Free-Range Kids

Cops Called on Parents Whose Autistic 5-Year-Old Son's Hair Was Too Messy

"The parents of special needs children are especially vulnerable to state intervention."


Noblige / Dreamstime

This mom's story in The Washington Post will kick anyone in the gut. Texas writer May Cobb was out for a day with her mom, her husband, and their autistic 5-year-old who, miraculously, was doing great. By great, Cobb explained, she meant he had not had a single meltdown during the hour they were at a park and on the boardwalk near Lady Bird Lake in Austin. He hadn't stripped off all his clothes, and he wasn't banging his head over and over again.

Sure, his hair was messy—his sensory issues render him distraught when he gets his hair brushed. And his pants were too short—but at least he'd actually chosen a pair to wear, rather than tearing them off. So all was as right as right can be when you have a kid with autism.

But then, as the family was heading to the car, a pair of cops approached Cobb:

"Can we talk to you a second," he asked, "about your son?"

My husband called out over his shoulder, "He's autistic," and kept walking my son to the car.

The officer's face burned with embarrassment. I assumed he was getting ready to inform me that rock-throwing wasn't allowed, but he said, "We got a call about your son. The people who called were worried that because of his hair, and because of his pants, that you weren't taking good care of him."

Because strangers care so much more about kids than their own parents do.

Now my faced burned with anger and my stomach was sick with shock.

"He's autistic," I told them, "and because of his severe sensory issues, we have difficulty brushing and cutting his hair."

Both officers nodded their heads in understanding.

"You're talking about my grandson," my mother hissed.

"Yes, there's clearly nothing going on here," the red-faced officer said.

"I'm so glad you were called to investigate this instead of more serious crimes," I said, tears threatening to strangle my voice.

"It's clearly just a case of bed-head," the same officer said by way of apology. "Sorry to have bothered you."

We bid them goodbye and joined my husband and son and walked back to our car.

They were worried you weren't taking good care of him.

This happened in November but Cobb just wrote about it last week because it has taken that long for her to process the event with a modicum of serenity.

As she ticks off all the other times her family probably looked strange to outsiders, she is grateful for the many people who did not call the cops. But the fact remains that "the police were called on us because my son was having a bad hair day. What does this say about our society?"

It says that we are increasingly convinced that it is up to every onlooker to assume abuse rather than to give parents the benefit of the doubt when anything, even a child's hair, seems amiss—that this is good citizenship.

This presumes that the authorities are going to make things better, and that an outsider can really tell what's going on.

"I have to praise the common sense of the police here," Diane Redleaf, a longtime family civil rights lawyer and director of the Redleaf Family Advocacy Institute at the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, told me. "The family had the good fortune not to have child protective services called against them. Others have not been as lucky."

She recalled one case presented to the federal court: Dupuy v. McDonald, a class action challenge to policies that banished parents from their homes when they were victims of child abuse calls. In that case, Chicago high school science teacher James Redlin had been the target of an anonymous tip to state child protection authorities after a commuter thought he'd fondled his mildly autistic 6-year-old son on the subway.

Redlin explained that he'd been tickling his boy, as therapists had encouraged. Without verifying any of the context, authorities threatened to take his son into foster care unless Redlin's wife, who uses a wheelchair, provided 24-hour supervision of any contact between her husband and their son. The case dragged on all summer, with the authorities finally determining the charges to be "unfounded."

"The parents of special needs children are especially vulnerable to state intervention," said Redleaf. "And as for anonymous calls to the authorities, this practice needs to end. It is far too easy to disrupt or even destroy a family with one quick call from a cell phone."

My friend Linda Gasten, mom of a young man with autism, has this advice for onlookers: if you see kids "making unusual noises," consider that they may have a disability, and that it's likely the parents are doing the best they can. It's abundantly less likely that they are monstrous abusers who are taking their victims out for a day of fun, in public, at the park.