October 3rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Just last week I ran a piece about a man sitting in a movie theater in Portland who decided a mother who took her 4 – 5 year old son to the same movie was committing child abuse because the movie contained violent scenes and profanity. Never mind that the woman was completely within her rights to take the boy to the movie; the man intervened anyway, reportedly upbraiding her in the theater and then calling CPS whose employee told him there was nothing the agency could or would do. I pointed out that there are numerous “mandated reporters” regarding questions of child abuse, so if a teacher, physician, nurse, etc. suspects that a child is being harmed, he/she is required by law to report it to the child welfare agency.
But of course the man in the movie theater was no mandated reporter, he’s a freelancer, just an everyday guy who took it on himself to tell a mother how to take care of her son. In my previous piece, I mentioned that this state of affairs may remind one of the Stasi. The Stasi, of course was the East German secret police until the Berlin Wall came down. With the demise of the East German government, people started looking into Stasi records and, to their astonishment, found that its network of neighborhood informants was vast. People informed on their neighbors as a matter of course.
And so it is here, but our informants aren’t reporting political activism, they’re reporting parents for parenting. Often as not, they’re doing so to get back at a neighbor for some perceived slight or other. Here’s an example (KPRC, 9/6/12).
Tammy Cooper is a stay-at-home mother with two children, ages nine and six. They live on a quiet cul-de-sac in LaPorte, Texas, a bedroom community east of Houston. She was sitting outside one day watching her kids ride their scooters when a city police officer drove up. Intrigued, she walked out to the curb to inquire what was going on. He told her she was under arrest. One of her neighbors had called the police and reported that the children were playing unsupervised even though Cooper had been there the whole time. With her children clinging to the officer’s legs begging him to leave their mother alone, Cooper was handcuffed, placed in the police car and taken to jail. There she was placed in a cell wearing a county-issued orange jumpsuit for 18 hours.
The District Attorney’s office accepted criminal charges of child abandonment against a mother whose children had never been out of her sight and who were in no danger on the virtually traffic-free cul-de-sac. Unsurprisingly, those charges were subsequently dropped and Cooper is suing the city and her neighbor, Shelley Fuller.
It’s true that Cooper, while treated outrageously by her neighbor and the police, didn’t suffer unduly. Of course it’s humiliating to be arrested in your own neighborhood, to be thrown in a cell, etc. But Cooper will get over all that. But what she won’t get over, what she’ll never forget, is the fact that her parenting decisions aren’t her own. The most benign, everyday actions of a parent are at all times subject to second-guessing by anyone and everyone within eyesight.
And those people – her friends and neighbors – turn out to have a lot of power. That’s because they don’t act alone, but in close concert with the police and child welfare agencies. Did Tammy Cooper do something to irritate Shelley Fuller at some point? Well, Shelley can call the cops on Tammy any time she wants to and report child endangerment or abandonment and the police will serve as her cat’s paw. They’ll show up and arrest Cooper whether she’s done anything wrong or not. Probable cause? I’d like to know what that consisted of in Cooper’s case, because I don’t see any.
I’ve said it before; children are the open door through which the state enters family life. More and more, parental autonomy is being circumscribed by the police and other state agencies. There is a legitimate roll for the state when a parent is abusive or neglectful in ways that endanger a child, but those necessary state functions have become expanded beyond all recognition to include things like what happened to Tammy Cooper. The same is repeated countless times a day with the same educational result – parents learn that, however kind, loving and careful they are, the state has a million eyes. Some of them are right next door.
Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.