Earlier this month, 8-year-old Dorothy Widen took her family dog Marshmallow for a walk around the block near her family’s suburban Chicago home. When she returned, there was a knock on the door — but instead of her expected playmate, it was the local cops, according to the Chicago Tribune.
As it turns out, a neighbor had called authorities after seeing Dorothy alone with the dog, stating the child was less than 5 years old and had been outside and unattended for 90 minutes, NBC 5 reports.
“For something like this to happen to me, there’s something really wrong,” Widen, 48, who home-schools her daughter, told the Tribune. “She was gone for five minutes. I was in the backyard and I could see her through the yard.”
After a chat, cops cleared Widen of any wrongdoing — but two days later she received a call from the Department of Children and Family Services after the same neighbor seemingly called the agency to complain about the instance again.
“The funny thing is … I’m a joke with my friends because my kids are around me all the time,” Widen added to the Tribune. After posting about the saga on Facebook, Widen heard from other mothers who’d experienced similar investigations.
“These are upper-middle class, stay-at-home moms who have been investigated because someone didn’t have anything better to do with their time and called the police on them,” she said.
In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, the DCFS said the case was closed. “The hotline narrative said the caller reported that the child was 5 years old or less. The caller reported calling police before about the girl playing in a parking lot,” the statement read. “We went out and investigated, and the investigation has already been unfounded. We don’t control the calls that come into our hotline. Something made someone think there was a concern, and we don’t know without checking it out.”
Widen is the latest in what appears to be an increasing number of moms who have had the police called on them for allowing their children to play outside unsupervised or leaving them in a car to run into a grocery store; author Kim Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about having a warrant for her arrest issued after leaving her 4-year-old in a car on a cool day with the windows cracked to run a five-minute-errand. She mentioned other similar cases, including a mother who let her child go to the park unsupervised and another who had to leave her children in the car when she couldn’t find childcare during a job interview; both were arrested and their children removed from their custody. A Texas mom was arrested for letting her children play in her cul-de-sac while she watched from her lawn.
Every state has different laws about the age in which children can be left unsupervised; a handout from the Child Welfare Information Gateway (last updated in 2013) states that children in Illinois need to be 14, though in Oregon they can be 10, and in Maryland, 8.
Instead of firm ages, many states simply offer guidelines about milestones and safety measures related to leaving children alone, and in March, Utah became the first state to pass a law about “free-range parenting,” stating that child neglect does not include “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.” According to the New York Times, such activities include walking or biking to and from school, playgrounds and nearby stores.
For her part, Widen hopes this is a lesson in the dangers of mommy-shaming and stranger intervention with parenting decisions.
“Everyone needs to allow the parent to do what is best for their family,” she told the Tribune. “No one will dictate my parenting choices.”