protecting kids: duty and risk

Two stories. Story one:

The boys and I walked out of a grocery story today and stood by a large column, watching and waiting for the automatic doors to close--cheap thrills for the pre-school set.

A woman walked out of the store and glanced at the boys as she walked past the column, then darted back to look at them.

"Oh!" she said, surprised by my presence. "I didn't see you there."

She then backed away with both hands up in a defensive gesture. "I'm so sorry. I didn't see they had somebody with them. Sorry."

I didn't know what she was talking about. Then it made sense. In her line of view, I was blocked by the large column. She just saw two little boys, alone, standing outside of a grocery store. Her instincts made her come back.

In the split second it took me to understand this, she had already made her apology and swiftly started walking to her car. I wanted to make a quick quip of "Oh don't apologize! These days I feel so big, it's nice not to be noticed!" But she was gone.

Her apology stuck with me. I also wanted to tell her: No, please don't apologize. Do not apologize for following your instincts and making sure that two little brothers were ok, were safely with their mama. You did right. And I thank you for it.

But she obviously wasn't expecting my gratitude. She was bracing for my fury.

Story two:

At the park once with the boys, Sean and I saw a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, sitting sullenly on a bench, alone. She stared into space, occasionally making unintelligible sounds. From my own lifetime experience with both an autistic sister and developmentally disabled people of all walks of life, I was fairly certain the girl was handicapped.

Of the people in the girl's vicinity, none seemed to be acting in the role of parent, care giver or sibling. We watched her sit alone for about 15 minutes.

Sean then spoke to the girl--albeit from a distance. He asked her if she was ok, if her mommy was around, if she needed any help.

Suddenly an angry voice from 50 feet away called out. "What the HELL are YOU DOING?" a woman yelled to Sean. Her cell phone was to her ear. She too sat alone on a bench. "SHE'S AUTISTIC. She's FINE. Just leave her ALONE."

She then went back to her phone, saying loudly into the receiver, "Yeah, some guy just tried to talk to her. What a stupid jerk. Who in the hell do people think they are?"

We walked the boys home, stunned. And stung.

In today's world, concerned onlookers don't know what to expect from parents. News reports have been filled this summer with reports of neighbors or anonymous observers who see (or think they see) trouble afoot with kids. Instead of going to the parents, they call the cops.
Today they might not have been so lucky. For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar.
If I put myself in the position of these parents, I feel a wave of horror at the idea of police intervention. People who "tattle" on parents are certainly not all justified. It's not as simple as that.

But I understand someone (in today's upside-down world) choosing an impersonal phone call to their local police station before risking getting their head bit off by a parent who is insulted, irate and VERY IRRITATED at the mere suggestion that they had put their kids in danger.

When a situation looks questionable (but not outright criminal, violent or brutal), is it right to call the cops first, before speaking to parents? No. Is it fair? No. But is it understandable? Yeah.

Parents feel a duty to protect kids, both their own and others. Acting on that duty usually carries risk, but it should be the risk of approaching a parent who's having a rough day--not the risk of having an officer come to your house and take your statement.

Should Sean or I be in that same situation at the park again (as in story two), I have no doubt we'd both put the safety of the child first, even if it means risking getting our heads bit off. Just like the kind lady at the grocery store (in story one). It's worth the risk to do your duty.


  1. Amen. It's always worth the risk to keep kids safe. That's why I've dedicated my career to such! It's sad to think that some parents truly do not have their kids safety as a priority, but that's also a reality in our broken world. While I agree not all situations rise to the level of police intervention, I think some people think they can't handle or don't want to deal with the risk involved of confronting the parents. It's a hard thing to do, confront a parent and say "I think you're doing something wrong," especially when (hopefully) most people are just trying their best. I'm sorry the second story lady snapped at you!

  2. You know, it isn't just parents who wonder about children who are by themselves and try to find the child's adults. Some childless people are unaware but most actually have brains and awareness.

    1. Hi Sophie. I didn't assert that only parents care about protecting children. So sorry you read it that way.