Monday, July 21, 2014

The Call for Constant Parental Supervision

Ross Douthat tells us about the night he had to walk home from baseball practice,
When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.
Douthat should include the coach among those who didn't call the police on his parents. I'm tempted to be more than a bit uncharitable in my interpretation of what Douthat means by "rougher after dark", and I suspect he's dressing up a rather mundane story, but New Haven is a big place. Douthat should consider something more: What the police would have been likely to do if they were summoned. Odds are they would have tried to help young Ross find his way home. Also, as Douthat compares his own experience to those in the news of late, it seems worth noting that he doesn't accuse his furious father of overreacting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that our nation has become overprotective of children, but that's in no small part due to the fact that changes in our culture have led to a car culture, a culture in which you can drive down a street or even go to a park and find yourself quite alone. When I was a kid, I could walk from my home to the neighborhood park, and I would see other kids (and adults) on the sidewalk on the way there, and plenty of kids (and adults) at the park when I arrived. For much of the summer, one of my cities of residence would have staff at the park, organizing activities and supervising a splash pool. I don't think that human nature has changed, that fewer adults would help a kid in distress, but instead think that the problem is that fewer adults are around to provide that type of support to somebody else's unsupervised child. The biggest difference between a person driving by in a car, then and now, is that back then drivers didn't have cell phones.

Douthat lists a series of stories in which parents were arrested or had their children removed from their care after leaving them unsupervised, often for short periods of time, or even for matters outside of their control.
Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.
Douthat identifies what he believes to be the three primary causes of this pattern, upper class helicopter parenting producing a culture in which people expect children to be supervised at all times, media-driven anxiety from stories overstating dangers to children, and an erosion of community and social trust. I suspect that there is something to the first argument, as parents who have the privilege of always supervising their children, whether directly or through caregivers, can easily lose track of how difficult it is for other parents to accomplish a similar level of supervision. No doubt, the media's horror stories inflate public fears and make people wary of letting their children go out alone. An erosion of community and social trust, though? It fits with Douthat's preconceptions, but I don't see it. Instead I see a significant change in context, with our society shifting to indoor activities and its becoming alien to see an unsupervised child at play in a park. It's not particularly realistic to expect that a person, catching a glimpse of a child who may be lost, to park their car, approach the child and investigate before deciding what their next step should be, even if we assume the child won't be calling the police on her own cell phone due to "stranger danger" lessons.

Let's also not forget the angry parent. Just as Douthat's dad tore into his coach with a criticism that must have amounted to, "How dare you leave the child (who we forgot to pick up) alone to find his way home after practice?" How many passersby want to encounter the angry parent who, upon seeing them approach a child who seemed to be unattended, approaches with a belligerent, "How dare you!" How many store owners, finding children wandering unsupervised in their aisles, want to take the risk of having the children wait in their offices while they try to track down parents? Particularly with the exaggerated but accepted "stranger danger" threat, and with the disproportionate anger that can come from some parents even when it was their own negligence that necessitated stranger involvement, it's no small wonder that some people choose to notify the police.

The problem at that point, also, is less that the police were notified, and more that prosecutors are willing to authorize charges over parental mistakes that cause no harm, where a stern lecture might suffice. And in that context, once again, we have a significant media role -- "Protective services was called about this child on three separate occasions, but did nothing...." Nobody wants to be the subject of that sort of headline, so the reflex has switched from a friendly drop-off and perhaps a warning about providing proper supervision to the initiation of legal proceedings.

Moving back to the complexity, for a moment, sometimes at the root of these cases you will find either that the reason for court intervention is more complicated than a news media sound bite might suggest, or can find another case that suggests why the police or a prosecutor don't find an act to be as harmless as the media coverage suggests. Leaving a "4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day" may not pose a danger that the child will die from exposure to heat, but cars are not safe playgrounds for children. You'll find plenty of stories about near-misses and injuries resulting from a child's shifting a parked car into neutral or releasing a hand brake and, although car cigarette lighters are now something of a rarity, of children injuring themselves with items left inside the car.

I'm also reminded of a time when one of my clients decided to bring his girlfriend's four-year-old child to court, on a date that he expected to be sentenced to jail. The judge drew the conclusion that the child was present as an insurance policy, inferring that the defendant thought he might not be sent to jail if that meant that somebody else would have to take care of the child. The judge sentenced the defendant to jail and was prepared to call protective services. I offered to try to find the child's mother and, after several hours and the leaving of countless messages, while ultimately delivering the child to his grandmother, was not particularly impressed that I had done the child any great favor by keeping protective services out of his situation. As my experience with that type of case has expanded, I would be surprised if the child had not already been the subject of a protective services investigation. I'll say this: He was a remarkably well-behaved child who handled the situation very well, and he deserved a better life than the one he has likely since experienced.

Douthat notes that work requirements for welfare recipients can result in contexts in which "a single mother [is] behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school". Douthat's childhood was apparently sufficiently sheltered that he is not aware that most single mothers are neither on welfare nor working fast food jobs, but that aside he raises a fair observation about the inherent tension within Republican views on the subject:
This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.
And the solution is.... to be continued? What an unfortunate moment for Douthat to have run out of space for his column.

If you want a culture in which children can play in public, walk to school, take urban public transportation and the like, without parental supervision and without raising any concerns or eyebrows, you need to focus less on nebulous notions of "community and social trust", and focus much more on getting a population of kids and parents back on the streets such that it's not unusual for a child (of appropriate age and maturity) to engage in public activities without supervision, and where there's a natural population of people on the streets and in the parks who will react to any danger the child might face. Scolding people for not putting their lives on hold to investigate a child's status before notifying the police is not an approach that is likely to solve anything. With the manner in which our society has evolved to one of indoor activities and empty public spaces, I'm not sure that any generation of kids in the foreseeable future is going to enjoy the sort of liberty I had as a child, to go to a park, walk to school, ride my bicycle around town, take public transportation and the like, without any thought of parental supervision.

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