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Could You Be Accused of Child Neglect?

Diane Rosenburg's 2-year-old son had been up most of the night with an ear infection. The next morning, the Westwood, CT, mom and child were exhausted. But Rosenburg (not her real name) had a million errands to do, so when her son finally fell asleep in the car, she decided to let him nap while she picked up her dry cleaning. To keep an eye on him, she parked directly in front of the store, cracked open the car window, and locked the doors before dashing inside to pick up her clothes.

A minute later, a police officer walked into the dry cleaner's, tapped Rosenburg on the shoulder, and asked if the sleeping child in the car was hers. "He threatened to issue a summons, claiming I could be charged with neglect," she says. "He warned that child protective services could take my son away from me, and I could even go to jail if it happened again."

In recent years, stricter interpretations of laws on child neglect have led police to issue warnings for parenting behavior that may not have been seen as neglectful two decades ago. This takes into account the fact that the world is less safe now and that parenting decisions must reflect that. Gone are the days when you could freely leave a young child alone to play in the front yard or snooze in the car while you ran into the post office.

Neglect is harder to pinpoint than physical child abuse, which often involves a history of facial bruises, spinal fractures, and other visible signs that can send up a red flag and prompt an investigation. According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA), neglect includes failure to meet the physical, emotional, and educational needs of a child and to provide proper supervision. By this definition, more kids suffer neglect than any other form of maltreatment. Close to half a million children were victims of neglect in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available, says the NCPCA.

Jane Hammerslough is the winner of Parenting Publications of America's Excellence Award for essay writing and the author of seven children's books.

A LESS-THAN-PERFECT SYSTEM

When it comes to specifically outlining child neglect, federal laws only offer bare-bones guidelines. Left to interpret these sketchy mandates are the people required by law to report child neglect: teachers, law enforcement and justice officials, health and social service professionals, and child-care providers. How they do this depends on the individual state, county, and town laws and also on the custom within the community, says Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law. In other words, what's considered acceptable parenting behavior in one town might be deemed endangerment in another. Professionals are also influenced by their own biases. "They're far less likely to file reports on people they identify with economically or culturally," says Lawrence Ricci, M.D., former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Subjectivity isn't only an issue with professionals; it can also be a problem when neighbors and friends accuse someone of neglect, says Mary Carrasco, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. "I've heard of people reporting a parent for letting a child run around without a coat on a cold day," she says. "People bring different values to judging neglect. What's most important is whether the child is being harmed or there's the potential for harm."

For Brooklyn parents Judy and Mark Caruso (not their real names), an anonymous phone call from a neighbor turned a common childhood sleep problem into a parenting nightmare.

"We were trying to get our 18-month-old daughter to sleep through the night," says Judy. "One night, we tried reassuring her when she woke up, then letting her cry. My husband and I felt terrible sitting in the next room, listening to her wail 'Daddy, please come!' but we knew we had to let her cry to get herself to sleep. After about a half hour the police rang the doorbell. Someone had decided we were mistreating our child."

When they assessed the situation and saw that the toddler was fine, the police didn't even take the names of the Carusos, much less file a report. But for two parents trying to do the right thing for their child, the experience caused lasting distrust.

"When she was with her baby-sitter about a week later, she fell down the stairs and scraped her face. My husband and I were literally afraid to take her out of the house for a week until the scrapes healed because we were scared the same person might file another report without getting the facts," says Judy.

Like the Carusos', Diane Rosenburg's experience  -- she was issued an informal verbal warning about child endangerment  -- left an indelible impression. "I was shocked. I still don't believe I was taking a big risk by leaving my son in the car where I could see him and running into the dry cleaner's. But now that I know I could be cited for neglect, you can bet I'll never leave my child alone in a car again."

FORGIVEN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The officer who warned Rosenburg saw things differently and decided the child may have been in imminent risk of harm. "Parents have to consider the worst-case scenario before leaving young kids unsupervised," says Westport, CT, police chief William Chiarenzelli.

Looking back, Cari Clark, of Springfield, VA, wishes that she had been a little smarter about her actions. While Clark was on the way home after running errands one afternoon, her 3-year-old daughter fell asleep in the backseat of the car. When they got there, Clark parked in her driveway in front of her home, a town house in a quiet complex, and left her child sleeping in the car seat while she went next door to chat with a neighbor.

She spent about 15 minutes inside the neighbor's house, checking periodically from the window to make sure that her daughter hadn't awakened. Then, Clark says, she saw that her child had gotten out of the car and was crying at her own front door. She went out and comforted the little girl, who had been standing alone "at the most for five minutes," says Clark.

About a week later, according to Clark, a social worker came to the door and asked her to explain what had happened, saying that someone had phoned in a report. "I was informed that I'd violated a county guideline I'd never heard of that says a child under age six should never be left alone, even on your own property," she says, adding, "I told her exactly what happened, that I felt just awful that I'd left my daughter alone, and admitted I'd made a terrible mistake in judgment."

She maintains that the social worker also spoke to her older child, who was 9 years old at the time, at school. The social worker wanted to know if his parents had ever left him or his younger siblings  -- ages 6 and 3  -- alone at home. One time, he told them. Says Clark, "Once, when we had car trouble, I did leave my kids alone for thirty minutes on a Saturday morning. But when they called back the person who filed the report, he or she then said that I left my kids alone regularly, which was completely false."

Clark was found by the Virginia Department of Social Services to have neglected her daughter. "I felt that I was guilty until proven innocent," she says. Her name ended up on the state's child abuse and neglect central registry for several years. "I was very much involved in my children's activities and being on that list prevented me from taking part in a great many things, like being a Girl Scouts leader," she says. "I was absolutely devastated."

She was also angry that someone filed a report without talking to her first. "I might not have been thrilled to hear someone's opinion that I was endangering my child," Clark says, "but I would have listened."

The fact that reports of neglect can be made both anonymously and based solely on suspicion protects a great many kids but also leaves a great deal open to misinterpretation. And this scares some parents. "The power of anonymous reporting is terrifying," says Linda Kautz, who lives in a suburb of Chicago with her two kids. "With one anonymous phone call, a police officer can be at your doorstep, ready for an investigation, based only on a stranger's word."

Last winter, when Kautz's almost-5-year-old had finished playing in his fenced yard before dinner, he wanted to come in the back door. His mother wanted him to come in the front, since she'd just cleaned the back room.

"He stood on the back porch and had a tantrum for maybe three minutes while I was trying to deal with our two-year-old and get dinner on the table. The doorbell rang, and a woman  -- who turned out to be a relative of a neighbor  -- was standing there accusing me of punishing my child by locking him out of the house for a half hour, which couldn't have been further from the truth. I told her to mind her own business, and she got very angry and left."

About an hour later, the police arrived. By that time, Kautz's son was inside and the family was eating dinner. "The police could see the accusation was unfounded. Still, it scares me to think that a stranger's two-minute assessment of a situation could potentially destroy a family. What bothers me most of all is that the woman reporting me didn't even stick around to see if my son ever got inside and was okay. Calling the police seemed to be more about anger at me than concern for a child."

PROTECTION FOR KIDS AND PARENTS

With so much confusion about what is and isn't neglect, and the existing system of identifying and addressing maltreatment anything but uniform, even the most responsible parents risk being neglectful at times without realizing it.

Becoming attuned to potential danger begins with parents having realistic developmental expectations of their children, according to James Bozigar, a social worker in Pittsburgh. "Parents shouldn't overestimate their child's judgment," he says. "If they have any question at all about leaving a child unsupervised, they should think twice."

Letting a preschooler play in the backyard with a friend may seem fine, for instance  -- unless he decides to open the gate to the pool without your knowledge. And dropping an 8-year-old at the park, or leaving a child who's old enough to be alone without explaining what to do in an emergency, could be seen as putting your child at risk of harm, depending on where you live. In any of these cases you could be accused of neglect and might eventually be questioned if your child suffers an accident while unsupervised.

If asked about an incident, the least useful response is anger or resistance. "It's natural for parents to feel horror at the idea of being accused of child neglect, but getting angry can create an environment of more suspicion," says Dr. Ricci. Dr. Carrasco agrees: "Things will go much more smoothly if a parent is straightforward and cooperative."

When investigating a neglect report, professionals analyze the way the parents and child present what happened, and look to see if there's a history of problems. "Even if an accident has happened before, it may not mean anything," says Robert Block, M.D., chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. "But when parents are more concerned with their own safety and reputation than with the health and well-being of their child, we see that as a warning sign that something may be going on."

Some states have begun to change the way allegations of neglect are viewed and investigated. Certain jurisdictions of Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida, for example, now distinguish minor, isolated incidents of maltreatment from significant, dangerous, or repetitive offenses.

"By implementing systems that allow investigators to handle reports in a less institutional way  -- including less formal inquiries  -- more states are moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to child neglect cases," says Rita Katzman, program manager of Child Protective Services for the Virginia Department of Social Services. "Our goal is to have children be safe in their families and to develop services to help adults be better parents."

For most parents, of course, the health and well-being of their children does come first. While anyone is capable of poor judgment at times, the new awareness about neglect forces us to consider our own parenting actions more carefully, for our children and for ourselves.

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