DCF Event Notes

May 17th, 2023
Whenever I post about letting our kids be more independent, especially when it involves being on their own in public, people comment with fears of DCF (or CPS in other states, the agency that deals with child abuse and neglect): "did you hear about that family in Maryland?" The same thing happens when talking to other parents: "I think my oldest is ready to go to the park by themself, but I'm worried someone would call DCF on them." We're also worried about cars, or if they fall and get hurt, but DCF is a different kind of worry: it's not something where we can just use our best judgment, it's something where our best judgment could be called into question.

A neighborhood parent friend organized a meeting with a DCF representative for parents to learn more about the report handling process, how they make their decisions, and ask questions. There ended up being about thirty of us, I learned a good bit about how DCF approaches their work, and I'm glad I went.

Overall, my main takeaway was that this kind of situation, DCF deciding that a parent is neglecting their child by allowing them to play independently, is very little of what DCF spends their time on. This meant there was a bit of a mismatch in what the representative and the parents wanted to get out of the event. The representative wanted us to think about and avoid the kinds of issues that come up the most: sexting, getting into their parents' edibles, truancy, etc. But how much of "insufficient supervision in a public place" triggering very few DCF cases is due to parents being very cautious out of fear of DCF's response?

The parents were generally very interested in how DCF decides whether some level of supervision is sufficient, and what we got was that there are no hard rules or even guidelines, and that every situation is handled on its own with discretion and judgment. MA is not a state with age-based rules for any of this, and DCF doesn't give advice or comment on hypotheticals. I both see why the parents overall found this frustrating (I think my kid is ready to be at the park by themselves how do I know I won't get in trouble?) and why the system is that way (every kid is different, context matters enormously, human behavior is complex). It seems like what the DCF representative wanted us to take away was that we should be thoughtful and make the best decisions we could for our children, which on its face sounds really good! What gives me pause, though, is that in a culture where it's relatively rare for younger kids to be out on their own, I could still see a caseworker disagreeing about whether our kids were mature enough.

It seems to me that despite the potential downsides of issuing guidelines they would still be pretty helpful on balance. For example:

Children vary dramatically in what they are ready for at different ages, and there are no firm rules for when a level of independence is appropriate. Based on our experience with children and families across Massachusetts, however, here are some rough benchmarks. For each situation we give the age at which we'd guess the typical child can learn to handle it safely, along with ages for especially mature and immature children.

  • Staying home alone for 15min: ...
  • Staying home alone for 3hr: ...
  • Staying home alone overnight: ...
  • Crossing a low-traffic street: ...
  • Playing at a playground they can walk home from: ...
  • ...

We hope these guidelines give you an idea of what our expectations are going in before learning more the specifics of your situation.

On the other hand, when you look at states that do give guidelines you tend to see very conservative guidelines. For example, here's CT:

Experts believe a child should be at least 12 before he is left alone, and at least 15 before he can care for a younger brother or sister. These are the minimum ages. Not every child is ready then.

And NY:

Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone.

Having no guidelines is probably better than having very limiting ones, so maybe I should be thankful that MA DCF doesn't give any?

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