Free-Range Kids

Colorado Couple's Adoption Plans Wrecked by Child Neglect Charges for Briefly Letting a Kid Nap in the Car

"If you're on that registry, you're bad."

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Let your child nap in the car on a cool day while you run into the hardware store and you might have to say goodbye to your dreams of adoption.

That's what happened to a Colorado couple we'll call Ted and Jen. (Their real names have been redacted to protect their identity.) Last spring, Ted's three-year-old fell asleep on his way to Ace Hardware. He parked where he could still see her as he entered the store, and was gone for just 20 minutes. It was 40 degrees outside, according to Jen.

A passerby called the cops, because many people believe that any time kids are alone in a car they are in immediate danger of kidnapping or overheating. The tragic fact is that every year some children do die in cars. But the vast majority are young children who got into cars without their parents realizing it and couldn't get out, or kids whose parents drove to work and completely forgot about the sleeping child in the back seat. In fact, 4.6 hours is the average time that kids who died in cars were unattended. Children deliberately left in the car for a brief period of time on a temperate day are in very little danger.

When Ted came out of the store, the cop called to the scene said he was going to take the child into custody unless he could reach Ted's wife to see if she trusted Ted with the girl. Jen told the cop that Ted is a great dad, so Ted was allowed to leave with the child, according to Jen.

But Jen's heart was breaking already because she knew that this would probably impact the adoption process they were going through. Jen had had a kidney transplant in her 20s. Her daughter was born premature and spent two months in neonatal intensive care. Another pregnancy was not something they could risk. Dearly wanting another child, they had found an adoption agency, passed the home visit, paid $15,000, and were awaiting a child.

When a child services caseworker came to the home two days later, he looked through the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator, and questioned Jen, who could not stop sobbing. (Ted was at work.) According to Jen, the caseworker told her that the child had been in danger of kidnapping during those 20 minutes (actually, stranger kidnappings are exceedingly rare), or choking (the child was safely strapped in her car seat). The caseworker later returned to question Ted.

Ted, a law enforcement officer himself, tried to explain that there is no actual law against letting a child wait in the car in Colorado, and that the girl had been totally fine. But, says Jen, the caseworker told him, "I have to make it a finding, man." A "finding" means labeling Ted guilty of child neglect and placing his name on the state's child abuse registry, which is accessible to public agencies, hospitals, case workers, and even through background checks conducted by private employers. In most states, the registration process occurs without any trial, and the burden is on the person named to find a lawyer (if they can afford one) and appeal through their state's administrative appeal system (good luck with that).

Ted and Jen tried to convince the adoption agency that they still deserved a child. But with this black mark on their record, the agency did not respond warmly. Eventually, Ted filed an appeal and his registration status was expunged. With clearance in hand, Ted and Jen were sure that now they could adopt.

No such luck.

"We found out that expunged doesn't mean expunged," says Jen. "Your name stays in the registry. It just says 'expunged' on some different screen somewhere." The couple sought help from the county and state, but though her husband was officially no longer a child abuser, it was impossible to take Ted's name off the registry. The adoption agency dumped them—and kept their $15,000 deposit.

When Ted and Jen applied to be foster parents, the state turned them down, too.

"They said, you know, maybe we could foster after 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 years had passed, but they're just making things up as they go along," says Jen. "And I was like, 'What if we wanted to foster teenagers? How does this have any effect on our ability foster them?'" After all, teens are allowed to wait in cars. "But if you're on that registry," says Jen, "you're bad."

The pair are emotionally and financially exhausted. They wish they could just sign a piece of paper saying they will never let a child wait alone in a car again.

"Vague neglect laws give cops and caseworkers more power than the parents themselves to decide what is safe for their own kids," notes Diane Redleaf, Let Grow's legal consultant and co-chair of United Family Advocates, which advocates for more legal protections for wrongly accused families. "It is high time we required child protection authorities to bring child abuse or neglect accusations to court for an impartial determination before they are allowed to place anyone on the registry."

In the end, Ted had to complete a six-month diversion program to get his criminal charge dismissed. Meantime, he was placed on 12 weeks of paid administrative leave while his Internal Affairs department conducted an investigation. He received a formal letter fining him a nominal amount because "getting a child abuse ticket looks bad for our department."

Jen, a state employee, is herself a mandated reporter—meaning she is required to report any children who seem possibly abused or neglected. Over the course of 10 years, she says, she reported four. Two of the families she thinks she would still report, since the kids were in terrible shape. But now that she has seen what can happen when Child Protective Services gets involved, she regrets involving the other two families, and indeed anyone at all, unless the kids are literally in grave danger.

"The system is built to perpetuate itself," she says. At her agency, "we get extra funding for extra caseloads," and she suspects it is the same at CPS.

As for her own future, Jen says she expects she and Ted will never be allowed to adopt. The consequence of one rational decision by a dad will deprive a loving family of a child, and a child of a loving family.

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  1. So a mandatory reporter and a law enforcement officer with a spare $15k are screwed over by a private company that sells children and several government departments using law enforcement and mandatory reporting practices to pad their wallets at the expense of people.

    It’s a terrible situation all the way around, but you’ll understand if I have a hard time getting worked up about this particular case. Surely we can find some victims of government overreach to cover who aren’t themselves part of the machine that is ruining their lives.

    1. The fact that we cannot find it in our hearts to see injustice even when it is applied to people we dislike is generally the reason why the government keeps ratcheting down on us, year after year. Pass some laws to catch terrorists. Drone bomb some terrorist American. Spy on a chump presidential candidate. Beat up a felon. Invade the home of a “probable” drug dealer.

      These things are wrong, regardless of how much we dislike the target of those laws. This is why it was so important for a Jew working for the ACLU to defend the free speech of Nazis. If our ideological enemies don’t enjoy these freedoms, we really don’t either.

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        1. I just love, love the “timing” of these things as the thread builds emotionally! Don’t ever stop, you make me LOL almost every time as I hear them in my head. Probably wouldn’t work if I were a speed reader.

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      2. The fact that we cannot find it in our hearts to see injustice even when it is applied to people we dislike is generally the reason why the government keeps ratcheting down on us, year after year.

        ^This^

        The government ratchet only goes one way because everyone, with few exceptions, sees government power as a weapon to be wielded against their “enemies.” The fact that shit like this happens and the first comment to the story is essentially “I don’t like these people so fuck ’em” – on an allegedly libertarian website no less – is the reason I hate people and have no hope for humanity.

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    3. Hi, “Jen” here. I feel compelled to respond to this even though I know that back and forths in internet comments sections can be a dangerous game. My husband and I are both government employees, yes, and I 100% struggle with feeling like we are part of the problem. I chose government employment because it is a very stable job with very stable health insurance which is an absolute necessity for someone like me with a transplant. I was also pretty young when I first took the job and had these big ideas about “making a positive difference in the world.” Many people who get into government employment have a similar story. I don’t love it; I hate the bureaucracy. Child welfare employees probably don’t really understand what they are doing either until they’ve been in it for many years. They outright lie (and probably genuinely believe the lie) to mandatory reporters, advertising themselves as this great resource for struggling families. Anyway, my husband and I have learned a lot from this experience about the true nature of our employers and are doing the best that we can to not play into ruining lives. Also, we did not have a spare $15,000, we had to take out a loan. And now I’ve also done a lot more research into adoption practices and agree that often these private companies “selling children” are not working towards good.

      1. Please ignore the trolls on here. I’m so sorry this happened to you and your family, and I know most readers feel the same way. I was just heartbroken to read this story. I hope telling this story gets some support and attention for your case and that you can appeal this awful decision and change the system. Rooting for you.

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  2. Democrat governor, blue state, yep that sounds about right.

    1. I think you are an optimist if you think you are safe because you are in a red-state. I hope (optimistically) never to be proven correct, but I am.

  3. You know you can’t do this kind of stuff anymore. Forget that you should be able to, you can’t. Gotta live in the world as it is, not how you want it to be.

    1. Exactly. The cop thought he could get away with it because he’s a cop and has a big dick.

  4. “”The system is built to perpetuate itself,” she says.”
    Of course it is. It’s a government agency. That’s their job.

  5. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

  6. Ted, a law enforcement officer himself, tried to explain that there is no actual law against letting a child wait in the car in Colorado, and that the girl had been totally fine.

    That’s where he really fucked up. He tried to argue against the accusation and defend himself. They don’t like it when you do that, it’s a threat to their AUTHORITAH, and you will respect their AUTHORITAH! Your only hope, and it’s not much of one, is to fall to your knees, beg the caseworker royal magistrate’s forgiveness, kiss the royal emblem on their cloak and hope they’re feeling “merciful” that day. Good luck with that though.

    1. Fuck that, he’s in law enforcement too, he should cook up some kind of counterattack against the guy. The best defense is a good offense.

      Either that or a bribe. Seems like they got money, bribery might be the best thing. Actually a one-two, carrot and stick: bribe with a threat of reprisal.

      1. And besides, doing things that way would be more fun.

        1. Seriously, if you can only get even, what good is that? You should engineer it to come out ahead for your trouble. And in this case, “ahead” means not just improving your own situation, but making someone else’s life worse.

    2. The whole charge is ridiculous. In 1980 my kindergarten put all the kids in the flatbed of a pickup truck for field trip transportation. Things are insane now.

  7. Uh, and the qualified-immunity status of CPS agents……when will that be revisited.

    “I’m a bureaucrat. I gotta make a finding, man. I gotta state-fuck you for life.”

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  9. 90% of the parents of kids I grew up with, including mine, would have lost their children according to this rule. My Mom left me alone in the car all the time starting when I was around 3. She was usually gone no more than 5 minutes, but if any busybody had come along she would have been toast. Same thing went for my friends’ parents. Of course, my parents were unusual back then in that they made me wear a seatbelt. I was the only child I knew who had to wear one, and other friends’ parents (Okay the Dads) sometimes made fun of me for wearing one.

  10. Children are way too important to let these decisions go through due process. Better a hundred innocent parents be permanently deprived of their rights based upon the opinion of a single case worker than allow a monster with a good lawyer beat the system.

    Why do you hate the children?

    1. Those children may one day be parents with children of their own and themselves get screwed over by the child welfare system.

      Why do you hate the children?

      1. I don’t hate all the children. Just all of them that aren’t mine.

  11. Tint your car windows people. If they can’t see in, they can’t report you. Also keeps the car much cooler.

    1. Many states have legal restrictions on tinting car windows.

  12. Isn’t there somebody they could simply bribe to make this go away? Why should the good guys always do things legally? We should use the heel’s tactics, and then some!

    1. How much are you willing to pay? If you are a close friend or big donor to a politician, they can fix it for you. For the rest of us, not so much…

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  14. I let my 7 year old son wait in the car and play games on my phone while I ran into the store a couple of weeks ago. It was late afternoon on a cool day and car was parked on a busy street with lots of people walking by and was right in front of the store where I could check on him. He was tired from soccer practice so I didn’t want to drag him in there with me. As I was waiting at check out, it occurred to me that what if some Karen had called the cops or taken photos to tweet? Fortunately, nothing happened except him sending a text to my wife that he didn’t know where I was (she was not happy with me)…

  15. 20 minutes is pushing your luck.

    1. 20 seconds is pushing luck. These people don’t deserve pets, let alone kids.

  16. What about the police guy who took the initiative to file a complaint when he saw all that state-owned student material just going to waste, open to all the criminals whom they were so busy not protecting him/her from?

    Put the parents to work: get out the whip, and start reminding people who really runs things in that town!

    What about the rights of children? Who protects those?
    No law against leaving a child wait in a car, but a child caseworker makes a notable difference when wanting to adopt.

    What about a private child adoption agency who has no problem with deciding legal liability based on existing legal complaints?

    The cracks in this situation would seem to be that a parent’s status should not be assailed unless a court of law has weighed in on the issue.

    At the same time, however, no matter how the news gets to the adoption agency, a private adoption agency can use any public record of fame against the applicant.

    So it looks like the only viable recourse could be to sue the officer for defamation, because the report allowed the matter to be acted on without the guarantee of representation that a court if law should had determined.

    In other words, the public servant should be upholding a commitment to let justice be done rather than be the sole definer.

    What does it matter?

    1. Social workers don’t take a vow to uphold the Constitution. Maybe that is what needs to change. Every agent of the state should be required to know and uphold the law of the land.

  17. Um, isn’t 40° awfully cold to leave a sleeping child out of doors? Just sayin’.

    1. Doesn’t matter. Only takes 30 seconds to bust out a window and steal a car. Kids get in these situations all the time and are traumatized by being stolen along with the car.

      Parents need to be held responsible for leaving a completely defenseless kid unattended for any period of time in a setting where harm is possible.

      1. I pity your anxiety. What must it be like to live in a world with monsters around every corner? Consider media’s role in reporting every bad event in the world but little of the good.

      2. Oh, I am going to have *so* much fun telling you about all the ways children can die *in your house*…

        I hope you never leave your child unattended, even when you sleep. Actually, sleeping must be forbidden to you. Because that’s leaving your child unattended in a setting where harm is possible. Just imagine if little Mis’Tayke got into the kitchen cleaners!

  18. These people don’t deserve a pet, let alone another kid.

    1. I can’t tell if this is sarcastic or serious. But just in case it’s the latter:

      Fuck off, slaver.

    2. And you don’t deserve oxygen, but here we still are.

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