My 8-year-old daughter walked her dog alone. Then police came knocking on my door.
When the police knocked on my front door one day in early August, it was my 8-year-old daughter who answered.
It started out as a perfectly normal day. After a busy summer, my daughter and I were looking forward to a rare day free of organized activities. Over breakfast on our patio, I told her, “Today we can relax and all you have is a play date this afternoon. The only thing we have to do today is work on Marshy’s dog training.” A good plan I would live to regret.
My daughter walked her tiny Maltese dog, Marshmallow, by herself (the norm in my neighborhood for kids). From where I was in our yard, I could see and hear her nearly the entire time. Then a neighbor called the police.
Parenting under nanny-state neighbors
The neighbor actually told the police a 5-year-old was out by herself. The cops checked in on my family and reported back to the neighbor that I had done nothing wrong and was not endangering my child for letting her walk her dog. Apparently wanting to see me hauled away in handcuffs in front of my kid, the same neighbor decided to call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which launched a weeks-long investigation for neglect.
All because my daughter walked her dog.
If this sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is. I would soon learn, however, that in America reporting mothers to the authorities because an onlooker disagrees with her parenting is shockingly common.
My family is fortunate. We stretch to rent in a beautiful, safe area outside of Chicago. But our society is particularly judgmental of mothers and people are fond of forcing their ideas on other parents. Parenting will make you keenly aware of just how valuable some people think their opinions are.
Aside from completely traumatizing my daughter — nightmares, paranoia, anger — the whole situation was particularly ironic.
I home-school my kids year-round, which means I am with them practically 24/7. I am actually that annoying mom you secretly think really needs to get a life: I cut off crusts, cut grapes in half, carry Band-Aids, hand wipes, rain ponchos, tissues and snacks wherever I go. Just in case.
I have a plethora of matching outfits with my daughter, worry constantly and all I talk about is my kids (yes, I even annoy myself). Perhaps ironically, one of the biggest criticisms home-schoolers face is the question of how our children learn to become independent. If it seems like you literally just heard my eyes roll, it’s because you did.
I’m an older mom, having my second child at 40 years old. I lived with a decade of infertility, lost a baby and I have health concerns. I face every day acutely aware that my time with my children is limited, fleeting and so precious. My oldest turns 18 this week and I feel like I just brought him home. It really does go by so, so fast.
Thus, the fact that our government, urged on by busybodies who think their parenting style is the only correct way to parent, takes away or ruins this tiny bit of precious time from mothers — particularly mothers of color — should be the shame of our nation.
Victimizing the most vulnerable families
Fed up with the mom-shaming culture that surrounds us, I went public with my story. My very first mom friend, Rina Infelise, is a lawyer who defends DCFS cases. Her advice: Don’t go public with the story because DCFS will come after you. This just drove me on.
Within hours, I was inundated with calls and stories that took over my life. Horrible stories. Some were stories of abuse of the system including false complaints filed by stalkers, disgruntled ex-husbands and judgmental relatives. Others were stories of abuse by the system: women arrested for rational parenting decisions, overzealous mandated reporters in hospitals reporting mothers who went looking for help or who declined vaccines and drops in their infants’ eyes and vindictive investigators who hold middle-class mothers up to some unattainable standard and persecute low-income mothers who simply don’t have the resources to fight back.
I eventually connected with The Family Defense Center, an advocacy group that defends families in DCFS cases and accepts pro bono work for those who can’t afford it.
I learned just how upside down the system is and how desperately reform is needed. How our system not only wastes our states’ precious resources and our hard-earned tax dollars but victimizes our most vulnerable citizens: poor people, women of color, gay/transgender/lesbian families, and mothers and children with disabilities.
In a society where women have so little support and lack adequate health care, guaranteed paid maternity leave and affordable day care, we are now going to arrest and persecute them for the doing the best they can?
The system desperately needs reform. Our culture desperately needs reform. Families caught up in this giant broken bureaucracy need financial and emotional support to defend themselves. Otherwise, we will end up hurting more families and children than we help.