Connecticut Parents Arrested for Letting Kids Walk to Dunkin’ Donuts
It was Super Bowl Sunday in February 2019. Cynthia Rivers and her husband decided their kids, ages seven and nine, deserved a long-promised reward for cleaning their rooms: the right to go to Dunkin’ Donuts alone. (reason changed her name to protect family anonymity.)
That was in Killingly, Connecticut, a northeastern suburb. The Rivers lived near an elementary school, library, state police barracks, sidewalks, crosswalks, many Victorian-style houses, and the aforementioned donut shop. The kids raised $7 and off we went.
A few minutes later, the River parents heard a knock on the door. It was the police.
The first cop to show up “said he didn’t think it was safe for the kids to go alone,” Rivers says reason. “We told him that while we felt safe, we agreed not to allow them to roam the city unsupervised.”
“We thought that was the end,” Rivers added, “until three more officers showed up.”
The first cop sent Rivers’ husband to get the kids, who had only made it about two blocks. Then Mom, Dad and the children were faced with a flood of questions.
“They told us that it wasn’t safe for children to walk down the street, that there were registered sex offenders all over town who could take them away, that drug dealers would give them drugs, and that it was a ‘different world’ now ‘” Rivers says.
She tried to deny what the police said and one of them asked if she was watching the news.
The police report reviewed by reason, makes it clear that police were obsessed with the possibility of sex offenders harming children. In fact, they urged the Rivers to search the sex offender registry to see which of their neighbors were on it.
Officers also claimed they received a dozen 911 calls about the children in the short time they were away. Rivers thought this unlikely as they had only made it past four other houses. But whatever the reasoning, officers went on to charge Rivers’ husband with causing harm to a minor. They billed Rivers separately for the same. Then they arrested her husband and took him away.
“I was trying to convince the officers that we weren’t doing anything wrong,” says Rivers. “It was obviously futile, but I had to try. Then I went back inside to help with the kids. I later learned from my husband that after I went in, the arresting officer said to him, ‘If she talks to me again, I will arrest you both and take your children away from you.'”
River’s husband returned home quickly after the arrest and they began searching for an attorney. But a few days later, a police sergeant visited the home and told the Rivers they were dropping the charges. He acknowledged that the Child Negligence Act on the issue of letting children walk alone is open to interpretation. Luckily, the Rivers told the attorney that his services weren’t needed after all as everything was settled.
Unfortunately this was not the case. Police charges had disappeared, but the Department for Children and Families (DCF) continued its own investigation.
The DCF caseworker visited the family twice and interviewed everyone for their full history.
“She was looking for problems,” says Rivers.
Rivers tried to explain to the case officer that the police overreacted, but the case officer claimed the parents somehow compromised their children’s safety. When Rivers revealed she received therapy for depression a few years ago, the case worker used that information — and insisted she return to therapy.
Eventually, DCF also closed the case. 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 walk unsupervised again.
Let Grow, the nonprofit I run, is trying to change the neglect laws so that simply trusting your kids in the outside world isn’t enough to initiate an investigation like the one the Rivers had to endure. Connecticut is considering a “reasonable child independence” law that would create a clearer barrier to neglect: probably danger, rather than any Danger an imaginative person could think of.
“I’ve lived in this area most of my life,” says Rivers. “I have walked and jogged alone in this city at all hours of the day and night and have met and spoken to many local people. I never felt threatened by a single person in this town until I met these officers and the social worker.”