This Widow's 4 Kids Were Taken After She Left Them Home Alone

A letter to the editor from another single parent who lost her children to state custody—and her account of what it took to get them back.
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The following is a reader's emailed response to "Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park." I am withholding her name, though I know it. I cannot independently confirm every detail in her story, but after a bit of online sleuthing, nothing I've learned about her is inconsistent with it.

In response to your article about the working mother who was arrested for allowing her child to play at the park while she was at work: Overreach by child welfare officials is an unfortunate and troubling phenomenon. I was widowed at 35 with four children. Following my husband's death from lung cancer, I decided to go back to college and finally finish my degree, with the hopes of improving my ability to provide for my kids, who at that time were between the ages of 10 and 5. I swiftly enrolled at a local community college to take summer classes. Everything was set, except for one emergent problem–I had no access to daycare.

I went through babysitters who didn't show up, babysitters who absconded with my money, babysitters who took my kids to play cards with their friends without telling me. Formal daycare was exorbitantly cost-prohibitive. A friend suggested that my kids, all school-aged, might be safer staying in their own home for a few hours while I attended classes than in the care of adult strangers. At the time, I agreed.

I believed I had no alternative options.

My decision to allow my kids to stay home for a few hours while I went to school for several hours, a mile away, turned out to be the most catastrophically life-altering decision I've ever made. A neighbor noticed me walking to school without the kids and called the police. When I arrived home several hours later, I found a note on the door, but no kids inside. Despite having been told my whereabouts, neither the police nor the CPS workers who removed my kids from our home made any effort to find me, instead regarding the situation as an emergency, procedurally.

This happened four years ago.

We were some of the lucky ones. I fought a protracted court battle with an appointed attorney and few resources. Against the odds, our family was restored.

Over the two years during which the case dragged on, my kids were subjected to, according to them, sexual molestation (which was never investigated) and physical abuse within the foster care system. They were separated from each other many times, moved around frequently, and attended multiple schools. This, of course, was all in the name of protection. Many of the things I was required to do to get my kids back had nothing to do with the supposed issue of inadequate supervision. Under one court order, I was required to allow CPS workers into my home to conduct a thorough "white glove" type inspection. According to the court order, if any of the workers felt anything was amiss, the return of custody would be delayed or denied. I was told to sweep cobwebs and scrub the oven to their satisfaction, which I did, obsequiously. They were pleased.

The kids were returned.

Still under court orders, I moved with the kids to my parents house, over a hundred miles away from the jurisdictional county. One of the requirements of the court order returning my children to me under protective county custody was that they were not to miss a single day of school. (This, also, having nothing to do with the reason why they were removed initially). The court order stated that if they missed even a single day of school, the county could again take custody. During the move, there was a delay before I could enroll them in a new school. CPS workers, acting on another court order, drove the hundred miles to my parents' home and, with the assistance of sheriff's deputies, physically pulled my kids out of the house screaming and crying. We had been sitting around enjoying a quiet family evening. They had been in no danger. This was traumatic for all of us. My parents witnessed how this system was not about protection, but power.

Once subject to the scrutiny of this system, parents are at its mercy. Kids are held in de facto hostage as arbitrary demands are made. When those demands are met, new ones are imposed, or the adequacy of the performance is questioned. Rather than being innocent until proven guilty, parents are presumed guilty until they have passed a rigorous and unforgiving character-assassination attempt. Somehow, our family survived this and emerged intact, but not unscathed.

In a small and gossipy rural town, I have been referred to as, "that girl who got her kids taken away." I feel as if I have to work harder to prove that I'm parentally competent. An unexpected knock at the door still makes my heart beat rapidly. I'm more conscious of strangers' stares and comments when I go out with my children. Ultimately, I found this ostensibly well-meaning system of child protection to be an exercise in often baseless finger-pointing, pitting neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. As people vie for power and victory, it all becomes so much less about kids' best interests and more about adults' selfish interests. In criminalizing previously culturally normal activities, such as an unaccompanied child playing at a public park, we open the door for any unorthodox parental decision to be subjected to similar unfavorable scrutiny.

We assume that only parents that fit an arbitrary sociocultural mold can be fit parents. Those whose poverty or inadequate childcare options result in intervention don't get much sympathy in our class-biased culture. People seem more willing to spew vitriol than offer actual substantive assistance. In my own case, four years have passed since our encounter with CPS. As any family who has endured something similar can attest, it is not something from which a family emerges unaffected. It's hard to say what should change or how. Parents are not perfect. They make mistakes. Some parents are abusive and truly horrible. Some otherwise well-meaning parents are simply caught in unfortunate, temporary circumstances. In many cases, the supposed cure turns into its own illness.

The stories need to be told. Many families are adversely affected and because of the stigma are not discussing it. As more people do so, hopefully it will allow for discourse, and thus, for change. I tried to do too much. I couldn't be in two places at once. I didn't have a social support structure. I thought I could do it all. I was wrong.

Inasmuch as I don't think this was, prima facie, a reckless decision, the negative and enduring impact that it had on me and my family made it so. In retrospect, I did have confidence in my kids' ability to take care if themselves in their own house for a few hours and did not believe they were in any imminent danger so as to necessitate removal by police, which is what happened. I'm not sure what the danger was at the time. There was a hypothetical danger, I suppose, but then again, there are sources of potential danger even in the presence of supervising adults. 

My kids knew precisely where I was. Yet, no attempt was made to find me and say, "Hey, You shouldn't be allowing your kids to stay home alone, because we said so, and if you do it again..." I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done it again. I was not out partying, at a bar, or anything. I was at college. I realized it wasn't an ideal situation. I did not think it was illegal or was associated with such severe consequences.

Having gone through this, I would never, ever do this again. In fact, I do not allow my kids to be unsupervised even now that they're older. I don't allow them to go outside unaccompanied. I still am in college, albeit on the Internet. We seem to have a society where parents who are micromanaging and eliminating all risk are adjudicated the "better" parents, and unsupervised kids are automatically suspect, even when no actual danger exists.I'm not sure how it is for other families, but having endured the amount of scrutiny placed on a parent during CPS involvement, I'm conscious of being "watched," of being held to a greater account.

I welcome additional emails concerning this issue. My contact information is in the bio below.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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