On July 29, 2013, a Latina mother in Illinois named Natasha Felix sent her three sons, ages 11, 9, and 5, out to play with a visiting cousin, a young girl, in a fenced park right next to her apartment building. The oldest boy was charged with keeping an eye on his siblings, while Felix watched them all from the window. While they were outside, a local preschool teacher showed up at the park with her class. She saw the 9-year-old climb a tree. Felix’s youngest son fought with his cousin over a scooter and, at one point, ran with it into the street. Based on this, the teacher called the child-abuse hotline, and Felix received a visit from the Department of Children and Family Services.
According to legal filings in the case, the investigator, Nancy Rodriguez, found that Felix’s kids “were clothed appropriately, appeared clean [and] well groomed,” and that Felix “appeared to be a good mother.” Felix’s oldest son seemed like a “mature young boy” who “certainly could be allowed to go outside by himself to the park next door.”
However, when Rodriguez asked Felix if the boys had any special needs, Felix replied that the 11-year-old and the 9-year-old had been diagnosed with ADHD. On the advice of their doctor, they were off their medications for the summer. Rodriguez later wrote that “based on the mother not knowing that the kids were running into the street with the scooter, based on the children having ADHD,” she recommended that Felix be cited for “Inadequate Supervision” under the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. As a result, Felix was placed on the state’s child-abuse registry, which led to her losing her job as a home healthcare aide and ended her dreams of becoming a licensed practical nurse.
“She’s been devastated,” says Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center, who is representing Felix before a state appeals court. “I’ve been talking to her about how this impacted her, and it’s heartbreaking. She couldn’t send her son to take the garbage out—she was afraid to do that.”
Earlier this year, a Maryland couple, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, made international news after two run-ins with Child Protective Services, sparked by their decision to let their children, ages 10 and 6, walk to neighborhood parks by themselves. As self-described “free-range parents,” the Meitivs are committed to giving their kids freedom from constant adult oversight. According to an interview with Danielle in Psychology Today, after the second incident, a social worker demanded that Alexander sign a “temporary safety plan” saying that his children would be supervised at all times until CPS could do a follow-up. When he balked, the social worker threatened to have the children taken away from him immediately and called the police. The couple were ultimately found “responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect,” which Danielle calls “an Orwellian judgment,” adding that their lawyer describes it as “‘legal purgatory,’ because it seems to be meaningless in plain English, yet it’s like a cloud hanging over our heads.”
The Meitiv case was highly unusual, but not because of the arbitrariness or overreaction of CPS. It was unusual because the Meitivs are white, affluent, and highly educated: He’s a theoretical physicist, and she’s a science writer and consultant. “I’ve worked in this field for 35 years, and I can’t remember when child-welfare cases like this have been in the news,” says Redleaf. “We’ve been trying and trying to get that to happen.”