In August, a Florida woman was arrested and charged with child neglect for letting her son walk to the park alone. She faces up to five years in jail if convicted.
According to CNN, Gainey gave her son, Dominic, permission to walk to Sportsman’s Park. This is a route that Dominic is familiar with: he takes it when riding his bike to school. Dominic also carried with him a cell phone, held in a case around his neck. Gainey had insisted he wear it because the phone had fallen out of his pocket, and she didn’t want him to lose it.
When Dominic passed a public pool, someone asked him where his mother was. He told CNN, “They asked me a couple questions, and I got scared, so I ran off to the park and they called the cops.”
According to Gainey’s attorney, Dominic had checked in with his mom just a few minutes before the police came, finding him playing in the park.
This doesn’t sound to us like a mother neglecting her child. In fact, this type of behavior wouldn’t have merited a second glance a few decades ago. Consider the comments from the CNN article:
“Every parent in my neighborhood would have been arrested when we were that age.”
“I played alone from sunup to sundown every day of summer when I was 7.”
“When I was a kid of age 7, I used to take my bike and go to the park close to our house… This was never an issue.”
So what’s changed? Why is a previously normal behavior suddenly something criminal?
In the past few decades, the rate of violent crime has dropped significantly. According to a recent Slate article, the national violent crime rate fell by half between 1990 and 2009. The rate of property crime fell even further: 60 percent.
And while “stranger danger” would have parents believe that there are predators lurking around every corner, children are actually much more likely to be victimized by someone they know: 70 to 90 percent of children knew their attackers.
This means that there is a large gap between perception and reality: the world has gotten safer, but the public has become more afraid.
Slate reports that this strange disparity likely occurs because the fear of crime isn’t influenced by statistics. People often use their own experiences and the experiences of those close to them as a measure of how much they should be afraid.
Our out-of-control fear has resulted in an increasing number of arrests of parents. These recent arrests seem to be punishing parents not for true abuse or neglect—which should be taken very seriously—but for a different parenting style.
Unfortunately, the law doesn’t offer much guidance: many states, including Florida, do not have child neglect laws that include age limits. This is supposed to allow parents room to use their best judgment, but it also leaves many parents wondering if they are breaking the law.
John Whitehead, attorney and founder of the civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute, explained why cases like these can be alarming: “Parents I talk to are nervous about doing anything, thinking they could get charged for something without knowing what they’re doing wrong.”