Note to Parents - No Sleeping!

There's an article about a couple of recent cases charging people (read: mothers) with neglect if they (gasp!) dare to go to sleep around their children.

A couple of weeks ago in Delaware, a woman put her 3-year-old down for a nap and then took a nap herself. The 3-year-old got up and somehow escaped the house. After the girl was found, police charged her mother with child endangerment.

In New York, a woman's 3-year-old son got up in the middle of the night and wandered around. The woman woke up at some point and called the police. A man who had spotted the child had already called police. After the child was found, the police arrested her. Her parenting will now be monitored indefinitely.

I find this interesting because it is in many ways the natural outgrowth of a culture that allows less and less time to parents for actual parenting - parents are needed in the formal economy as much as possible, and in the US we provide little economic or cultural support to enable them to be with their kids - but higher and higher expectations of parents. This strikes me as the perfect metaphor for how our culture demands we parent - we cannot sleep, but we can't be slowed by sleep deprivation either. It is literally a vicious circle.

Because I have an autistic child who wanders, I'm particularly sensitive to this issue. The reality is that even though we try, it is impossible to watch any child every single second of the day. We have fences, gates, latches - every child in my household knows that if Eli goes missing we drop everything and go find him. Friends and family also participate in keeping an eye on him - and he still slips off sometimes, because, after all, we have other things we must do too, and he doesn't have anything to do but think about ways to go get to the creek or to scavenge cookies. We have always managed to keep him safe, but we've had some scary near-misses, particularly when we discovered for the first time that my son could do something we hadn't expected - the first time he pushed out a screen and went through a window, the first time he climbed the 8 foot board fence we use to keep him safe to get the to creek.

This trend is troubling for several reasons. The first is that if parents have to fear prosecution, they may delay calling in police and other help when a child goes missing - and no one wants to see what could have been a trivial disappearance turn into something more serious by waiting too long. The second is that at the same time we demand higher and higher standards of perfection from parents, we make other parts of this riskier. Around the time Eli was born, an exhausted father in the state I was living in at the time put his infant son's carseat on the roof of his car while he opened the door, forgot it was there, and drove off on the highway. The child survived, fortunately, but deep in my son's colic, it was precisely the kind of accident I could imagine myself causing. I have memories from Eli's infancy of getting into a shower and getting out again, with no memory of whether I had washed my hair, no sense of how long I'd been in the shower. I remember arriving by car at visiting family with no recollection of the trip - and yet I hadn't been asleep.

Moreover, asking parents to do the impossible - not to sleep, to watch perfectly, to never make any mistakes in the care of their children sets them up for failure and seriously damages families. It makes childrearing into a marathon of stress and misery for parents who simply can't meet those standards.

Having Eli has required Eric and I to have conversations I hoped I'd never have - about what happens if we can't protect him. Eleven years of watching, constantly checking, constantly obsessing about where Eli is and whether he is safe has made us recognize that we simply aren't perfect and are going to fail sometimes. We have done everything we possibly can to keep him safe, and it has worked - but we could lose the lottery one day - we could fail to protect him, because we're human and imperfect. We also have had to balance his needs for safety with his right to a childhood in ways that most parents get to abandon once their children leave toddlerhood. We could have one of us stay with him always - but he has a need for space and independence. We could prevent him from ever going more than a few steps away from Mom and Dad - or we could accept a marginally higher risk, and let him back out in the yard with the 8 foot fence he *can* climb, trusting that our lessons about not climbing and our frequent observations will protect him.

Ultimately we make these same judgements with our own children. Last month, all three of my younger sons earned pocket knives. Each of them desperately wanted one, and we hesitated before giving 5 year old Asher a knife (to be fair, he is only permitted to use his under adult supervision - 7 year old Isaiah and 9 year old Simon can use theirs unsupervised as long as we never see any evidence of misuse). But Asher is responsible, and he does do an astonishing number of responsible things for a kid his age. We both felt instinctively that he was ready, and the children's pride in being trusted was worth a lot. So far, Asher is the only one who hasn't managed to cut himself ;-).

Safer or stronger? How do you choose? It isn't a great set of choices. I can't say it is made better by the knowledge I could be arrested and lose custody of my other children for the judgements I've made, either.

Sometimes a wandering child is a sign of a serious problem - kids left alone for days by parents off doing something else, parents so drunk or drugged that they aren't aware of their kids. I can understand why this raises red flags, and worries. At the same time, it is one of those fairly universal experiences - and bringing down CPS is a frightening thing both in perception and reality.

In older, less energy intensive societies, people love their children just as deeply. They cannot, however, helicopter parent them in the same ways when there is constant domestic work to be done and no money for a supply of professional caregivers. As free-range parenting advocates have pointed out, there are gains as well as potential losses in this model, where children have more freedom - and, let's be blunt, more risk - but have also the chance to develop independence and autonomy.

I don't claim these are easy choices - they are hard for me and my family, they are hard for most parents. What I don't grasp his how blaming any parent for daring to sleep makes children any safer. Instead, it sets up parents to do the impossible - and refuses to acknowledge that it is impossible.


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Poor women -- imagine what they would have done if they had locked the toddlers in their beds?

I think the fear culture of parenting is also dangerous in the long term to the kids. I talk to parents all the time who are terrified to even let their kids play in their own yards in safe, suburban neighborhoods. They've seen too many stories on our 24/7 over-hyped media about the rare incidents when a child is hurt by a stranger. People talk about implanting microchips with GPS trackers and other indignities.

So the kids stay indoors, confined, sitting on a sofa watching TV or playing a video game. A lifetime of habitual sitting and inactivity is very, very dangerous -- much more so than a skinned knee or some bruises from falling off a bike. Life is not safe. A hurt or, heaven forbid, dead child is a horrible thing for a parent, but kids don't learn to be safe by being oversheltered. Sometimes you have to give them the metaphorical pocketknife.

I did not sleep for the first 8 months of my sons life. 45 minutes here, 2 hours there...but mostly deep, continuous sleep deprivation. Since he is only 10 months now, that state is fresh in my memory, but I think only people who have been there really understand how completely debilitating it is.

In that state, driving with the baby on car, baby shaking, driving into a telephone pole - they all become things that (though no one wants to admit it) are only a hairs breadth away for any parent, no matter how devoted that parent might be.

This is a terrible trend - I'm shaking my head in disbelief and sympathy for the parents. We are criminalizing terrible accidents.

My husband is a very active sleepwalker. I've caught him trying to leave the house on more than one occasion, and over the 10 years that we've been together I've learned to help him stay in bed and to wake at the slightest rustle to keep him out of harm's way.

Add a baby into the mix, and I never sleep. I actually hung bells on our bedroom door to wake me so I could prevent my husband from leaving after I didn't wake up when we sleepwalked downstairs in the early stages of my son's infancy. We cosleep too (cosleeping safely with a sleepwalker is another can of worms...) and my son is now 16 months old. And he's still up a few times a night. And one of my biggest fears is that he'll be a sleepwalker like his dad and I'll really never sleep again. I live in a state of deep sleep deprivation, and I could easily be one of these mothers, but fortunately my son can't open doors... yet... at least as far as I know.

It's scary. But like you said, we have to sleep! I just keep my faith in those bells on the bedroom door!

Strangely, I feel compelled to play devil's advocate here. I have no desire to defend an agency that would infringe on parents just for taking a nap, but to be honest, I don't really know if that's what happened here.

Two points: first, the article linked above cites two cases where parents were charged with criminal neglect after their child wandered away while sleeping. The article did *not* specify that this is *why* they were charged, though, just that event A (child wandering) immediately preceded event B (criminal charges). What was in the charge itself? Perhaps the child disappearance got CPS involved, and they then discovered other evidence of criminal negligence. Certainly when we reported a missing child from our own house (a neighbor's son who got scared in the middle of the night and went back to his own home without telling us) the CPS agent came with the police officers as part of standard protocol. What if, while there, she discovered other reasons for charging criminal negligence (e.g., maybe we were obviously drunk or high)? How would that have been reported in the media? Makes a better story to imply that it's a government agency ridiculously overstepping its bounds than to tell the straight story. Of course, I have no idea if this is the case in the two linked above, but no one else here probably knows either (unless one happens to be personally familiar with the case). I'm hardly going to credit Yahoo blog news with fair and accurate reporting and take the story at face value.

Second point: let's say that the two cases *were* reported completely accurately, and there are two incidents of completely ridiculous CPS agency decisions. Two. TWO. In the entire nation, and in the thousands of daily reports to CPS, there are two examples of this. That's hardly a national trend. The only reason it's even a blip on anyone's radar is because we do have 24/7-always-on news reporting, whose main job is to scare us as much as possible. Either they're trying to terrify us into being overprotective (as the first commenter points out), or they're trying to scare the bejezus out of us about Big Brother coming to steal your children. Like I said above, CPS came to our house during a very similar incident, observed what happened, concluded it was an unfortunate accident, and nothing has ever come from it since. If the two CPS agencies in the story did really charge two different sets of parents with criminal negligence just for napping and losing track of their children, then I truly sympathize with the parents and hope they're able to battle back the stupidity. But this just does not mean that there are now CPS agents hiding around the next corner, waiting for you to look away from your child before snatching them. This is not a trend. In fact, it fits my brother-in-law's favorite saying perfectly: "Two data points does not a trend make."

Good grief! In the early 1980s my 3-year old niece managed to wiggle out of her ground-floor bedroom window, go over a fence, down a 50-foot embankment and go "see Santa" in a shopping mall a couple of miles away. After midnight!

The cops saw her heading towards the Christmas display and nabbed her. She had been taught her full name and her phone number so they had no trouble bringing her back to the house about 4AM.

Their only comment: "She must be a handful, ma'am, so it's a good thing she knows her phone number."

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink

Robyn, both points are correct (although I would add "two in the entirely nation in a fairly short period of time)", although I should have also added that I did find quite a few other examples of similar cases doing some legal searches - I was lazy, though and didn't quote them.

You are correct, of course, and I've removed the word "trend" - at the same time, I do think it may well be indicative, because it is part of a larger cultural reality that we hold parents to truly impossible standards, while simulataneously making it harder and harder to meet them by placing more and more demands on them.

I would also observe that even if it turns out that there is a marginal additional issue in the household (neither household could have had any family circumstances so acute that they merited removal of the children, since they didn't remove them), I think there's good reason to ask whether you want to have the perception that calling the cops because your kid has gone missing opens you up to a full-scale investigation. That's not to say that a child found wandering alone shouldn't draw CPS attention - at teh same time, there's a fine line here to be drawn. My concern is that parents will delay calling because they are afraid of losing their kids for something fairly normal.

Look, I'm working with CPS as a foster parent, and the idea of any investigation doesn't immediately frighten me - but at the same time I also do think that we both know that it isn't just the media that makes CPS a dangerous tool sometimes, particularly for families that aren't like we are, white, educated and middle-classish looking (even if not in fact ;-)). Sure, the media likes to scare people. It is also the case that working at CPS requires making fundamental judgement calls that sometimes are pretty disturbing and outside of people's experience.


Sharon, likewise, I agree with your points. But I worry (perhaps like you) that we've got a faulty perception of the danger of calling the police/CPS, built largely out of media hype rather than out of genuine danger. You're probably right that people read things like the blog article on Yahoo that you cite, and then are more afraid of calling the police. But given the comparative rarity of such an event as the one described above (even if there were 10 such cases, that's still pretty durned rare), the relative danger of not calling the police is much higher than the danger from CPS from calling the police. Humans have a famously faulty ability to gauge relative dangers (hence why we're so scared of anonymous kidnappers, but still drive cars). And articles like the Yahoo one are really just trying to capitalize on that faultiness, rather than to convey any actual information or news.

If there really are 10 or so similar cases, or even just these two cases, then those probably should hit the media spotlight. But I think it should be cashed out more as in "These absurd cases should be stopped", with the situations being conveyed as what they are--outliers. And they could also be used to highlight the problems you point out of holding parents to absurd standards, while simultaneously undermining our ability to conform to those standards. If there are growing systemic problems with CPS, it could still bring those to light and hopefully stop them in their tracks. Those whole, worthwhile, discussions could be had without raising alarm bells that cause parents to fear calling the police. (Well, maybe. Again, typical human reasoning skills = very bad.)


There seems to be an institutional bias going on here. I understand that in Denver, leaving a child under 12 unattended for 10 minutes or longer constitutes abandonment, legally.

There seems to be a presumption of two or more adults to mind a family's children. You cannot have that with single parent families, or low income families.

Your first reaction might be a bit mild for me. I see a lot of moral arrogance and relational and economic bigotry at work, and perhaps religious or racial bigotry.

The bigotry should have been the point of the stories, and not the portrayal of parent as criminally inept.

First off - Brad, I believe you are misinformed about Denver. I live here and recently looked up the laws, as my next door neighbors routinely leave their 6 and 9 year old home by themselves and it drives me nuts. Once the parents didn't come back for some time and the 9 year old got worried and called the police. The police just came and sat outside the house until their mother got back. *sigh.

As to this post - I feel so sad about it that it makes me want to cry. As a mother of soon to be three (I'm due any minute, I swear), all I want to do is nap. I do think these media stories are just meant to sensationalize and scare parents though. But it's heartbreaking and terrifying. Last week I called my husband sobbing because I just wanted to sleep and the boys (4 and 2) wouldn't nap. And today, as soon as I was done reading blogs, I planned to nap. This stuff makes you afraid to sleep, and without sleep I am a HORRIBLE parent. It is safer for my children to have a rested mother. I have to trust my sons to follow our previously discussed rules as well as the locks on my doors.

Wasn't there an issue in GA with an agency removing children from a house that the electric had been turned off? Citing sub-standard living conditions? It's not the one or two events that concern me, it's the trend!

By Curious ME (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink

I'm curious if it's possible to ascertain what percentage of calls about missing children result in a full CPS investigation of the relevant household. I'd guess it's very high. There are plenty of people who already don't call the police right away if they have any kind of issue, including child-related, because of the biases and abuses of control that they would risk. Many of my friends & acquaintances live in fear of CPS involvement in their lives. These incidents described above are extreme, but unfortunately not surprising.

Wow, reading all this amazes me. I'm so glad I have no children.

And growing up, at age 8 I had a key to the house. Both parents worked full time so there might not be someone there to let me in when I got home from school.

And I had 2 to 3 hours of having the house to myself. And you know what, that was great for a kid. I'd do my homework, watch some TV and play with the dog. - the 3 yr-old chose to walk around for hours on a hot day and was suffering from heat exhaustion.… - this 3 yr-old left in the middle of the night.

As a 3 yr-old many years ago in Long Beach CA, I woke up with the sun, grabbed my mom's purse (she didn't leave the house without it - why should I?) and proceeded to head over to my friends' house. On my way there, some nice police officers asked me where I was going and, when I didn't give them a satisfactory answer, they had me get in the car and go to the police station. They called my mom (her phone number was on her driver's license), told her where I was and she picked me up around 7:30 AM.

I find it incredibly difficult to punish my kids for attempting to do things that I did as a kid; in fact, when their mother's aren't watching, I encourage them to push the boundaries as long as they let me know where they are and they let me know what they've experienced and learned.


This is indeed a thorny issue, and it doesn't feel right to come down entirely on one side or the other. Certainly many children suffer from a kind of chronic, mild neglect - they are on their own too much, left to their own devices, ignored, let run wild and made to care for themselves too much too early. Parents like this would probably benefit form an intervention WAY SHORT of removal from the home. More like, help finding resources, maybe a parenting class or two. Lots of parents love their children dearly yet care for them sub-optimally due to exhaustion and/or knowledge deficit. The immediate demonizing of anyone who suffers a tragedy due to a minute's inattention (the child who drowns in the bathtub, the child who is run over in the driveway, who runs into the street, who - God forbid - disappears at the mall) is counterproductive and cruel, but it is a human defense mechanism. It's a way of distancing ourselves from having to admit it could happen to us.

On the other hand, millions of children suffer from the opposite problem - chronic anxiety and fear due to their parents severe overprotection. There are children who aren't allowed to go swimming in the lake, roller skate, ride a horse, go to a new friend's house until the parents have passed a criminal background check... etc etc. When children are raised in the shadow of their parent's constant anxiety, it can be crippling. These kids may grow up having internalized the fear that the whole world is just too scary to be navigated. That's certainly no favor you're doing your kids, now it is?

Kids NEED to learn that a skinned knee isn't the end of the world. That most grownups are perfectly nice people who can be trusted to help you find your mom if you are lost, not monsters who will nab you and lock you in a closet for the rest of your life. They need to learn competence by failing at something, by getting hurt, even.

I guess I've picked a side. I don't mean to trivialize the horribleness of accidents - just because I used to sit on the roof and climb sixty foot trees at age seven doesn't mean I should let my kids do the same. Mainly I think people should take the time to learn what real dangers are (riding bikes without helmets, backyard swimming pools, poisons in the home) and what are not realistic fears (stranger abduction, death by red dye no. 2, airplane travel) and make reasonable choices.

When I was 5 years old (in 1962, if you must know), my mom walked me to kindergarten the first day. I noticed lots of things, especially how big the older kids were and how no one else's mom was walking them to school. On the way home, I carefully observed the route so I could walk it by myself. On the way to school the next day, I carefully observed the route again, and announced to my mother that I would walk home by myself. She may have been a bit skeptical - but she also had a 3 and 1 year old at home that she likely figured needed her more than I did at that point. Plus the route was all in suburbia, no real busy streets, and there were crossing guards on most of the streets I had to cross. So she let me walk home, and observing that I got home safely at the time expected, let me walk back and forth by myself every day from them on. My mom tells this story to this day.

On the other hand, my sister needed a week or two of walking back and forth accompanied to feel comfortable doing it by herself. And my brother, who was still under 5 when he started kindergarten, never did walk it by himself; my sister and/or myself always walked it with him.

Kids' capabilities vary widely. I think part of what I worry about with CPS involvement is that it's done by rules of what kids are supposed to do when, and how people are supposed to parent. There's probably not any other way to do it than that. Yet kids are so very different in what they can do, and parents so very different in how they parent, that it's very difficult to determine when to act, or at least should be. Or what requires a parenting class or even removal of a kid from a too-dangerous home, and what is just a different way of parenting than the norm. I don't have any answers - except that this is one instance where a real community of people who know and help each other might be in a better position to observe and respond to problems early. But given where we are now, a good CPS (with help from all of us to get and stay good, to avoid over-reactions that are harmful) seems to be needed.

I'm not convinced that either case is true. No substantiating details are given; none at all. No references to a newspaper which carried the stores - nothing at all. No names of people involved, no names of towns.


By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 14 Jul 2011 #permalink

Car seat installed by a sleep-deprived parent into a car driven by a sleep-deprived parent.

I have read everyoone's comment's and I am glad that this topic is finally getting discussed. I am a pretty, upper middle class, college educated with an MBA, mother of three. We live in an upscale neighborhood that was built in a middle class town. I had a neighbor across the street who was jealous of me and addmititingly wanted to be me, call our CFS on us. CFS in our state was taking a lot of slack because of missing things that were going on and children were being found dead in foster homes. They came out to our house and I know from the other case worker who testified in court for me, that I was charged with child abuse and neglect before they ever entered our home. Figure that one out. I was not allowed to be alone with my children, the women who called CFS offered to babysit them for a fee to help me out. Her husband a cop, hit one of my sons and their son bit my son as well while in her care and CFS could care less. I was the unfit parent for some unknown reason. After six months they were gone, but not the charge. It took four years to go to trial (they expect most people to not have the money or know how to persue it). Both intake case workers had quit by then (not wanting to purger themselves in court). The one case worker as I said testified on my behalf. We found out they never opened up a case. They had no record of the visits with the regular case worker (she did not exsist). They basically spent four years trying to tear our lives apart believing what our psyco neighbor told them. They even tryed to split my husband and I up by playing one against the other. These agencies are not about perserving families. They could care less about you; and even less about your children. My children were ages 1 1/2, 5, & 7 at the time. The five year old is still not right from it and my seven year old is very protective of her brothers. They came into MY HOME and took my childrens sense of comfort and safety. The only thing they could write in their report that night was how large and beautiful my house was and how nice I had it decorated and how each child had their own room with awesome furniture and lots of toys, etc.. Give me a break! What does that have to do with how well we parent our children? There are no checks and balances when in comes to CFS. They are their own agency and can do what they want, they do not applologize when they have the wrong house or they are trying to fabricate a case. They ruin people's lives. They simply have a four year degree and they get to determine whether you get to keep your children or not, or if you are a fit parent or not. Most of them do not even have children themselves, once they do they quit, their conscience kicks in. Anyway, I won in court, the Judge tore the agency apart litterly telling the supervisor to STFU (he had the tape recorder shut off first so it was off the record); I knew then that I could let it all go and move on with my life.

Given my experience with the Baltimore police here, I'd never call them about anything that in *any way* involved me. They are as unpredictable and untrained as Tasmanian Devils. From my experience with them during a divorce, I'd say that CPS are often equally unable to distinguish a serious situation from a trivial one.

By Jim Roberts (not verified) on 15 Jul 2011 #permalink

Lyn, didn't they teach you to proofread in college when your work would only be read by your instructor? How much more so when it will be read by thousands?

By Jim Roberts (not verified) on 15 Jul 2011 #permalink

Lyn, to be honest, when someone posts something as long, rambling, and difficult to read as your comment, it does not result in readers thinking, "Why yes, that poor woman was victimized for no reason." It makes us think, "Well, if CPS showed up and she was this incoherent and hysterical, it's probably a good thing they investigated further."

I didn't think Lyn's explication was incoherent, rambling, or hysterical. If CPS showed up at YOUR door for no reason and took your kids, how calm would you be? I'm a little surprised at Jim and Heather's immediate there a particular reason for that?

This seemed to fit in this coversation -- The NYTimes ran an article today on hyper-safety concerns of children being counter-productive:

@Harriet - I suspect it's because Lyn bragged non-stop about her lifestyle and peered down her "pretty" nose at those who "simply" have a 4 year degree or were supposedly envious of her perfect life. It isn't just poor, ugly, uneducated people who mistreat their children, and CPS shouldn't treat her any differently than them. Whether her rant was accurate or not, she certainly doesn't make a sympathetic character.

I appologize that my story was rather unclear. I shared my story (painting a picture of myself and my lifestyle) only to let people know that this can happen to anyone, anywhere. The media tends to show extreme cases that often occur in lower income parts of town. They never show the cases that occur in the better sections of town. Income and education does not make a better parent. I feel love and attention are more important than your child having the latest video game. I am a Mother of three of the most precious gifts that I will ever recieve.

My Husband and I were very angry the night CFS came to our house. Until you've experienced such a thing you can't say how someone should react. How would you feel if a caseworker took your 4 and 6 year old (at the time) upstairs to their rooms to question them? We were not allowed to contact our Attorney or to go with them. The Police Officer's that were there told us, "unfortunately they can do what they want."

I don't want anyone's sympathy. I did nothing wrong. I fought and cleared my name. I was able to forgive the neighbor who called CFS on me because I understood she was suffering from some personal problems. I wanted to move on with my life and I did. Hearing about the two women being arrested for falling asleep while their 3 year olds were sleeping brought it all back.

Everyone should go to their states CFS site and read the definition of "Abused or Neglected Child", and what it means to be charged with "Child Abuse and Neglect"; you would be amazed at what you see. Also follow some of the links for past cases (you might have to go through Google for these).

I always thought these forums were to get people to speak about the things that are wrong in the world (share information) so we can move foward. Instead it feels as if the adults can't stop themselves from criticizing each other. No one is perfect and no one's life is perfect, but maybe if we work together instead of against one another we'd get better results.

I think that is any parents worst fear (losing their child). However, I find it utterly ridiculous that this particular woman who took a nap while her child was taking a nap was charged with child endangerment. I mean, not every parent can be there 24/7 to watch a child and it is not like this woman was abusing her child. I just think that this woman was punished enough by the thought of losing her child and it is adding insult to injury to charge her with child endangerment.