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When It Comes To Other People's Kids, Should Parents Intervene?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about public interventions into other people's parenting. And we're talking about this because it seems as though we're seeing more of this these days. A South Carolina mom was recently arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play alone at a park while she was at work at McDonalds. An Arizona mother faced child abuse charges for leaving her young children in a car while she attended a job interview in March. And a Chicago mom wrote a column last month about facing legal consequences for leaving her four-year-old in a car while she ran into the store to buy him some headphones. All situations were noticed by bystanders who alerted authorities and consequences that we just told you about ensued. And reaction to these situations has ranged wildly from outrage to empathy. And it got us thinking about when it's appropriate to intervene - how to do it, if ever. So we're talking about this with a diverse group. Jolene Ivey is a mom of five boys and a Maryland state lawmaker, recently a candidate for lieutenant governor. Jeff Yang is a Wall Street Journal columnist and fathers of two sons. Gayle Trotter is an senior fellow at Independent Women's Forum and a mother of six and Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's alt.latino podcast and the father of two boys. Welcome back everybody, thanks so much for joining us once again.


JEFF YANG: Thank you.

GAYLE TROTTER: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: So let's start with that South Carolina woman's case. She worked at McDonalds as I mentioned. Her daughter had been coming with her and playing on a laptop. But apparently the laptop was stolen and the little girl was bored, so the mom dropped her off at a park with a cell phone and she had a key to their apartment. But apparently a passerby saw the child at the park on his or her way to work. And when she or he - I don't know if it's a man or woman - saw the child again playing sometime later without an adult present, the person called the authorities, the mom was arrested. The child has been taken into Social Services's custody. Some very strong reactions to this - one website has endeavored to raise some funds for the mom. Apparently, they've raised about $25,000 or so. Critics - some critics are taking the person who reported this incident to task. But the incident was reported in the local media there as the mother abandoning the child. So I just want to ask you each for your reaction to this. Jolene?

IVEY: Severe overreaction and hints of racism.

MARTIN: Because?

IVEY: Well, clearly in the press when they were talking about her, they said that - they specifically said - a black mother. And then they said that she'd abandoned the kid. It just seems insane to me. The child wasn't abandoned and the mother's race was not relevant. So the whole thing just seemed ridiculous to me and instead of that busybody bystander turning her in, maybe they should have done something about helping the mom, who clearly needed a little extra help.

MARTIN: Felix?

CONTRERAS: I'd agree, overreaction by the state and overreaction by people tuning in and not listening to all the facts and maybe being shaped by some of the stilted local media coverage. I think - but I also think that it was - it wasn't out of line for the woman at the park to ask some questions and maybe move things forward.

MARTIN: But how would she have done that? What should she have done?


MARTIN: He or she.

CONTRERAS: ...Contact the mom. Follow up by contacting the mom and finding out a little bit more information and maybe there's a way that she could help or other people could help. I mean, turning to the state, turning to the police I don't think was the right way to handle that.

MARTIN: Gayle?

TROTTER: I agree completely with the other two panelists. And I think that in this situation, this is where prosecutorial discretion would come up or the officer - the arresting officer - would have discretion as well. So there's a failure on many levels in this situation - not just to the person who called in to report the mother - but also the officers who arrested the mother and the prosecutor going forward. This is a perfect example of where charges should be dropped and you're doing much more harm to the child by prosecuting the mother and arresting her than you are for the child to be at the park.

MARTIN: Is that the standard though you would use? Because objectively speaking, was she in a safe - was that a safe situation? I mean, I think reasonable people can argue it was not a safe situation. Notwithstanding the fact that there are lots of other kids at the park, apparently it's a very popular location, there was no caregiver attending to her specifically. So objectively speaking - so what's the standard that should have been employed here?

TROTTER: Well, we all have a lot of discretion as parents because the world is a dangerous place and we all understand that life is risky. So you just made the point that reasonable people can disagree about whether the park was safe or not. And I think that parents need to be given the discretion to decide that for their children - their child's maturity - and whether or not the location - if there are other parents looking out for her as well. And the go-to instinct is not to prosecute and jail a mother for this type of discretion that she's using, but really to give her more options and to discuss it with her. But in this case, this was completely the wrong decision to make in regard to this mother.

MARTIN: Jeff Yang, what do you think?

YANG: You know (laughing), it's interesting because I feel like my views on this are little bit colored in two directions because I live in, you know, kind of a classically high intervention neighborhood (laughing) - Park Slope, Brooklyn - where, if you turn your back on your child, he'll be whisked away and force-fed organic kale or something. So that's one side of it. The other side is that my parents are immigrants and like many immigrant parents, they grew up in situations where a lot of the standards that we have here around how old a child should be to be independent, to be able to move around freely, is very different. They grew up, you know, in huge families and they were on their own - well, not really alone, but without parents for large periods of time - from very young ages. And I grew up as kind of a latchkey kid. You know, age 10, 11, I was walking back from the - you know - the library and so forth, waiting for my parents to pick me up. In this particular case, I can't really blame the person who investigated the situation for more than perhaps overreacting in the sense of according to the authorities. I agree with the other panelists that trying to find the mother, talking to the girl and saying - where is your mother ? - would be a better thing than reporting to the police, that's crazy. But...

MARTIN: Because - because why though? I mean - if objectively speaking - if you felt that the child circumstances were unsafe, isn't it their job - isn't it the job of the authorities to investigate these issues? Is it your job to determine whether those circumstances are right?

YANG: I think if you take the responsibility - and it is a responsibility - to try to help somebody, then you first have to identify the full context of the situation. Knowing - knowing perhaps that by reporting to the authorities there was going to be a significant consequence, it always makes sense to - even if it takes a village to raise children - not to treat parents like village idiots, you know?

MARTIN: You know - and Jolene I'm curious about this - and if you're just joining us, we're having our regular parenting roundtable. We're focusing on public interventions when it comes to parenting. When is it appropriate to step in? And we started by talking about a South Carolina case where a woman was arrested because her daughter was playing in a nearby park while she was at work, working her shift at McDonalds - may or may not be relevant that she made sure the child had a cell phone and also was within walking distance of her apartment so she could've gone home at anytime - a bystander intervened. Our guests are Felix Contreras of NPR's alt. latino podcast, Maryland state lawmaker Jolene Ivey, conservative columnist Gayle Trotter, Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang - all parents. So Jolene, you've told us before about situations where you did intervene. You know, there were - I don't remember the exact circumstances but you've told us that, you know, you've walked up to parents and said stop this or that. What's the - what is the trigger for you?

IVEY: The child has - it's not just that I or you have to think it might be an unsafe situation because I disagree that the world is - I don't think the world is a dangerous place, generally speaking. I know that that's not popular, the media wants us all to think that everybody's trying to snatch our children. And many of us...

MARTIN: I - I don't know that there was a meeting where we decided that, just to let you know that we want you to think that. But I'm just saying...

IVEY: I used to work at a television station when I was - about 30 years ago. And there was this whole thing about the missing child, right? And everybody had to get their kid ID'd - the picture taken, the fingerprints - and I didn't have children and I couldn't figure out what was this we were trying to prevent? So I'd ask what do we do with this information if the child is missing? Oh, that's what we used to identify the body. Well, that is not protecting children. And so I think that, you know, you're just making it up when you try to say that people are trying to snatch your child. Most of the time, if there's been a child snatching, it's the noncustodial parent - it's not some stranger. It happens rarely.

MARTIN: So what's the standard for you to intervene?

IVEY: That someone has to actually be hurting their child. And hurting your child isn't leaving your child in the park for a few hours. Hurting your child is hitting your child, OK? It's really being abusive, physically, to your child or even screaming at your kid. And the screamers I try to intervene in a different way because I'm trying to keep it from escalating. And if you see someone screaming at their kid and it looks, like, really bad, you can just go over and say man, kids can make you crazy, can't they? Oh, he must be so tired and poor you, you know what? And then you try to intervene and talk to the kid and just break it up. I think that that's really helpful.

MARTIN: Felix, do you have a standard for intervening? Have you ever?

CONTRERAS: About the only time that ever happened was riding the Metro here in D.C. And there was a young woman. She had two kids. You know, it was the end of the day, she was obviously tired. And one of the kids, the older kid, who was maybe about four or five years old, was tired and cranky and we all know what that's like. And he was just going on and on, you know, sort of whining and stuff. And she sort of grabbed him and everyone in the car realized, you know, what was going on. She sort of grabbed him and shook him a little bit, you know? And it was an audible - like people in the car were like oh, no, you know, blah, blah, blah - so the only time I really intervened was - my dad taught me how to make a quarter disappear from my hand, a little trick for kids. So I just walked over and started doing that to the kid to take his mind off of whatever, you know, he's tired and hungry - did that for a few stops and that sort of mellowed him out and mellowed the mom out. You know, but that's really the only time I've ever intervened in something like that.

MARTIN: Gayle, do you - have you ever - do you have a standard for intervening? Is there - what would cause you to get involved?

TROTTER: My standard for intervening would be something that would necessitate a 911 call, where life or limb is in danger. But I completely agree that it would be great to learn some magic tricks for those times where you don't want to intervene in a judgmental or critical way, but you want to take some of the stress, some of the pressure out of the situation. And I would say there are many times where I have done that - to go up and start singing to the child or if you have a screaming baby, like a newborn, or a real young child and the mom you just know is about - or the dad - is about to tear out his hair and you go up and they're not able to eat their dinner - you go up and offer to hold the baby for a while because...

MARTIN: Is that welcome?


MARTIN: Or do people tell you to mind your business?

TROTTER: Yes, I think probably because people know I have so many kids that they're, you know, very trusting with me and so when I come up, they're happy for me to help them with that. And maybe even with strangers they see that. So I haven't had a problem with that. But the judgmental criticism should never, ever, enter into that type of intervention.

MARTIN: Jeff, you have a story as I understand it.

YANG: (Laughing) Sort of. As I - I mean - as I mentioned, I'm from Park Slope, Brooklyn, it's a place where - I've actually been castigated publicly for feeding my younger son grapes that were not cut in half at a playground. So that's kind of the tenor of things.


YANG: One thing which - (laughing) which I do and have done and continue to do - I did this morning - is I ride my younger son, with a helmet, slowly on a sidewalk on the top tier of my bicycle to get him from place to place. He loves it, I enjoy it. You know, we sing together and everything. And I have actually had somebody jump in front of the bicycle and, you know, hold up her hands saying you cannot do that. You are going to, you know, cause an accident. Your child will, you know, risk blah, blah, blah, brain injury, et cetera. And I was flabbergasted. I mean, I actually got off the bike and started walking with him. He started getting upset but more just not to cause a scene. What I ultimately wanted to say is you almost caused that accident by leaping in front of my bicycle (laughing). But that - you know - the notion of when somebody is causing harm or risking harm - it's a very, very gray area. And I do think that there isn't enough conversation or isn't enough guideline setting, I guess, around what parents should think of as being potentially risk worthy, of intervening, of getting between a parent and child.

MARTIN: You know, that's interesting because you - we wonder - the folks who were telling you not to ride your kids on the handlebars, which is something that I think a lot of people do...

YANG: Oh, not handle bars (laughing). That is actually kind of crazy. The top tube kind of between my legs holding on them...

MARTIN: Right, yeah, it's just - is it - the bottom line for me - the question - I keep going back to this woman at the McDonalds - is - the real issue is she had no safe place for her child. There was no childcare while she was at work.

YANG: Right.

MARTIN: And, you know, one of the other issues with the way some of these employers work these days, what they call just in time shifting is that you don't even know when you're working until maybe a couple of hours ahead of time or two days ahead of time. So try to figure out how to manage childcare in kind of that scenario. So that's the part about this that I kind of find interesting. Now - OK, but what about the hot car thing? Jolene? What about the hot car? I mean, this is one of those issues where this woman in Chicago wrote about - it was a 50 degree day and the four-year-old - they were about to take a trip and she realized realize that something he needed for the trip was broken. And she wanted to grab something for the trip. Somebody videotaped her license plate and by the time she actually got to her destination, the police were kind of at her house.

IVEY: Yeah, that was a little extreme, I thought. I mean, if they had stood by the car and the woman hadn't come back in a certain amount of time and you really got concerned for the child, then you go into the store and you try to find the mom and you say hey, you may have forgotten your kids out there. But for a five-minute run inside the store and it's not even that hot outside and she left some windows down - I mean, I understand that a car can get really hot very fast - but that - that standard hadn't been met. It sounded like the woman was just wanting to cause trouble more than she wanted to help. If she'd wanted to help, she could've stopped the woman and said hey, you want me to watch your kid for a minute so you can run into the store?


IVEY: But just to call the cops and videotape it and not even say anything to the woman. Clearly, she was there long enough - or he or she who was doing the videotaping - was there long enough - could've had that conversation.

MARTIN: Gayle, what do you think? You're also a lawyer in addition to be a commentator and a mom of six.


MARTIN: And then - is there a kind of some objective standard for when you think - I mean, the hot car story - I mean, unfortunately, is very much in the news of late and some...


MARTIN: Really terrible situations that have occurred.

TROTTER: Yes and these tragedies - there was an episode a few years ago out in Manassas, Virginia, where a father - the mother was out of the country and the father left one of the children in the car and the - none of the siblings recognized it, the father didn't recognize it and then he was prosecuted. And so the law has to deal with these very tricky situations where, as I said, I do believe the world is a dangerous place and things can happen, something can happen to that child in the park even if the mother was there. We have all sorts of accidents that happen. But for me, I would never feel comfortable leaving young children alone in the car but that's my choice. That's my decision. And for me, when I've been confronted with that, I've thought it was safer to send a younger child into the grocery store to buy whatever the thing was instead of leaving the children in the car by themselves. But we should give the parents the benefit of the doubt and when these situations happen, unless there's some evidence that the parent intended to do that, I think that we as a society need to understand the stresses of being a parent and give them compassion and assistance and not try to make them the targets of prosecutorial aggression.

MARTIN: Do you to want to give us - Jolene - a final thought on this? Why do you think we don't? What's your - do you have any kind of word of wisdom here to conclude this conversation? It's obviously complicated. So many different scenarios, so many different details matter and also like Jeff was telling us, where you live sort of matters in terms of what people seem to think is OK and not OK. Final word of advice on this?

IVEY: I think we all just need to be a little kinder to each other as parents and to look out for each other as much as we can. If you disagree with what somebody's doing or saying, try to intervene in the nicest possible way.

MARTIN: And learn some card - learn some magic tricks, right Felix?



MARTIN: Jolene Ivey is a mother of five and a Maryland state lawmaker. Gayle Trotter is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a mom of six. Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's alt. latino podcast, the father of two boys, with us from Washington, D.C. And Jeff Yang is a Wall Street Journal columnist and father of two sons, with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you all so much for joining us.

TROTTER: Thanks, Michel.

CONTRERAS: Thanks, Michel

YANG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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