Letting Your Kids Play At The Park Unsupervised Should Not Be A Felony

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A mother in Johnson City, Tennessee is facing criminal charges of child neglect for letting her 8 and 5-year-olds walk to the park by themselves. My initial reaction is to think that I would never allow kids that young to play at a park without supervision. Then I take a step back and cannot fathom that this act alone makes a mother a criminal. Sure it’s not what I would choose, but is it neglect?

April Lawson is obviously a bit of a free-range mother. In fact, I read about her story on the Free Range website. On a normal afternoon, she let her two kids walk down to the park to play. When they didn’t return after an hour, Lawson sent someone to get them. They arrived at the park to find the two kids weren’t there.

At that point, Lawson did what any parent would in that situation. She dialed 911 to report that her children were missing. In those minutes, I simply cannot imagine the fear that a parent must experience. Thankfully, before the police could even arrive, the situation was figured out. The two kids had walked to a nearby house and were already back home before a cop car pulled up. Thank the Lord and sorry for the scare, right? Wrong.

After hearing the situation, the officers contacted Child Protective Services and arrested Johnson for allowing her kids to go to the park unsupervised. She now faces charges of felony abuse and neglect.

Is allowing young kids to go to the park unattended something I would do? Probably not. It is child abuse? Well, I realize that I’m not the one who gets to decide what is or isn’t child abuse, but on a personal level, I feel like it’s not. And the most important question should be here, are these kids going to be better off in a different home than they would with their mother? If the lone walk to the park is the only indiscretion, it’s hard to think that they would be helped by being removed from their mom’s care.

This story hits such a difficult line for me. And it brings about a debate that I think every parent should be interested in. If someone parents differently than I do, does that make their parenting wrong?

These kids weren’t hurt. Obviously there was a chance that they could have been, but there’s always a chance that kids can be hurt.

I have a nephew whose 7 and a daughter that’s 4. This weekend, I took them both to the zoo with me. And when my daughter needed to go to the restroom, I was honestly torn about whether or not to drag a 7-year-old boy into the ladies room because I felt uncomfortable leaving him by the door to wait for us. There’s lots of people at the zoo! And lots of distractions. Where’s that stupid family bathroom when you need it? A year from now, would I let those same two kids walk to the park a block away without an adult? The answer is no. I wouldn’t.

But if you’re a parent who trusts the responsibility of an 8-year-old, and you choose to do so, are you unfit to parent? That just doesn’t seem like a fair conclusion to me. Shouldn’t there be something in between, “questionable choice” and “convicted criminal” where parents can gain information or perspective?

Obviously I’m undecided about this case and the practice of jailing a parent for neglect when they were making a conscious choice to give their young children some serious responsibility. What do you guys think? Is this a felony offense? Would let kids this young play at the park unsupervised?

(Photo: Telegraph)


  1. Lastango

    June 11, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Lindsay, I’m glad you brought this forward!

    You write: “This story hits such a difficult line for me. And it brings about a debate that I think every parent should be interested in. If someone parents differently than I do, does that make their parenting wrong?”

    Perhaps we should be having an even larger debate. Child protective services across the country have become artists at building their bureaucratic empires, including growing their staff, budgets, and raising their public profile. They do this in part by seizing ever more children, through threats and intimidation, and by criminalizing ordinary behavior. Call it the New Totalitarianism.

    Anyone who wants to get a feel for some of the concerns can start here:

  2. Veronique

    June 11, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Let’s make one thing clear: Having CPS come and do an investigation doesn’t mean that they’re considering “taking the kids away” and sending them to foster care! Most often than not, they are there to evaluate the causes of the complaint and give the parents guidelines they must follow for their children to be safe. Having worked time and time again with CPS I am always flustered when parents call in and immediately jump to the conclusion that CPS will immediately pull the children out.

    Also, it isn’t mentioned how far away the park was from the house. If it was across the street or just around the block and the children weren’t expected to cross main streets, was the parent rationalizing that the children were responsible enough to make their own way? I used to walk to school by myself when I was 8 years old because of the fact that my mom trusted to cross guard. Let’s try not to judge this mom!!!

    I have seen a lot worse cases of parental neglect in my professional lifetime, such as a parent letting her 3 year old come to the wading pool by herself (and bear in mind that the minimum age to go alone to the wading pool without parental supervision is 5). I had always thought that 5 was a stretch and kids should always have someone to watch over them, so imagine my reaction when the mom came to complain to me that her kid couldn’t come to the wading pool at three (which included crossing the street by herself) by herself! It nearly offended her when I told her that she had to stay within the wading pool gated area and watch over her kid :S

    • Lindsay Cross

      June 11, 2012 at 11:47 am

      I realize that having CPS come does not mean that the kids will be taken away. And I would understand calling CPS and asking them to investigate the matter. But this woman was actually charged with a felony and jailed overnight.

      Also, I’m so sorry I didn’t include the detail of how far away the park was. The police report said that it was a block and a half away. They did not mention any busy streets to cross.

    • Tennesseean

      June 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      You asked how far the park is from the house. It is actually a playground at the elementary school, which is fenced, and next to the sidewalk which runs from the school all the way to the mother’s house and beyond, about 1000 feet away. The sidewalk is intended for children to walk to school, there are sidewalks on all the major roads leading to the school. The road is straight and unobstructed and you can clearly see the play equipment and the children from the woman’s house. Both are in a residential area with a speed limit of 15 because it is a school zone.

  3. Tennessean

    June 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Correction: It’s April Lawson, not April Johnson. Johnson City is where it happened.

    • Lindsay Cross

      June 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      Thank you so much for correcting me! I would blame it on Monday morning, but that’s still a crappy excuse. It’s been updated and I appreciate your information on the case!

  4. Nikkie

    June 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Does this mother have previous investigations or charges? That seems rather extreme to be arrested, unless she has been in the system previously. In which case the county/city might just be over dealing with her. I am not saying she made a good parenting decision, but a felony charge (before a CPS investigation no less) seems harsh.

    That being said, in my hometown there was a rash of kids being hit walking to school (under the age of 10) it’s a VERY small town, so some parents faced charges for letting their kids walk to school, until the county prosecutor saw the charges and dismissed them. It still scared parents enough to not let the younger kids walk to school solo.

    • Lastango

      June 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      “…some parents faced charges for letting their kids walk to schooI…. It still scared parents enough to not let the younger kids walk to school solo.”

      Thanks for posting that and helping spread the word, Nikkie. The terrorism of the governing-class thugocracy thrives when the people don’t know it’s happening. IMO that’s a big reason why there are blogs.

  5. Katia

    June 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    My main concern would be abductions as it seems like the walk is safe enough. Hmm 1000 feet is not that far but too far to prevent a sicko from grabbing your kid. This is not safe . Mom needs help, not jail, I think jail will make her even more determined to stick to her free-reign guns.

    • Ipsedixit

      June 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      Child abductions are not that common. They are dramatized, but it’s far more likely any predator is someone you know, rather than a random person off the streets.

      What does “mom needs help” even mean? Are we no longer allowing parents to make a judgment call based on their knowledge of their child’s maturity? If anyone, I would think Mom or Dad knows what their child can handle rather than the general public.

      Releasing children out of the bubble of their home does not equate to danger, so long as the child has the skills to handle situations that might arise. I think the parents are the best judges of that.

    • Another Steph

      June 11, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      I don’t take things I read on the internet personally as a general rule, but as a free range parent, I’m incredibly insulted by your last sentence. Jail will make her more determined to continue with the parenting style she’s researched and chosen as the one that best fits her?

      Child abductions are not common, like ipsedixit said, but when they do happen, they can happen even when the parent is nearby.

    • Tennessean

      June 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Statistically, there are almost no stranger abductions in the US. Most child abductions reported in statistics are non-custodial parents taking the child from the custodial parent (or not returning on time after a weekend visit), and cases where teens are missing because they went somewhere or even ran away with a friend, which is counted in statistics as an abduction if any of the friends is 18 or over. Of actual stranger abductions, there are only 115 of these a year nationwide, and nearly all of these (of which there are not that many obviously) are abductions of teenage girls.

      Abductions of small children by strangers are almost unknown in the US, they are so rare that when they do happen they get national press coverage.

      As far as 1000 feet, that’s the distance from our house to the school bus stop at the end of the block. Are people now arguing that children should not be allowed to go to the bus stop and wait there for the school bus because they might be abducted?

      The chances your small children will be abducted by stranger in a stereotypical abduction scenario are far less than the chances they will be killed in your car driving them to school. Also it should be noted that travel by car is statistically far more dangerous that travel by bus and therefore parents who drive their children to school are exposing them to risk that is not present on the bus.

  6. Pingback: Attempted Abduction Of 10-Year-Old Philadelphia Girl Caught On Video

  7. JCMomma83

    February 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    As far as kids from 15 up, I fully agree w/ Tennessean/Katia. Many kids are unruly at that age. I was. (now at 31 I regret deeply putting my Mother through that worry, but she knew exactly who I was with and where I was at times because when I was there 2 different unmarked cars pulled up and I bailed) My Mother sheltered me heavily. I never got to stay over night or even go out w/ my friends. I’m a Mother now and when my 9 yr old hits 12 she will be able to stay over night w/ her friends of the same age and not all the time.I will know the parents and pay a visit to the home. I would welcome/encourage any parent who had a child staying over w/ my daughter to do the same, At 15 she will be able to go out w/ her girl friends that drive. I’m not on subject I’m aware and apologize. I just don’t think there would be so many runaways if parents took time to interact w/ their children as much as they can.Instead of buying them items to “keep then occupied” to keep their children “out of their hair” so to say. I’m aware children want these things and all parents want to make their children happy, I believe there should be at least one family night a week if not more!! Trust them until we have a reason not to. By no means am I saying I’ll let her do as she pleases but I will gladly give her enough rope to hang herself if she does. As for this situation I would never let my two children at that age walk 1000 feet alone to a play ground!! I do not believe she should face felony charges, Child abuse??? Not even…neglect, yes I can understand that. All of what I said was my opinion from my things that have occurred in my life. If I offended anyone I apologize, as well for being off subject a little. Only giving my own opinion on preventing runaways. =) 2 yrs later ha ha!

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