Free-Range Kids

Cops Strip-Searched a 4-Year-Old After Mom's Errand Took Too Long

Child services called because Holly Curry let her kids wait in the car while she bought a muffin.


A mom who let her six children wait ten minutes in the car while she ran in to get them muffins at a local Kentucky cafe is the focus of this oped I co-authored in The Washington Post.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next to the mom, Holly Curry. In fact, I'll bet you can. Though it was 67 degrees and partly cloudy, and though it is statistically safer to let kids wait in the car than drag them across a parking lot—the heart-wrenching stories of kids who die in cars almost always involve children forgotten there for hours, not simply waiting out an errand—Curry found herself in trouble with the police:

When she came out less than 10 minutes later, two officers rebuked Curry for leaving her kids in the car. They told her she wasn't being arrested, just "detained." She started to cry and asked permission to call her husband, Josiah, but that request was denied. No one asked to see the kids, still sitting in the car.

The officers told Curry that while they were not charging her with any crime, they were going to file a "JC3 form" — a hotline-type alert to the Kentucky child protection system.

The next day a child protective services investigator showed up, eventually with a sheriff's deputy. All this is laid out in a lawsuit the Currys are now pursuing.

The two authorities insisted on entering Holly's home, though they had no warrant, warning her that if she stood her constitutional ground and forbid them entry, they would return and take her kids, the lawsuit alleges. Curry let them in.

Once inside, the woman from CPS:

…questioned Curry about her home life. Curry answered fully, the lawsuit said, worried that any refusal would add to her peril. The investigator insisted on taking the youngest child from Curry's lap and, without permission, began to undress her. In the presence of the male deputy, the investigator proceeded to undress each child, male and female, down to the genitals (removing the diapers of the two youngest). Curry tried to object, but she knew she was powerless to stop the investigator from doing full-body inspections.

The last to be undressed was her 4-year-old son, taught by his pediatrician that he should never let a stranger take his clothes off without his mom's okay. But when the boy tried to make eye contact with Curry, the investigator stood directly in his line of sight, leaving him helpless. Then the investigator pointed to the deputy and said, "Show that cop your muscles!" The little boy removed his shirt and flexed his biceps as ordered. The investigator and deputy began laughing while the investigator started to pull down his pants. When the little boy finally was able to look back at his mother, she was holding back tears. The little boy's face registered shame and fear.

About two weeks later, Holly was found not guilty of child neglect. But why did a muffin stop end up with a strip search at all? How dare the authorities not only second-guess a mom's very safe decision, but take their investigation so far beyond the bounds of common sense—and decency? That's what motivated the Currys to file their federal civil rights lawsuit that challenges the entry into their home under coercion, the seizure of the children inside the home, and the strip-searches.

Local Kentucky lawyers and the national Home School Legal Defense Association are counsel in the case.

If they win, it will reinforce what should be a given: Parents deserve the right to make seat-of-the-pants decisions that do not put their kids in any real, obvious and statistically likely danger. Waiting 10 minutes for muffins falls into that no-real-danger category.

My co-author on this piece was Diane Redleaf, co-chair of United Family Advocates, a bipartisan federal policy advocacy network, and a legal consultant to Let Grow. Together we are trying to keep helicopter parenting from becoming the law of the land—one muffin at a time.