By Bridget Kevane
On Saturday, June 16, 2007, I was charged with endangering the welfare of my children, a criminal charge that, in the city where I live, Bozeman, Montana, can lead to imprisonment in the county jail. The Montana Code 46-16-130(3) states that a parent can be charged with this offense if she “knowingly endangers the child’s welfare by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.”
Typically, prosecution is pursued when an adult supplies a child younger than eighteen with drugs, prostitutes the child, abandons the child’s home, or engages in sexual conduct with the child. A violation of duty of care is described as cruel treatment, abuse, infliction of unnecessary and cruel punishment, abandonment, neglect, lack of proper medical care, clothing, shelter, and food, and evidence of bodily injury.
I was charged with this crime because I dropped my three children and their two friends off at the Bozeman Gallatin Valley Mall.
* * *
Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.
The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.
My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.
An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.
My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.
So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest.
Why was I exhausted? I have three kids, a dog, a cat, a hamster, and a fish named Oscar. I have a husband who had started his own company and was working on weekends. I teach classes, write books and articles, and am chair of my department. I love my job, for one reason because it has given me the flexibility to be home for my kids every day after school. I oversee violin, swimming, and art lessons; I drive my kids around; I think about what I can make for dinner, and I wonder how early I can get to bed. In other words, like many mothers, I work two jobs, and sometimes that catches up with me.
I’ve come to look differently on my exhaustion that day, now that all this has taken place. I made a choice, and I believed it was the right choice: I let my daughter take over. I gave her a responsibility so I could have a break. I had no reason to doubt my daughter. I believed then and continue to believe today that the girls were aware and responsible enough to handle their younger siblings.
* * *
The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.
I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.
About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.
When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.
That feeling was quickly about to change.
As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.
My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.
I was completely stunned, unable to grasp what was unfolding right before my eyes. I sat down, scared, exhausted, and confused, and didn’t utter another word. We were allowed to take the children home, but I was told I had to hire a lawyer and appear in court on June 21.
As we drove home, the younger kids chattered about their adventure, oblivious about what had just transpired. My husband asked some pointed questions, and details began to emerge: Olivia liked the candy the store employees gave her and said the ladies were nice; Matthew said the employees asked strange questions; Ellie wondered why all the kids had been taken away to the Macy’s office.
Natalie and her friend, both visibly shaken, were mostly quiet except to say that they had not been allowed to call us. I sensed that they understood the bigger implications of what had happened and were not only worried about repercussions but also about their first encounter with the police. “Are we in trouble?” Matthew asked. No, we replied. Then he asked, “Are you in trouble, Mommy?” The question lingered in the air without an answer.
Guilt, a nagging feeling that always resided somewhere within me as a working mother, began to surface. Was I a bad mother? Had my judgment been so completely off? The two police officers, so much younger than I, had been so certain that I had committed a crime against my own children. They had not a shred of doubt. Maybe they were right; maybe in my at-times-frantic daily juggling act, I had lost the ability to care for my children. I had been discovered! My children would be taken from me! And how was I going to explain this to my friends, who had entrusted their children to me? Shame, guilt’s partner, took root as well.
When we arrived home I went straight to my room and lay down on the same bed on which, a few hours earlier, I had hoped for a couple of moments of peace.
* * *
Details of the incident became clear later. The kids had gone into Macy’s after lunch; it was to be the final stop of the afternoon. Natalie and her friend decided to try on some shirts and left the three younger kids in the purse section by the cosmetics counter—which, it’s true, was against the rules that I had laid out for them.
While the girls were in the dressing room, some Macy’s employees spotted the three younger kids and called mall security. When Natalie and her friend returned less than five minutes later, all the kids were taken away to Macy’s administrative office where they were held until the arrival of the city police. The kids-who were now being treated as victims of abuse-were not allowed to use their cell phones to call me, because I was now considered a negligent mother.
In making their decisions, the mall police and city police relied upon the statements of four Macy’s employees who worked the cosmetic counters, though it became clear later in written statements that some of the workers were not even in the store at the time, and that others had badly misestimated the younger kids’ ages to be two, three, and four (rather than three, seven, and eight). The rest of the employees’ stories vary wildly in time, place, and their perception of what actually happened.
At any point in the course of events, the Macy’s employees, the mall security guards, the police, or the city prosecutor could have chosen to view my decision to drop my children off at the mall as an innocent moment of faulty judgment. They could have slapped me on the wrist, or warned me, “Don’t do that again,” or settled for any number of lesser charges. After all, there is no law in Bozeman against dropping your children off at the mall.
But instead my actions were considered criminal neglect, “violating a duty of care.” Why? As the pretrial procedures dragged on, I began to feel I was caught in a culture war, or perhaps several wars—town vs. gown, native Montanan vs. outsider, and working mother vs. working mother.
The city attorney made no secret of the fact that her own parenting choices informed her decision in backing up the police officer. She told my lawyer in their first meeting that she also had a daughter and would never have left her at the mall. She also said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their “heads are always in a book.” Her first letter to my lawyer ended on a similar theme: “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education.” Despite the fact that Montana professors are among the lowest paid in the nation, and that undoubtedly the prosecutor has a law degree herself, she nevertheless categorized me as someone trying to receive special treatment.
My lawyer and I came to understand that, more than anything, the city attorney wanted me to plead guilty, to admit that I had “violated a duty of care.” She wanted me to carry that crime with me for the rest of my life, a scarlet A that would symbolically humiliate me, teach me a lesson, and remain etched in my being.
I now realize that her pressure—her near obsession with having me plead guilty—had less to do with what I had done and more to do with her perception of me as an outsider who thought she was above the law, who had money to pay her way out of a mistake, who thought she was smarter than the Bozeman attorney because of her “major education.” This perception took hold even though I had never spoken one word to her directly. Nor did I ever speak in court; only my lawyer did. I was visible but silent, and thus unable to shake the image that the prosecutor had created of me: a rich, reckless, highly educated outsider mother who probably left her children all the time in order to read her books.
And that’s how I became defendant Bridget Anne Lieb (my married name), charged with a crime by the State of Montana, Case no. TK-07-03739.
* * *
The prosecutor was right in one respect. I am an outsider. My parents—my father born in Iowa from poor Irish immigrants, my mother raised by Russian Jewish parents in a small town in Wisconsin—left the United States in the late Fifties, never to return. I was born in Italy and raised in Puerto Rico, one of eight children.
As kids, we were frequently left to our own devices, with the older children often left in charge of the younger ones. In many ways, I raised my youngest sister, walking her around the neighborhood, taking her to the local neighborhood store, and more. My mother was certainly around quite a bit, but many times she was not able to attend to all eight of us, each about a year apart, each with our own separate needs and demands on her time. She, like many mothers, believed in the power of allowing her children to gain independence by depending on themselves. Although I cannot speak for my siblings, I certainly believe that I derived not only a sense of independence from this practice but a sense of confidence in my ability to manage and make my own decisions.
During the months between my arrest and the deferred prosecution agreement that my lawyer eventually worked out, I began to feel that I was being reprimanded for allowing my daughter to develop that sense of responsibility, and, equally important, to come to the realization that sometimes failure is the best teacher of all. Certainly, she had failed when she made the decision to walk into that dressing room, and had the police not intervened, I would have been angry with her, and she would have known that what she had done was wrong. We both would have gained experience. Instead, we got caught up in the legal system and wound up learning a different, sadder lesson: that self-sufficiency is shrinking in today’s culture.
I saw this illustrated in the parenting class I ended up taking as part of the deferred prosecution agreement. Listening to the questions from the other parents (all of whom were there voluntarily, as far as I could tell) it became clear to me that there’s less room than there used to be to parent by instinct and to trust oneself, as my mother did. Our culture has attempted to find a prescription for parenting, and many people want to believe in the prescription rather than in making their own daily judgments.
At every turn, the parents in the class asked questions that I believe they could have been able to figure out on their own. Should I leave my child in timeout for less time if he yells out “I’m sorry”? Should I not give my child dessert if she doesn’t finish her meal? Should I let him play with his food or take it away when he does that and not give him any more? Should I let my child cry for twenty minutes or thirty? Should I close the door when my child goes to bed or leave it open? Should I tell my child I am angry or give her the silent treatment? Please tell me how to raise my children.
I, on the other hand, had trusted my own instincts and trusted the way I had been brought up when I made my decision on that fateful day: It was fine to drop the kids off at the mall. Did I learn from this? Absolutely. I learned it’s not okay to drop the kids off at the mall, not in Bozeman, Montana, anyway. But I also learned that I am more fiercely attached than I realized to my way of parenting. My temperament, my juggling, my choices: I would not let someone tell me how to raise my children.
* * *
Had I been willing to plead guilty, the whole case would have been settled in a month, with a fine of roughly eight hundred dollars and a permanent record. Instead, I chose to plead not guilty, causing the case to go on for more than a year and cost us thousands of dollars. I found support for my decision from my own mother, whose simple statement was the only one that made sense to me during the whole year: If I did not defend myself, she told me, no one would.
My lawyer gave the prosecutor many options to choose from for punishment, ranging from hundreds of hours of community service to taking a parenting class to admission of a mistake. But he could not give her the guilty plea that she so wanted.
I love my children. I would die for them. I have done my best as a working mother, balancing raising them with my job, making sure that I am home when they return from school, being with them on a daily basis. I am by no means a perfect mother. I get angry, I yell, I can be sarcastic, short-tempered, and inaccessible. Yet my children know I love them. They are safe and secure with me—and, I still believe, they are safe and secure in places I allow them to go without me, their friends’ houses, our neighborhood, and, once, the mall.
I got through the year during which the case dragged on quietly, not sharing with anyone what had happened—not only because the judge had placed a gag order on the case, but also because I felt a deep, deep shame. Here I was, someone who had been successful for almost thirteen years raising children and having a job—indeed, someone who was admired by others in this balancing act—and I was being accused of failing.
The exhaustion of being a working mother while trying to raise a wonderful family had caught up with me. At times, I found myself thinking that six months in jail might be just what I needed.
* * *
In anticipation of my impending trial, my lawyer set up a mock jury in a conference room at his firm. My daughter and I were called to the witness stand and asked to describe what happened to the best of our knowledge. My lawyer thought the four mock jurors would come quickly to a decision. They ended up discussing and fighting over the case for what felt to me like an eternity.
The jurors were meant to be representative of a broad spectrum of parents in Bozeman, which they were—but they also turned out to illustrate a microcosm of the parenting culture wars. At stake was what constituted good parenting and whether or not I was guilty as charged. We could hear their loud voices from the office’s kitchen where we were waiting.
I finally was called back in with my lawyer. What followed was one surprise after another. First there was the Montana rancher who practically guffawed when he heard the charges against me. At twelve years old, he told us, he was cutting wheat on a tractor and independently working a farm. There was the child therapist who was appalled yet forgiving. There was the father of one who was unforgiving, and there was the older homemaker who was oddly angered by my statement that I considered Bozeman a safe community. “There was a murder here last year,” she exclaimed. In the end, the mock jurors told me that if I wanted to win a real trial, I’d have to cry and show remorse, or at least show some emotion.
Two things happened at that moment: I realized that I was so guarded about the incident that no true emotion was showing, not to strangers or to my friends or even to my husband. And I realized I could never go to trial. My lawyer worked out the deferred prosecution agreement, and I began my service.
At first I felt angry about the show the mock jurors had wanted me to put on, but I now realize that the only way to truly explain my story is through an emotional lens. I do feel guilty about what happened. Not because I committed a crime according to the legal definition, but because no parent has confidence that they have been completely successful, ever.
For all the times that I was not the “good” parent, I am guilty; for all the times that I did not respond perfectly to my children’s needs, I am guilty. For all the times that I’ve not given them enough of me, I am guilty. For feeling constantly torn between so many daily demands, trying to make it all work, but knowing that I sometimes fall short, I am guilty.
But of knowingly putting my children in harm’s way by letting them go to the mall alone? Not guilty.
Author’s Note: I finished the rewrites of this essay on Mother’s Day, 2009. I welcome the irony. On the day where mothers are celebrated nationally, I was writing about being a bad mother. But in the end, I was a bad mother who defended myself and finally found the strength to realize that I am proud of my mothering instinct, mistakes and all.
Bridget Kevane is chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and a professor of Latin American and Latino Literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. She was born in Rome, raised in Puerto Rico and has lived in the United States since 1983 in New York, Los Angeles, and now Montana.
Brain, Child (Summer 2009)
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