Connecticut parents arrested for letting kids go to Dunkin’ Donuts

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

It was in Killingly, Connecticut, a suburban town in the northeastern part of the state. The Rivers lived near an elementary school, a library, a state police barracks, sidewalks, crosswalks, many Victorian-style homes, and the aforementioned donut shop. The children collected 7 dollars and set off.

A few minutes later, Rivero’s parents heard a knock on the door. It was the police.

The first officer who showed up “said he didn’t think it was safe for the kids to be walking alone,” Rivers says Reason. “We told him that while we felt it was safe, we agreed that we wouldn’t let them walk around town unsupervised.”

“We thought that would be the end of it,” Rivers added, “until three more officers showed up.”

The first officer sent Rivers’ husband to fetch the children, who only made it about two blocks away. Then mom, dad and kids faced a series of questions.

“They told us it wasn’t safe for kids to walk on the street, that there were registered sex offenders all over town that could get them, that dealers would 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 was watching the news.

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

Officers also claimed to have received a dozen 911 calls about the children during the short time they were gone. Rivers thought it unlikely, as they had only passed four other houses. But regardless of the explanation, the police officers continued to accuse Rivers’ husband of danger of harming the minor. They specifically charged Rivers 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,” Rivers says. “This 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 inside, the arresting officer said to him, ‘If you talk to me again , I will arrest you both and take your children away.'”

Rivers’ husband returned home shortly after his arrest and they began looking for a lawyer. But a few days later, a police sergeant visited the home and informed Rivers they were dropping the charges. He acknowledged that child neglect law is open to interpretation on the issue of letting children walk alone. Fortunately, Rivers told the lawyer that his services would not be needed after all because everything was settled.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. Police charges dropped, but the Department for Children and Families (DCF) continued its own investigation.

A DCF officer visited the family twice and talked to everyone about their entire history.

“She was looking for trouble,” says Rivers.

Rivers tried to explain to the officer that the police were overreacting, but she claimed that the parents had somehow compromised the safety of their children. When Rivers revealed that she had received therapy for depression several years ago, the clerk used the information as a weapon—and insisted that she return to therapy.

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

Let Grow, the non-profit organization I lead, is trying to change neglect laws so that simply trusting your children to the outside world is not reason enough to initiate investigations like the ones the Rivers experienced. Connecticut is considering a “reasonable independence in childhood” law that would establish a clearer ban on neglect: Probably danger, not any a danger that an imaginative person could think of.

“I’ve lived in this area most of my life,” Rivers says. “I walked and ran all over the city, alone, at all hours of the day and night, I met and talked to many local people. I never felt threatened by a single person in this city until meeting these officers and the social worker.”

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