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September 26th, 2021

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Kids Deserve Pandemic Playtime Without Their Parents Getting Arrested

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published April 24, 2020

Kids Deserve Pandemic Playtime Without Their Parents Getting Arrested
As if parents don't have enough to worry about in the midst of a pandemic, last week, I got a terribly upsetting email from a dad who wrote to say that Child Protective Services, or CPS, had come to investigate him.

Not because his kids weren't social distancing. Not because of any beatings or starvation or deliberate exposure to dangerous germs. He was being investigated for allowing his kids, ages 6 and 3, to play on their own front lawn.

Even in the midst of a bio-calamity, it seems that the mere sight of kids outside on their own strikes some as irresponsible. A call is made. But then, instead of allocating stretched state resources toward families in actual distress due to COVID-19, CPS and police are still treating children's outdoor play as a crime.

How is that making kids safer?

The email came to me from a dad in Texas. He wrote, "While letting my kids play in my front yard, I got CPS called on me. I wasn't out there with them but I was going out every 5 to 10 minutes and watching through the window between checks."

When the caseworker arrived, his son made some popcorn, and the caseworker commented on how self-reliant he was. But self-reliant or not, the caseworker added, Dad had to be by his kids' side at all times.

That is simply not true.

"Misstatements of law like this happen all around the country," says longtime Chicago-based child welfare lawyer Diane Redleaf. "Neglect laws are intended to protect children from serious harm. That's why it is more important than ever to get child protection policy right."

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The idea that kids can't play on their own lawn, lightly supervised, is nonsensical in the best of times. When there's a pandemic and kids are cooped up 24/7 for weeks at a time, it is even more important that we all understand: Kids need some play time. Parents need some work time. Even if helicopter parenting was the crazy norm before, it's impossible now.

And what of the fact that we've all been told to keep our in-person interactions to a bare minimum at the moment? Did the caseworker at least social distance?

The dad told me she had not, and she questioned him for over 40 minutes. So, if his family had the virus and the caseworker had caught it, he observed, "She would likely get sick and spread it."

Hardly a great victory for child protection.

In fact, protection during a pandemic means the authorities must start recognizing that parents who give their kids a bit of independence, sometimes out of rank necessity, are not being neglectful. They're making the best decision possible.

Think of the single mom who has to run to the supermarket. Should she drag her kids to the store with her, where they might acquire or spread the virus? Doesn't it make more sense for her to leave the 9-year-old home with the 4-year-old for a little bit?

These are the everyday decisions parents have to make all the time. Neglect does not mean making a particular decision you or I might not make. Neglect means making a decision that no decent parent would make.

Coronavirus or not, parents have been under too much pressure to hover every single second over their kids. In these crazy times, let's not make things crazier by investigating moms and dads who simply let their children have a little fresh air, or who let them stay home for a bit when the parents are required elsewhere (and the fewer folks exposed, the better).

And then, once the pandemic recedes, let's commit ourselves to allowing those kids — and their parents — to keep enjoying that precious independence.

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