Is 4 years old too young to play alone outside? It might not matter how you answer that question: Your neighbors and the police might just decide for you.
That’s what happened to Sonya Hendren when she let her 4-year-old son, Tomahawk, play on their gated Sacramento, California, apartment complex playground by himself. She felt her son could handle playing unsupervised 120 feet from her apartment’s front door, but her neighbor disagreed. According to local news outlet CBS8, the neighbor, Sonja Horrell, reported Hendren to Child Protective Services, and Hendren was arrested for felony child neglect and endangerment.
The charges were later reduced to misdemeanors, and Hendren is hoping to get them dropped completely. If she’s found guilty of even misdemeanor neglect and endangerment, that’s a charge that can carry up to six months of jail and three years of probation. Alternatively she can take the very attractive offer of just 30 days in jail and a year of probation. So far she has declined that offer.
In the meantime, she has a CPS case open against her and claims she will be in violation if she lets her son out of her line of sight.
All for letting her son play on a playground. In a gated community. 120 feet from the door.
It’s understandable that concerned neighbors and community members react with the instinct to “protect” kids when they see them playing alone. After all, we’re all being fed a steady diet of fear, where the next child to be abducted could be yours and a broken neck is just a monkey bar away. Of course people don’t want that to happen on their watch.
But the problem is how we’ve been conditioned to react. It seems people completely forgo the “it takes a village” mentality of either confronting the parents to see what’s up or even just hanging out for a little while to make sure nothing happens to a solo kid, and head straight for tattling to the police.
The problem with reacting this way is that, firstly, the danger onlookers imagine is less pervasive than we’ve been trained to imagine. According to statistics from the FBI, violent crime is still declining, and according to the Department of Justice, child abduction by a stranger, which has always been low, may be even lower than initially perceived. The truth is that, according to all these statistics, a child is safest with a stranger: Most violent crimes against children and abductions are committed by someone known to or close to a child.
Secondly, the police are not our personal peer mediators, nor is CPS supposed to function as glorified playground monitors. Even Horrell, the neighbor who called CPS on Hendren, seemed surprised that things have escalated to the possible consequence of jail time and told CBS8 that:
“I thought she would just get a warning… and she wouldn’t let them be out alone again.”
There is no reason to think that. When you make a report to an entity that by law must take accusations of child neglect seriously, you cannot expect them to come give the person you report a verbal spanking and leave it at that.
There are certainly situations in which abused and neglected children who cannot speak for themselves require a vigilant neighbor, teacher or onlooker to act as their ally. But onlookers need to seriously weigh whether a situation has reached that level before making a call to the authorities.
Here’s something to think about the next time you’re thinking a parent whose supervision style you disagree with deserves a formal dressing-down by the authorities: A child playing alone is unlikely to be snatched away from their parents. When you step in to keep an eye on them, that chance is lowered even further.
When you call CPS, it skyrockets.