder for them to do damage here, but it's unsettling to realize that they are still there.

Foxfier said...

Anyone who sees an infant or toddler left strapped into a car seat in a closed car on a hot, sunny day would do well to do something about it immediately.

I've started packing a copy of Washington State Law in my car because a guy threatened me for leaving the kids in the car while I paid for gas on a cold, cloudy day. At least, that's what I think he was on about-- he was both aggressive (slammed his hand down on my car's hood) and obscure. If it hadn't been on a military base, I'd say he was a random crazy guy, but from his hair he was a reservist.

The way he was acting, I thought someone was crawling under the vehicle, and was frankly in fear of my safety.

*****
. I've always found it very unsettling that you can find free citizens in a free country so eager to sic the cops on people who have not actually done real damage even if they were technically in violation of the law.

I've been in too many accidents caused by someone who didn't, personally, do any "real damage." They didn't do damage because other people were able to respond to lessen the damage-- recently it's been mostly bicyclists who feel free to run red lights and jaywalkers in black after dark, but there are plenty of folks who feel free to outsource their responsibility for not causing a hazard in a ton of metal to everyone else, and they tend to be the ones that are freaking nasty when others don't do what they want.

Contrast with the idiot who called the cops on the kids for violating a law against leaving kids locked in, alone, in a house.

Brandon said...

I would call actually causing accidents doing real damage. The fundamental problem is that when real damage is not done, the habit of trying to force the exercise of police power against one's fellow citizens is an atrocious habit, and one more actively toxic to a free society than almost anything the fellow citizens could be doing.

Foxfier said...


The fundamental problem with "but no real damage was done" is that it ignores that is because other people were able to prevent it. My daughter does not get away with throwing a vase just because I managed to keep it from breaking, and it's not OK that someone steals my car if they fill it up and bring it back when they're done.

The rules are there, and enforced, even if nothing bad happened that time because the thing that is actually toxic to a free people is "rules should only be followed when you feel like it."
If the rules are bad enough to routinely violate, then get rid of them and let those few situations they'd apply fall under "causing a hazard."

CPS is what you get when rules are only for when something goes wrong-- those who are supposed to enforce the rules are suddenly supposed to stop things before they go wrong.

Yeah, we hear about the times they screw up, and rightly so-- but we should also notice that they're trying to enforce an amorphous standard of "real harm" where a lot of the time they will be judged wrong no matter what they do.

Joseph Moore said...

We have had people call the cops on us, because we are raising free-range kids. We live half a mile from school. Our now 19 year old was the kind of little boy who would take 20 minutes or more to wander to school when he was little. and tended to not wear shoes.

So, to the kind of insane adults who see an unmanaged child as a threat, he was in grave danger.

So, a couple times during his childhood, he either got completely freaked out by some concerned adult paying way too much attention to him, or by having cops show up at school to see what's going on.

Key data point: our city has 120K residents and is almost 150 years old - and, like most places in America, there has never been a single stranger abduction of a child.

I'm reminded of a quotation from Vonnegut, from the Nobel acceptance speech of a character in Cat's Cradle: "I am here today, gentlemen, because I never stopped dawdling like a 6 year old child on a spring day." What happens when we criminalize dawdling?

Chances of a kid getting abducted by a stranger off the street? Vanishingly small, shark-attack level small;
Chances of raising fearful, conformist kids always looking for some authority figure to confirm their OK-ness by panicking about them ever doing something without constant adult oversight - damn near 100%. We got enough of those already.

Jenny said...

We had a decision making point a few days ago when the four year old was sound, sound, not budging sound asleep. The girls needed to be driven across the neighborhood--too far for them to walk in the pouring rain--and we had to decide if we just left him to sleep or insisted that he wake up for a seven minute round trip car ride. We decided to leave him, but the concern wasn't for his safety, but a) if he would be upset if he woke up to an empty house and b) if it would cause neighborhood drama if he left the house without anyone home.

They left him and sure enough he was still sound asleep ten minutes later when they got back, but assessing the cop factor definitely played a role in the decision tree.

Brandon said...

I'm not sure in what legally relevant sense of 'real damage' stealing a car is not 'real damage', either.

The fundamental problem with "but no real damage was done" is that it ignores that is because other people were able to prevent it.

But this simply makes my point. This is a continual feature of any society. It is a completely ineliminable problem on the scale of a society, because societies of human beings who never act like idiots or jackasses don't exist; and one of the things any society has to do to maintain itself is compensate by responsibility for failures of responsibility. Nor does the problem in general call for a policing solution. The same reasoning you are suggesting here carries over to any situation, including parenting; it's precisely the kind of justification people actually give for these things. How many mistakes in parenting avoid harm only because other adults -- family, friends, or even occasionally strangers -- were able to prevent the harm that could otherwise come from it, or by sheer luck? They happen regularly. The contexts in which it makes any sense in a free society to sic the police on people, on the other hand, are necessarily going to be very restricted and occasional.

the thing that is actually toxic to a free people is "rules should only be followed when you feel like it."

Yes, that can be toxic, too. The two things are obviously not mutually exclusive; people who report people for cutting them off in traffic, hoping that it gets them in trouble, are often going to be the kind of people who would be indignant if they discovered anyone else doing the same to them, which would make them guilty of both. It is still the case that habits of trying to force the use of police power against one's fellow citizens is one of the things most dangerous to a free society, and among the things most capable of damaging it.

Foxfier said...

I'm not sure in what legally relevant sense of 'real damage' stealing a car is not 'real damage', either.

You really need to talk to more joy-riders. I've had several folks who'd argue they'd done you a favor, since you had more gas when it was done.

But this simply makes my point.

Then your point is wrong. It is not OK to abandon your responsibility because you think other people are going to do it for you.

The two things are obviously not mutually exclusive; people who report people for cutting them off in traffic, hoping that it gets them in trouble, are often going to be the kind of people who would be indignant if they discovered anyone else doing the same to them, which would make them guilty of both.

They probably pet puppies, breath oxygen and pay their taxes, too; that they do both things is irrelevant, other than "those guys do things that Brandon doesn't approve of."
Which happens to be the same thing that they are doing.
That's why we have rules for things-- like traffic laws-- that are important enough to actually be enforced, or are supposed to.

It is still the case that habits of trying to force the use of police power against one's fellow citizens is one of the things most dangerous to a free society, and among the things most capable of damaging it.

Right, enforcing laws as a matter of course is dangerous to society. Because it's so much better to have a bunch of rules that are only enforced when it's easy, or useful to the person doing the enforcing.
That's flatly ridiculous.

mrsdarwin said...

" I've always found it very unsettling that you can find free citizens in a free country so eager to sic the cops on people who have not actually done real damage even if they were technically in violation of the law."

I agree that this is the point of the article, and the post. CPS, once they get involved, are often investigating difficult situations, and often there are not good clear-cut choices to make, and sometimes they botch things badly, but I think that the decision points we're discussing here are before CPS involvement. There's little accountability for the person who reports something to CPS or the police, so that a "gotcha" caller can bask in the glow of self-righteousness without ever having to grapple with the real-life implications of reporting someone. It reminds me of this article about Twitter mobs, who find a passing moment's amusement by staging virtual lynchings and then turn to the next shiny bit of fun, leaving real people to suffer outsized damage and trauma for minor offenses and stupid jokes. (I don't refer here to situations such as the sexual harrassment of Curt Schilling's daughter, which involved twidiots publishing things that are never jokes, such as threats of rape and sexual abuse, and against a minor.)

Foxfier said...

The Twitter Mob is exactly what comes of enforcing rules selectively.

The mobs get going when someone believes another person has done wrong, and drums up a group of people who feel the same way. This means that easy targets get the most hits-- to translate it into CPS terms, the two kids who walk to the park while their mom cleans up lunch with the instruction to be back to eat dinner with dad are a much "safer" target than, say, the 13 year old who is being raped by one of her mother's boyfriends, and is pregnant by the prior boyfriend. She thinks. It could be one of the guys from school.

One is not actually against the law, the other is, but the one that isn't against the law is a lot easier to enforce-- not like the mom and dad are going to shoot the CPS, and how great it looks on their record that they say they were able to resolve a situation!

Harris Black said...

My homeschooled niece walked two blocks from her home to my house one sunny afternoon to play with my son. Shortly after her arrival, cops knocked on the door and said it was reported that a "kid" was at home alone. Of course, this was not the case. Even stranger, my niece was 11 at the time and in my opinion old enough to be home alone in the middle of the afternoon.

Caroline said...

When did it become a crime to allow a child to play outside without an adult at arm's length? In the South at least it still isn't this way - the only time I hear about this issue is online, and it feels as foreign as discussions of feeding pets vegan diets. Growing up I knew kids who probably needed much more supervision, whose parents never knew where they were because they (the parents) were in a drunken stupor or high. I never wore a helmet riding a bike - no one did - and it was a busy street. And I'm not old, just turned 28. When did this social shift happen?

Foxfier said...

In almost all situations, it's not illegal. (I'm sure there are some, but I don't know of them, and there are a lot of different laws in different places.)

It's kind of like how the EPA sometimes gets away with declaring that a pond someone put in their back yard is navigable waters or the BLM declaring the overflow of a cattle trough as "wetlands."

The abuses are still rare, but the fear of having your children taken away and your life destroyed by the people who do it is a pretty big thing.

Maea said...

These people calling the cops on kids being outside would have had a field day with my husband.

My husband grew up in a rural community, surrounded by woods and corn fields. He and his relatives would literally wander through the woods, go biking for hours, drop their bikes off and look for frogs and fish. They were a bunch of boys actually acting like well, a bunch of sane boys.

He told me unless someone got really hurt, no parent worried. Most of his carelessness occurred before the age of 6 or 7. No one called the cops on them, and no one saw the need to call the cops of them. They were just kids playing outside.

I grew up in the Bronx as a child. My school was about 4 blocks away, and once I neared 10 years old I was expected to be able to walk home by myself. Where I lived was not an overly rough neighborhood, but I knew there were people I should always ignore and not engage. No one called the cops on my parents and no one saw the need. They saw a kid going home after school.

The big difference between the way my husband and I were raised, and how kids are raised today is a huge one: the lack of community. My husband lived in an area that had a community-- people knew who he was and who his parents were. People who lived on the blocks on walking route saw me with my parents outside of school, and learned to recognize I was a kid who lived in the area.

When people don't know their neighbors, or don't care to know who their neighbors are don't care if calling the cops on them is traumatizing. They don't think to themselves "Oh that's funny. I wonder why the Anderson's son is out by himself. Maybe I'll mention it when we run into each other at the store sometime." They're thinking to themselves "What irresponsible parents. I must do something. We can't be having any of that."