Time to Take a Stand


First posted May 4, in Playground Professionals

I’m sure you’ve heard the recent story about two children, 10 and 6, being arrested and hassled by Child Protective Services (CPS) for walking home from the park, not once but twice.  If you’re not aware of the story, visit https://www.facebook.com/author.danielle.meitiv to learn more about what happened to the Meitiv family.

If this was the only case of overzealous police and CPS, we could easily dismiss it as an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it is not. Lenore Skenazy reports on this subject in her Free-Range Kids Blog daily and has collected many similar cases.

Why should Park and Recreation Professionals care about the police and CPS “over-protecting” children?

This is an issue that should be at the top of your department’s agenda. Why? It’s simple, you provide an essential service, a service that the community pays for at considerable expense. When children cannot walk to and from your parks, you are losing them as customers and they are losing the service you provide.

When you visit your parks and see only a few children, all accompanied by adults, and you know there are many children in the neighborhood who should be outside playing and are probably sitting at home using their tech devices, it should send up red flags that something is seriously wrong.

Here’s the issue. In nearly all of these cases, a “concerned” citizen alerted the police and set this whole scenario in motion. It’s hard to fault those charged with public safety for doing their job, even if they sometimes lack sensitivity in the performance of their duty. Nor is it fair to criticize a neighbor who sees children in what they deem is a vulnerable situation.

What we have here is a situation where everyone is fearful and without a guideline for appropriate action, so things get out of whack. For example, it would have been possible for the neighbor to talk with the kids to see if they were in distress. Perhaps the kids had a cell phone, had done this walk many times, and their parents were awaiting them less than a block away, so there was no need to call the cops.

But let’s look at the emotional side of this situation. The citizen must be feeling that it is dangerous for two children to be walking in the neighborhood without an adult for any amount of time. This is the very definition of “living in fear.”

Again, it’s hard to blame the average citizen for being afraid. Nearly every week the media has a story about an abducted child and an Amber Alert is broadcast. If you only go by the news, you would think that there is an epidemic of pedophiles descending on our communities. The fact is that we live in the safest of times. According to a report in the Washington Post, There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America. This is really good news, but how can one report in the press counteract the constant drumbeat of fear? Lenore Skenazy and others diligently strive to debunk the fear mongering with posts, such as UPDATE: “Over 700 Children are Abducted a Day” Says Viral Video.

What You Can Do

The first step, as it is often the case, is to accept that the change has to start with you. There is nothing in your job description that specifically tasks you with advocacy. Your job is to provide recreation services and then let the public know what is available – it’s a sort of “build it and they will come” approach.

This passive approach has been sufficient in the past but is no longer adequate. Today’s climate of fear means that most, if not all, of the children who use your services, have parents who have the time and resources to chauffeur and/or supervise their children. Of course, I could be wrong in this assertion, but do you know? Have you checked to see what percentage of children are able to use your services on their own initiative?

If step one is to determine the amount of child-initiated use of recreation services, step two is finding ways to increase free-range kid customers. Because the task is to change the attitudes of the community, this will require a bit of advocacy by your department.

Here are a few ideas:

Outreach to Parents

Since it is now obvious that many parents have unreasonable fears about their child’s safety in public places, it is essential that you bring the facts forward. But even if they get the facts, they have the unconscious fear that if their’s are the only kids out walking on the street, then their kids are the prime target. Parents need to be repeatedly reassured that their community is safe. They need to know not only the statistics about safety but also the specific things your community does to ensure safe neighborhoods. When there are lots of kids outside, they are ALL safer.

Free-Range Kids sponsors an annual Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day this Saturday, May 9th and it’s an excellent example of a positive, and attention-grabbing event that draws attention to the issue that your program can leverage next year.

Collaboration with Public Safety

Parks and Rec can’t do this job by themselves and will be most effective when done in collaboration with Public Safety. We have to face the fact that many of the children who are most in need of recreation services are actually afraid of the police. The best way to turn this around is for the children to get to know those who serve and vice versa.

Coordination with Public Transit

Is there free public transportation for children in every neighborhood to access all recreation facilities and programs? Is there a program that will allow children to ride public transit unaccompanied by an adult? If not, what needs to happen so that this becomes a reality?

Providing Positive Information

It is no longer enough to provide catalogs of recreation programs and provide the local paper with the scores of games, etc. As part of this campaign, all of the positive actions you take need public recognition, so the whole community gets the message.

Improving Bicycle Access

It’s a simple fact, that if we are concerned about abduction, kids are safer on bikes than walking. It is also the case that kids can travel farther on bikes as well. The trick here is that safe routes are the key. It is completely reasonable for the Parks and Recreation Department to become the key advocate for safe bike routes from homes to recreation programs and facilities. Teaming up with the schools in their campaigns to get kids to walk and bike to school is very powerful as well.

Network with NGO’s

There are many programs that provide services to disadvantaged families. Often these populations are not well connected to recreation programming. Reaching out to these agencies, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, transitional housing programs and shelters can be a life-saving service.

Be a Hero

Over the past several years we have begun to recognize the importance of children being self-confident and independent. Overprotecting them is damaging in many ways and needs to be recognized for what it is, counter-productive. But as long as the “peer group” sees allowing children to master challenges as child endangerment, parents who insist on their legal right to allow their children to independently fully engage in the community will face the kind of repercussions that have been visited on the Meitiv family.

Since I do not work day in and day out in parks and recreation, my comments here are based on second-hand information that comes from my friends who are professionals, and thus some of what I have said and proposed may be off the mark or even offensive, and if that is your reaction, I apologize. On the other hand, if you find a grain of truth in this discussion and it motivates you in some way to expand your outreach, then we are both ahead of the game.

If, by your actions, a change occurs that gets more kids using your programs on their own, then in my book you are a hero.