Living in a Time When Kids’ Playtime Lands Parents in Jail

by | Aug 3, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I would like to offer a blood transfusion, free of charge, to every kid in America. Because clearly I have special plasma that allowed me to survive a traumatic childhood.

I walked to school, on my own, and survived. I walked to a park, on my own, and survived. I sat in a car, by myself, and survived.

Of course, I had one benefit. My parents were not arrested for any of the above. Today, growing up the way I did, I’d be visiting Mom and Dad behind bars.

Take the story of Nicole Gainey, the mother of a 7-year-old Florida boy. She had the audacity to recently let her son, Dominic, walk to a park on his own. For this, she was arrested, charged with child neglect and faces up to five years in prison.

ominic, a beefy, healthy-looking kid, wore his cell phone around his neck on the 10- to 15-minute walk, which, according to his mother, he had made many times. But on this particular stroll to the park, he passed a public pool and — what a shock — someone started asking him where his mother was. Then more questions.

“I got scared, so I ran off …” Dominic told a local TV station. “And they called the cops.”

Never mind that he showed great sense running from strangers snooping into his business. Never mind that he called his mother from the park on his cell phone. The police came for him.

And then they came for Mom.

Punishment for what might have been

This is hardly the first time we’ve heard such a story. Just a few weeks ago, a South Carolina woman was arrested for letting her 9-year-old play in a nearby park while she was at work. She temporarily lost her job and custody of the child. She is awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, a mother in Arizona was charged with child abuse for leaving two kids in a car for an hour while she interviewed for a job. There’s a huge stack of kids-left-in-cars stories. We hear them every summer.

It is why I offer my blood transfusion. I sat in the car all the time while my mother ran into jobs. But today’s children are in mortal danger.

Maybe we should make the outdoors illegal.

Of course, when Gainey was arrested, she was taken to jail, and her child was left in the house with his 17-year-old sister and her boyfriend. Did anyone ask whether that was a safe move? Gainey had to come up with nearly $4,000 to post bond. Did anyone ask how that will affect family finances?

Is anyone concerned about the trauma of being placed in foster care, even temporarily, while your parent is in a cell — which can happen in these cases? Or what preparing for a trial does to a family just trying to raise kids?

No. We are more compelled to impose our fears onto other people’s behavior and actually arrest parents for what might have happened, not for what did. Think about that. In theory, if you let your child play in the front lawn, and you dare to answer the phone in the house, you might be inviting a criminal to snatch the child away. So I guess we should arrest you for that.

A question for the ages

Now, I fully understand the horror of a missing child. And I know the world is dangerous for kids. But is it so much more dangerous than when we grew up? The knee-jerk answer is yes. Statistically, it’s not so clear. U.S. crime rates are at their lowest levels since World War II. Sure, in the Gainey case, the police justified the arrest by stating “numerous sex offenders … reside in the vicinity.”

But reporting rules on sex offenders are much different today. Some of what gets you on that list in 2014 wouldn’t merit a phone call 30 years ago. So who knows whether the same element in Gainey’s small town of Port St. Lucie, Fla., wasn’t living on your block as you walked to school or played in the park — minus your parents’ hovering?

Meanwhile, some of these laws are insanely written. Florida statutes don’t even specify age, so in theory, a 15-year-old on a basketball court could be considered endangered if a parent isn’t around. Really?

If every suburban street is such a danger zone, then we need more cops. Have them on every block. But shouldn’t arrests be focused on criminals? Locking mothers up may make the tongue-clucking “perfect parent” types satisfied with their superiority (until it happens to them), but it is traumatic, exhausting and expensive for the family involved. And it leaves kids like Dominic cooped up because he’s “worried that I’ll get in trouble if he goes outside,” his mother told CNN.

I’m not telling parents they must leave kids unsupervised. I’m just saying parents who permit it shouldn’t automatically be put in squad cars.

But if you’re really worried, here. Take my blood — or that of other “survivors” from previous eras. It’s clearly magically protective. It may even contain a rare and ancient element.

It’s called common sense.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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