What's a parent to do? It was early in March, COVID-19 fears were on the rise, and two Kentucky parents who were new to the state needed to open up a bank account. Seeing no other option, they took their seven kids to the bank with them.
By the time they had returned home from their errand, a child protective services caseworker and a law enforcement officer were waiting at the door to investigate them for child abuse.
That's according to Jim Mason of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who blames the false report on panic over COVID-19 social distancing rules. A letter from child services, obtained by Reason confirmed the existence of the complaint.
The parents, referred to as "Bill and Kristy," are homeschoolers. Kristy had moved to Kentucky in advance of Bill, who had remained in New York City finishing up work. When they arrived at the bank, the parents opted to let the two oldest children wait in the car. The other five had to accompany them into the building, which had a COVID-19 warning sign on the door. They were not treated warmly, writes Mason:
The teller immediately interrogated Bill and Kristy about why they had brought five kids into the bank at one time. She [the teller] told them they could not get within six feet of her and that they needed to take the children out. Kristy explained that the children were too young to be left unsupervised by an adult, and neither she nor Bill could take them elsewhere because the couple were opening a joint account, and both had to be present.
While Bill stayed with the children away from the counter, Kristy opened the account, feeling self-conscious as the staff whispered to each other and watched her family suspiciously. When Bill walked to the counter to show his New York ID and to sign, the bank staff asked why Bill's and Kristy's identifications were from different states, which the couple explained.
Back at home, the authorities confronted Bill and Kristy, who discovered that someone had called in an anonymous tip claiming that a mother of five had taken her children out with a man who wasn't their dad, and they had bruises on their arms that indicated rough grabbing.
The investigator proceeded to question the kids away from the parents, and he made at least one of the boys take off his shirt to look for bruises. Kristy told Mason that the investigator wanted to do the same with the girls, but she objected, so he only pulled up the girls' sleeves and took photos.
Already, there's a problem: If the kids were wearing long sleeves (it was a cold day), how had anyone spotted bruises? Of course, the caller got other information wrong, too: Bill was very much the kids' father.
The parents presume the call came from someone inside the bank, since it specified five kids rather than seven. Whoever the caller was, they provided the exact kind of information—bruising, suspicion persons, etc.—that prompts a CPS investigation.
When Bill handed over his license, the investigator could see from his last name he was not an "unrelated male." And when the kids showed him their arms, he could see the bruises didn't exist. Case closed? If only.
When I spoke with Mason by phone, he explained the idea of an "off ramp." In theory, he said, once an investigator gets to a home, checks for the supposed crime and comes up empty handed, he or she should turn around and leave—i.e., take the off ramp. Anything else "is such a terrible thing and a waste of time."
But all too often, investigators insist that they must robotically keep probing: opening cabinets, looking in the fridge, questioning kids. This Kentucky investigator even questioned the family about which homeschool curriculum they were using, as if that had some bearing on the case.
That's why the Home School Legal Defense Association, as well as its allies who make up United Family Advocates, have been trying to get "Off Ramp" legislation passed. Once an investigation comes up empty-handed, the investigator should simply leave rather than get started checking off a giant list of possible problems.
The groups are also hoping that some day the states will outlaw anonymous reporting. That way it would be harder for people to weaponize the system against families that got on their nerves. Currently, it's just far too easy to bring a case into existence.
What's more, parents in Kentucky—and the rest of the country—also deserve a law like Utah's Free-Range Parenting Bill, which says that simply taking your eyes off your kids is not neglect. Neglect is blatant disregard for their safety. Especially in these times, parents who want their kids to wait in the car or even at home, rather than dragging them into stores, should be able to make that sensible decision without fearing an investigation—or worse.
The HSLDA's lawyers are working with the family. But the state gets 45 days to close an investigation, and Mason said it can easily get an extension, turning a time already tense with pandemic fears into a protracted period of torment.