Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

The next day, Bob tried--and failed--to get someone to tell him how old kids had to be to play alone. The park director admitted there was no policy, but said she didn't want his kids coming back without a parent. The next park official up the food chain called it a "gray area," while the park police said they had no idea what the policy might be.

The Williamses believe that what the park director did next was a sincere effort to help clarify things: She called Hennepin County's Child Protective Services to ask what the county's guidelines were. The screener who fielded the call asked whether the director was calling about real children, the director said yes, and next thing the Williamses knew they were the subjects of an official investigation. Commissioners from both Parks and Rec and the county board tried to stop things, but files had been opened.

And so a CPS social worker came to the Williams house. She quickly acknowledged that the family hadn't been neglectful, but failed to offer up a solution. The guidelines the agency uses to measure neglect say kids seven and under can't be left alone in a house, but don't say anything about when children can be unattended outside the home--or, for that matter, about what constitutes away from home. The woman did say the kids were too young to cross the street, but only shrugged when Nancy countered that their bus stop was three blocks away because it is the policy of Minneapolis Public Schools that any child, even kindergarteners, can be required to walk a quarter-mile alone.

CPS concluded that the Williamses had not been neglectful, but will keep the family's file open for four years. The explanation they gave Nancy: She and Bob hadn't done anything wrong, but if anything bad happened in the future, the mere fact that questions had been raised might itself suggest that the couple had a history of exercising poor judgment.

While the saga was unfolding, everyone remarked on the way the older Williams daughter stood up to the park director. Nancy finally got tired of hearing people praise the girl's street smarts and started saying this: Her daughter's assertiveness isn't something she acquired on the street. It's something Bob and Nancy deliberately taught her because they wanted her to feel capable and independent, which they had thought was the goal.

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