Free-Range Kids

Police Repeatedly Question Mom of 6 Who Let Kids Pick Up Litter Outside

"There are no known stories of any abductions here," says Anna Hershberger.


Massachusetts mom of six Anna Hershberger has had the police called on her three times this past year. What has this recidivist been up to?

Last week, a cop came knocking after someone reported two of Hershberger's children, ages five and almost seven, walking a few blocks from her home in Reading—a Boston suburb—and picking up litter.

A few minutes earlier, Hershberger said in a phone call with Reason, a garbage truck had gone by, inspiring the kids. "They said, 'Can we have a trashabag?'" says Hershberger. "So that's what they were doing: walking on the sidewalk with a black trash bag, picking things up."

Because the kids are homeschooled, this was during school hours, possibly explaining why a call was made.

The kids came in saying: "Mom, there's police behind us!" A cruiser had followed them home.

"They were kind of enthusiastic," says Hershberger, "until the policeman got out."

The cop was not happy.

"He said 'Somebody could be texting and not paying attention, and there are also creeps out,'" Hershberger says. She didn't make a scene, but she was thinking that if a texting driver careened onto the sidewalk and she was with her kids, they would simply all be plowed down. As for creeps, "There are no known stories of any abductions here," she says.

Besides, she pointed out—to Reason, not the cop—"I know what's dangerous. I grew up in Russia."

This brush with the law might have been less disturbing for the economist-turned-stay-at-home-mom, were it not for two other recent encounters.

Over the summer, Hershberger had taken her kids to a playground in a nearby suburb. There were only a few other families there, but someone called to report that Hershberger's seven-seater van had a booster seat in the passenger seat, indicating a young-ish child might sometimes sit there.

A cop was dispatched. Hershberger explained to him that she has six kids and the family is on the waiting list for a 12-passenger van. In the meantime, her oldest—age eight— sometimes had to sit up front.

The cop thought the whole thing "was beyond ridiculous," says Hershberger, and bid her good day.

And the third police encounter? Well, Hershberger had parked in front of her town's Bagel World to pick up a coffee. She could see her kids through the store's window, but a nearby businessman saw them too. You'll never guess who he called.

"When I got home, a young policeman showed up," says Hershberger. "I wouldn't say he was apologetic, but he clearly thought he shouldn't be there. He said, 'Somebody called to say that you had left the kids alone in the parking lot of the Bagel World.' And I said, yes I did—I was getting coffee."

She had even looked up the Massachusetts' neglect laws on Let Grow's website (we have a map of all 50 states' laws), and saw that this short wait was not illegal. She offered to let the cop come into her home and observe for himself how the kids were being raised.

He declined and said he thought everything seemed fine, says Hershberger.

Like so many parents across America, Hershberger is sick of having to second-guess her parenting decisions if some random passerby summons the authorities.

Hershberger says her next step is to request a meeting with the police. She hopes to discuss her wish to give the kids some independence when she and her husband believe they're ready for it. She doesn't mind strangers calling the cops, so long as there are no legal consequences.

In the meantime, she has been heartened by Let Grow's advocacy efforts to get more states to narrow their neglect laws. So far Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas have passed "Reasonable Childhood Independence" laws that say neglect only occurs when a parent puts their child in likely and serious danger, not just any time the kids are unsupervised. Similar laws are currently under consideration in Illinois, Nebraska, and South Carolina. And the law just passed both houses in Colorado on Tuesday, with bipartisan sponsors and support. Now it just awaits the governor's signature.

Back in Reading, Hershberger's kids love to explore the neighborhood. But now they're focusing on something new: How they will elude the police in future adventures.