Free-Range Kids

Connecticut Parents Arrested for Letting Kids, Ages 7 and 9, Walk to Dunkin' Donuts

"I have never felt threatened by a single person in this town until meeting those officers and the social worker."


It was Super Bowl Sunday in February 2019. Cynthia Rivers and her husband decided that their kids, ages seven and nine, deserved a long-promised treat for cleaning their rooms: the right to walk to Dunkin' Donuts by themselves. (Reason has changed her name to protect the family's anonymity.)

This was in Killingly, Connecticut, a suburban town in the northeast part of the state. The Rivers' lived near an elementary school, library, state police barracks, sidewalks, crosswalks, many Victorian-style homes, and the aforementioned donut shop. The kids gathered $7, and off they went.

A few minutes later, the River parents heard a knock at the door. It was the police.

The first cop to show up "said he didn't think it was safe for the kids to walk by themselves," Rivers tells Reason. "We told him that while we did feel it was safe, we agreed to not allow them to walk around town unsupervised."

"We thought that would have been the end of it," Rivers added, "until three more officers showed up."

The first cop sent Rivers' husband to retrieve the kids, who had only made it about two blocks. Then mom, dad, and the kids faced a barrage of questions.

"They told us that it wasn't safe for kids to walk down the street, that there are registered sex offenders all over town that could take them, that drug dealers were going to give them drugs, and that it was 'a different world now,'" says Rivers.

She tried to dispute what the police were saying, and one of them asked if she watched the news.

The police report, which was reviewed by Reason, makes clear that the police were obsessed with the possibility of sex offenders harming the children. Indeed, they pressed the Rivers to search the sex offender registry to learn which of their neighbors were on it.

The officers also claimed that they had received a dozen 911 calls about the kids during the short time they were gone. Rivers thought this was unlikely, as they had only made it past four other homes. But whatever the rationale, the officers proceeded to charge Rivers' husband with risk of injury to a minor. They charged Rivers separately for the same thing. Then they arrested her husband and took him away.

"I tried to convince the officers that we weren't doing anything wrong," says Rivers. "This was obviously futile, but I had to try. Then I went back inside to help with the kids. I found out later from my husband that after I went inside, the arresting officer said to him, 'If she talks to me again, I'm going to arrest you both and take away your kids.'"

Rivers husband was back home quickly after the arrest, and they began searching for a lawyer. But a few days later, a police sergeant visited the house and let the Rivers know that they were dropping the charges. He admitted that the law concerning child negligence was open to interpretation on the question of letting kids walk by themselves. Happily, the Rivers told the lawyer that his services wouldn't be necessary after all, because everything was settled.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the case. The police charges had gone away, but the Department of Children and Families (DCF) pursued its own investigation.

The DCF caseworker visited the family twice and interviewed everyone about their complete history.

"She was looking for problems," says Rivers.

Rivers tried to explain to the caseworker that the police had overreacted, but the caseworker maintained that the parents had somehow jeopardized their kids safety. When Rivers revealed that she had received therapy for depression some years before, the caseworker weaponized this information—and insisted she return to therapy.

Eventually, DCF closed the case, too. While this may seem like a happy ending, it has had a lasting, negative impact. Rivers says she waited three years—until her daughter turned 12—to let her go for another walk unsupervised.

Let Grow, the nonprofit I helm, is trying to change the neglect laws so that simply trusting your kids in the outside world is not reason enough to trigger investigations like the ones the Rivers endured. Connecticut is contemplating a "reasonable childhood independence" law that would establish a clearer bar for neglect: likely danger, rather than any danger an imaginative person might think of.

"I've lived in this area most of my life," says Rivers. "I've gone walking and jogging all around this town, by myself, at all hours of the day and night, and met and talked to many local people. I have never felt threatened by a single person in this town until meeting those officers and the social worker."