Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Introduction to DCFS

*** yes, this is long, but please read!***

In order to allow our children to develop and become independent we must sometimes step back and let them explore the world on their own. This is one of the most difficult challenges we face as parents. Knowing when to ease the boundaries and allow our kids to grow-up is scary. Any step in the direction of independence requires calculated risks.

Sometimes these risks are minimal. The risk of a child choosing a ridiculous outfit and getting odd stares is okay with me (usually). For instance, Ethan insisted on wearing a leotard just like Morgan on his first day of gymnastics class. While I felt the need to explain myself to the coach and other parents, he was pleased as punch to wear what he wanted. He was able to express his creativity and no harm was done.

Other risks threaten the safety of our children, like letting them leave our sight in public. Ever since Isaac started school he suddenly became uncomfortable joining me in the women's bathroom. Much to my discomfort he chooses to do his business in the men's room as I stand frantic at the door, calling in several times to make sure he is okay, monitoring for creepy looking men who may enter. As much as I would prefer he join me in the ladies room, I understand that he's getting older and uncomfortable entering the "girls bathroom", so I manage the risk by monitoring the door as best I can, even though he is out of my sight. Yes it is a risk, but it's part of growing up. I have to allow that risk.

Everyday we take calculated risks with our children. Trying to balance the fine line between letting them grow and explore, and keeping them safe. We send them to school knowing there could be a crazed shooter, we send them to gymnastics knowing they could break a limb, we send them outside to ride bikes and jump on the trampoline understanding there are risks, but the benefits of development, exercise, and entertainment outweigh the risks of injury.

This discussion of risk brings me to the surrealistic events of the last two days. It all started Wednesday when my 3-1/2 year old next-door-neighbor, Alena, was on the sidewalk outside her home as her mother kept tabs on her from a window. She'd walked out the door about 30 seconds before a police officer happened to drive down the street.

Before I go on I should preface by saying that our neighborhood is very tight knit. Anyone who has visited comments on how lucky we are to have such great neighbors and a wonderful pack of kids who roam together between yards. We feel very fortunate that there are six homes on the street with young children, all of whose moms are at home during the day. The kids bounce from house to house freely and happily. Even in the cold dark days of winter the school-age kids jump off the bus and immediately begin playing outside in the snow as the preschoolers anxiously run out to greet them. As mothers we enjoy the sense of security we feel knowing that six wonderful moms are keeping tabs on the kids throughout the day. It's a comfort that not many parents enjoy in this day and age. A comfort we do not take for granted.

Because the "big kids" are so comfortable walking from house to house, the preschoolers want the same. On Wednesday morning that is exactly what 3-1/2 year old Alena wanted to do, to walk next door to return a stuffed animal to her friend's house. When her mom, Jenny, reached for her own coat Alena said, "NO, I do it by myself". So, Jenny bundled Alena in her coat and boots and sent her on her way. Jenny busied herself by tidying up the front room so she could keep tabs on her little girl though the window. Within 30 seconds of Alena walking out the front door and police officer driving along the street spotted Alena and stopped, intercepting her as she walked along the sidewalk in front of her own house. Jenny glanced up from her tidying, noticed the police officer out of his car and walked outside and quickly fumbled to find a coat and shoes before walking outside to let the officer know she was there watching her daughter (she was still in PJs, as such didn't want to race out to greet the officer without covering up). She tried to tell the officer why Alena was outside alone but he didn't want to hear it. He curtly told her how quickly a child could be stolen and asked for her personal information so he could write-up the incident.

After a few frantic calls to the police department later that day, Jenny was told not to worry, nothing would become of it. Well, they were wrong. Thursday morning Jenny came home from dropping off Alena at school to find a DCFS officer at her doorstep. He demanded to inspect her house that moment and instructed her to pick-up Alena from school and bring her right home, he needed to see the child and interview her. Fifteen minutes later Jenny was back home with a very upset and distraught 3-1/2 year old who DID NOT want to leave school because it wasn't time to get picked-up. The DCFS officer commented suspiciously, "she really seems very upset", as Jenny tried to explain that of course she was upset, she's three, the likes routine, and you've just interrupted her routine. The officer pressed on trying to get Alena to say her name or her ABCs, when she wouldn't talk to him he again was suspicious, "Can she say her name? She doesn't seem to be able to say her name.". Okay Sherlock, 3-1/2 year olds talk when they want to, not when commanded. Come on, shouldn't DCFS officers have some kind of training on what is age appropriate behavior? During the visit the officer repeatedly talked to Jenny about parenting classes offered by the DCFS, implying that by allowing her child to go outside in front of her house she must be an incompetent parent.

The officer set-up another appointment for 4:00 later that day to interview Jenny's two other children after school. After a very long day of stress, fear, and anger, the officer finally turned-up at 4:15. He interviewed the kids asking them if they'd ever been left alone. Jenny was of course terrified that she'd be hauled off because the answer is yes, she does on occasion have to leave her 8-year old home alone for 10 minutes while she runs her 16-year-old to school in the morning (as we all do from time to time). Mind you, there are always five other mom's on the block that 8-year-old Alex could quickly run to.

When the interviews were complete the officer thankfully gave Jenny a clean bill and said he'd dismiss the case. However, Jenny's name will remain in a database of parents who've been visited by DCFS. Essentially saying, you're okay, but we'll keep your name on our list "just in case". Seems when it comes to DCFS you are guilty until proven innocent. A very frightening place to be.

Before leaving the DCFS agent surprised all three kids with Easter baskets. Some sort of penance for putting their mom through such an awful experience. By the way, just for fun I looked through the baskets, almost every item contained partially hydrogenated oils and/or high fructose corn syrup. Interesting. The officer scolded Jenny for storing her bleach too low on a shelf, but apparently food poisons are okay with DCFS.

I've often joked about being reported to DCFS (the Department of Child and Family Services). But it was always a joke. Of course I never thought I was really at risk of offending DCFS in anyway because I'm a great mom. I care about my kids, I'm concerned about their development, I'm concerned about their safety. I love them. I NEVER berate them, I NEVER lay a hand on them, I do on occasion raise my voice when I'm frustrated, but then I usually feel guilty and apologize.

While this incident didn't happen directly to me, it has made me scared. Scared because Alena is not a 3-year-old who frequently roams around by herself. She's rarely outside without her mom. It's my kid, Ethan, who is ALWAYS escaping and running around outside unsupervised while I'm completely clueless that he's left the house. This incident has made me feel the need to be more cautious. Not because I'm worried my child is at risk of being hurt or stolen. But because I'm scared of the police and DCFS. And this just isn't right. We choose to live in a safe and quiet community so our children can enjoy the childhood we've dreamed for them. I love seeing them ride their bikes up and down the street. I love seeing them run from house to house in a pack all summer long. I love that they love their childhood.

I refuse to live my life in fear of the off chance that someone could get stolen. Is it a risk? Yes, it is. I realize it is a very real risk that one of my children could be abducted someday. However, as I mentioned before, I choose to take the calculated risk that they will be safe outside on our block. I've taken precautions by choosing my house and neighborhood carefully. I know every one of my neighbors--even those without children. We all watch out for one another. That is the what makes our community so wonderful.

Take away the comfort I feel in my neighborhood, replace it with fear, and suddenly my neighborhood isn't so great. If my kids can't play outside then there's no reason for us to live in our town--I'd prefer to live downtown in the busy vibrant city if the kids have to be watched and supervised at every moment.

The truly sad part is that I'm not afraid of my kids being abducted. I'm afraid that a police officer might happen down the street and decide he knows more about what's safe and appropriate for my child than I do. It is truly a shame when the police become the threat rather than the protectors of our community.

Interestingly enough in talking to others at the police department Jenny learned that it was this particular police officers choice to send this case to DCFS. He could have just talked to Jenny, made sure Alena was being watched, then gone about his business without any kind of report. Instead he chose to escalate it to DCFS. A gross misuse of DCFS time and financial resources when clearly there was no parental abandonment or threat to the child.

So this weekend we'll be installing a fence. It's a shame that this is what it's come to. Our house that has been the gathering place for all the kids on the street will now be walled off because I can't take the risk that the police may decide that I'm inappropriately supervising my children when I can't spend every minute of the summer outdoors with them (and they really do spend every minute of the summer outdoors).

It seems the police would rather have our kids stay inside watching movies and playing video games. Is this really a safer alternative? As a mother, I disagree.

On my blog I've had a quote for quite sometime that reads, "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its troubles. It empties today of its strength." I wish the police felt the same way.


We're Wingin It said...

That is so maddening! And such a silly thing to escalate a case to DCFS for. Parents have to use logic and balance to have healthy kids and a normal unparanoid life. Just like you pointed out.

This is exactly why I was worried about taking Miles to the doctor when he was covered in bruises from his ITP. I knew we would never hurt him, but I was concerned that they would assume we did. Sad.

Angela said...

I read an article on this kind of harassment when Courtney was a baby and it has always frightened me and made me mad...I've said the same thing, they act like you're guilty until proven innocent.

There is no "legal age" for allowing your child to walk next door on their own. On Wednesday Marty was having a violin lesson in the front room and suddenly shouts at me, "Mom, Nicholas just came riding the scooter up the driveway!" Guess what? I ran out the front door to find Nicholas (my 3 1/4 year old) had decided to ride the scooter two doors down to Christopher's friend and see if they could play!

That police officer doesn't know a thing about parenting or kids. The DCFS officer has obviously zero training in child development. That's the crime.

Blue said...

holy cow!
does every state have such an inane dcfs (or police) department? this is one of the most ridiculous stories i've heard in a long time. so sorry!

frizzlefry said...

Wow! We had 3 similar experiences in Utah, once when my son was taking his sister's lunch to her at the neighborhood preschool 3 doors down the street and a fire truck happened past- I did the same sprinting out of the house bit. One when a neighbor reported that I had left the kids home alone, which I had not and never did at that age as they were 5, 4, 3, and 1, and the last one after the youngest broke his leg and they thought it was suspicious and it got reported.

All 3 incidents were cleared, but it was harrowing. Like you, I teach my kids that it's OK to be independent. It's unfortunate that authorities can't see the good which comes from raising kids like that.

And don't even get me started on the girl who lived next to us for 4 years and at 8 years old, knew everything there was to know about sex. In spite of the fact that I called DCFS, sure there was abuse happening, she was never removed from the home.

Nathan said...

I had a bad experience with an off duty officer a few years ago. The laws are getting so strict that it is the good people that suffer loss of freedoms and the ones who really are negligent are not the ones benefiting from the laws. Voting in someone who will down size the out-of-control, law-making government who are wasting money on groups like the DCFS and creating laws that take away the rights from the parents is more important than ever. It is sooooo unwise to let these government agencies have so much power. They have and do make really bad calls with good families and their children. It is scary.

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