AUSTIN, Texas– An Austin mother found her family under investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS, a division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, or TDFPS) earlier this month after a neighbor witnessed her son playing outside unsupervised and reported it to authorities. Kari Anne Roy, a children’s book author and mother of three, shared the story on her blog: the family had just returned from vacation the day before and her six year old son was playing outside with his eight year old sister at a park bench about 150 yards from their home. The bench was visible from their front porch. When the boy’s sister came inside and he remained outside, a neighbor brought the boy home, saying that he was “outside” and “alone” so she was “returning him safely.” Roy wrote that she was “baffled” by the woman’s “condescending” attitude, but “chalk[ed] it up to a well-meaning but over-vigilant neighbor,” until there was another knock at the door: this time, a police officer.
Roy writes how the police officer took down her ID, asked her the names and ages of all her children, and thoroughly questioned her, asking ” if my son had been outside alone,” “why I thought it was OK for him to be unsupervised,” and so on. Roy pointed out that the boy had been playing within view of the house for barely ten minutes. The officer left without filing a report, but Roy’s children were upset having seen their mother questioned by a police officer and her son cried at bedtime that night, fearful that the police would again come to their home.
The Roy family’s trauma was not over yet. Later that week, Roy got a voice mail message from a CPS investigator. Roy called back the investigator, who arrived at their house within the hour to question her children. All three children were interrogated individually, without either parent present, and asked questions that included upsetting topics like if they had been given drugs or alcohol, if they had ever seen pornographic movies, and so on. Roy and her husband were also questioned, as well as the family’s regular babysitter. The case was closed without any action being taken by CPS, but the experience was immensely stressful for the entire family. As Roy wrote:
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.
…[F]inally, 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…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.
Breitbart Texas spoke with TDFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins, a DFPS spokesman, about this story. Crimmins noted that CPS investigations are confidential as a matter of law, and he could not comment on this specific case, but he did say that it “sounds like an allegation of neglectful supervision, which could be a million things,” adding that a child playing without supervision “near a busy street” or in a “yard with no fence” could be sufficient.
Breitbart Texas also reached out to Roy for this story, and in an email conversation, Roy expressed her concern about the “nebulous nature” of Texas law on the issue of leaving children unsupervised, noting that there is no specific age definition, allowing anyone to interpret the law on their own. “Do I believe my 6-year-old is mature enough to play 150 yards from the house on his own? Yes,” writes Roy. “Do I believe the road near where he was to be a ‘busy street’? No. Can those beliefs be challenged by a neighbor, a police officer, a CPS investigator? Yes. And therein lies the rub. The law allows for my belief system to pitted against others, and it also allows for other people’s beliefs to get the benefit of the doubt over mine (neighbor vs. mom, for example). Things start to get tricky when everyone has their own interpretation of what words like ‘neglect’ actually mean.”
Lana Shadwick, a Breitbart contributor and 22 year lawyer who has served as a family court associate judge and CPS lawyer, had a similar reaction to the negative consequences that can result from CPS actions. “Far too often, Child Protective Services leaves common-sense behind and wastes precious government resources raining terror on the innocent,” said Shadwick. “Real evils go unchecked, and lives are lost. To the victims of this terror, it feels like madness.” Shadwick has previously reported for Breitbart Texas on other investigations into misconduct by CPS. TDFPS has been undergoing the review process under the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, but as Breitbart Texas has reported, the agency’s internal reports’ “glaring omissions” include “no mention of abuses of power or unwarranted intrusions on the part of the state agency into the parent-child relationships of some Texas families.”
Roy told Breitbart Texas that the reaction to her blog post has been overwhelmingly supportive of her family, without regard to politics: “I’d say that probably 98% of the reaction has been of shock and dismay,” she writes. “Everyone, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, seems to wholeheartedly agree that children should be allowed to play outside. It’s a very unifying topic.” Roy also spoke positively of Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, who had written an article about Roy’s story for Reason, and how Skenazy decried the “worst-first” thinking that led people to assume that a child playing outside was in danger. “Why is it, when children are playing outside alone that these days, rather than thinking ‘oh, look, kids playing outside’ people often have a knee-jerk reaction of DANGER DANGER? Why is it that the person down the street thinks it’s OK to bully my parenting style by calling the police?”
When asked what advice she had for other parents, Roy encouraged parents to “put their money where their mouths are” and push back against the idea that children need constant supervision by allowing them the freedom to play:
“If 98% of the people who read my blog post agree that children should get to play outside, then why don’t I see 98% of children playing outside? If we are going to change this culture of fear we have to do more than shake our fists in outrage at the “system.” We have to actively work towards change.
“When I wrote the post I was upset and was very keen on not letting my children back outside to play. But now, they’re back out on their bikes. And if we have to deal with the neighbor calling the police, we’ll deal with it. I do not want to help propagate this feeling that children are unsafe unless they are tucked under the wings of their parents. I want children to play, to learn, to explore. And I think pretty much everyone else does, too. So that’s my advice – let your children play without you. Maybe we can change the culture.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.