Free-Range Kids

Parents Investigated for Letting 7-Year-Old Get a Cookie From the Store

"You just can't raise kids like that anymore—it isn't safe," the cops told the Widner family.


Beth Widner is a mother who lives in Canton, a middle-class suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. She has four kids, whom she homeschools while her husband, Glenn, telecommutes.

In August of 2018, the Widner kids—then ages 13, 11, nine, and seven—were members of a swim team at their local YMCA, which was about two blocks from their house. One day, after swim practice, the 7-year-old, Jackson, lagged behind while the rest of his siblings walked home, and stopped by the grocery for a free cookie.

A store employee thought it was so unusual to see an unaccompanied 7-year-old that a store employee called 911. Then, instead of letting him leave, the employee told Jackson he had to wait for the police to arrive.

This became part of a pattern; indeed, Jackson's semi-independence attracted police attention on no fewer than three occasions, leading to two investigations by Child Protective Services (CPS).

Widner recently had the opportunity to share these experiences with the governor's office. (The meeting was arranged by the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason, and Let Grow, the non-profit at which both of us work.) She hoped that her story would inspire support for a "Reasonable Childhood Independence" law in the state. Such laws establish that neglect occurs when parents put kids in obvious, serious danger, not anytime they let their kids out of sight.

We hope to see a law like that passed in Georgia sometime soon. Eight other states have already jumped on the bandwagon, and this year Michigan, Missouri, and New Hampshire will vote on similar bills.

When Jackson refused to tell the authorities where he lived—having been taught not to give such information to strangers—the police deduced he had been swimming and went to the YMCA to learn more. The cops were very cross with Jackson and informed him that being out and about without his parents was a serious infraction. He responded that he would promptly go home "if you would just leave me alone," his mother recalled later.

After the police finally brought Jackson home, they informed his father, Glenn, that it wasn't safe to let a child his age wander around outside.

"You just can't raise kids like that anymore—it isn't safe," said the cops.

Glenn begged to differ, reciting statistics that kids today face no greater risk from stranger danger than previous generations. Nevertheless, the police summoned child protective services.

A caseworker from Georgia's Division of Family and Child Services arrived a few hours later. She told the family, assembled together, that the police report stated that Jackson had been unattended from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. The Widners set the record straight—swim practice had ended by 10:45 a.m., and everyone had been back at home well before lunch—and the caseworkers closed the investigation. She even said that her own kids could learn a bit more independence from the Widners, Beth recalled.

But that was not the end of things. Later that year, for Christmas, Jackson received a new bike. On January 2, just before lunch, he asked his mom if he could ride it and off he went. An older woman in the park stopped Jackson, telling him he was too young to ride his bike alone. According to Jackson, he took a few more circles around the park and then ducked into the grocery for—you guessed it—a free cookie.

Soon thereafter, Beth got a call from Jackson, using the new watch phone his parents had gotten him after the August incident. He said the police wanted to speak to her. Once again, cops had detained Jackson for being outside unsupervised.

Beth got to the grocery parking lot within a couple of minutes. She found Jackson seated like a suspect in the backseat of a cruiser. The complaining witness watched as the police let Beth take her son home. Beth wasn't told what to expect further, and she didn't hear from child services. But she later learned that child services had been informed about Jackson's flagrant act of unaccompanied bike riding.

On January 18, Jackson's unabated taste for free cookies turned into a full-blown investigation. While his parents had warned him that he should not indulge his sweet tooth (or independence) anymore, he went to the grocery store after a bike ride once again. As in August, a store employee called the police. The employee fed him chicken and fries—it was lunch time—to stall him until the cops arrived. The police then escorted Jackson home, bike and all. Glenn came to the door to hear what the cops had to say about his son, the cookie recidivist.

One of the police officers accused Glenn of "breaking the law" by letting Jackson go out alone. "What law is that?" Glenn inquired.  The officer replied, "You can Google it." The most senior officer accused him of neglect and "contributing to delinquency of the minor," and told him not only could he be arrested, but he might face felony charges and spend time in jail.

A CPS caseworker showed up two hours later. Unlike the first one, who had complimented the family, this one accused the family of having "a problem with child supervision." When Beth and Glenn asked what specific law they had broken, she said she didn't have it written down.

The caseworker proceeded to question all four children at the kitchen table, then notified the Widners that they would be subject to a "parenting plan" requiring them to supervise the children at all times. The Widners told her that they would not be following the plan. Upon hearing this probably unusual response, the caseworker warned the Widners that she would talk to her supervisor.

After she left, the Widners never heard another word from her, although a few weeks later, two unidentified caseworkers stopped by the house asking to speak to Glenn. He wasn't home and they left.

The Widners realized their freedom to raise their kids as they saw fit was in danger. Fearful that they could land on Georgia's child abuse and neglect registry, Beth and Glenn decided to move the family outside city limits. Jackson, now 12, no longer worries about asking for a free cookie at the store.

But a state law that definitively puts the matter to rest—by stating unequivocally that the police should not harass parents who let their kids exercise some basic independence—could offer further protection.