‘For trusting my daughter, I was treated as a criminal’
What’s the punishment for leaving your kids in a shopping mall for one hour? For one mum, it was probation, parenting classes, and shame.
What is the punishment for ‘bad parenting’? ‘I was required to call and leave a message every Monday morning at precisely 8am. I had a sheet listing everything I had to say: “This is Bridget Kevane. I have committed no new crimes and I am still in Bozeman [in Montana].” The 12 hours before the phone call were the worst. I’d spend all day Sunday worrying that something might go wrong, that my alarm wouldn’t go off, that I’d be late and they would extend my sentence…’
In a country as vast as the US, news stories about the excesses of well-meaning self-appointed ‘child protectors’ soon add up: a Florida toddler accused of sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; a boy suspended from school for packing a small gun… made of Lego. We shake our heads in disbelief and wait for the punchline, or for common sense to prevail. But there’s no punchline in the story of Bridget Kevane, the mum charged with ‘violating an order of care’ because she left four children at a mall under the supervision of their 12-year-old sister and her friend.
I’m sitting in the quiet atrium of a midtown Manhattan office building across from Kevane, a lively fortysomething mum with a ready smile and a thick mane of brown hair. She and her family are in NYC visiting friends. They live in Bozeman, home of the Montana State University where Kevane is a professor of Latin American Studies.
I already know the basics of her story. One afternoon in 2007, she dropped her then 12-year-old daughter and friend along with four younger children to spend an hour or so roaming Bozeman’s Gallatin Valley Mall. After lunch, the older girls decided to try on some shirts in Macy’s and left the younger children in the purse section near the cosmetic counters. Store employees spotted them and called mall security, who called the police.
Kevane was charged with ‘violating a duty of care’ – that is, ‘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’.
The most bizarre thing about the charges against Kevane is that there aren’t even any laws in Montana prohibiting leaving children unattended at the mall. At worst, Kevane simply put too much faith in her 12-year-old daughter, who should have known better than to leave the younger children alone. And yet instead of someone at the mall having a stern word with the 12-year-old, and then mentioning it to Kevane later when she came to pick up the kids, Kevane found herself caught up in a messy local culture war over class, education and privilege. Susan Wordal, the city prosecutor, wrote to Kevane’s lawyer that ‘even individuals with major educations can commit this offence, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education’.
Stories like Kevane’s are becoming increasingly common. While it is true that most do not ultimately result in a prosecution, parents are increasingly vulnerable to the remonstrations of busybodies of all stripes. What parent hasn’t personally experienced a rebuff from a stranger for allowing their child to do something entirely ordinary, such as walk home alone from the bus stop, play in the front yard or, in my case, use a drinking straw (!)? But what makes Kevane’s case really alarming is that there was a blurring of the line between the prejudices of strangers and official policy.
article continues after advertisement
In the days and weeks that followed the mall incident, it became clear that prosecutor Wordal wanted nothing less than a showtrial about good and bad parenting. ‘She wanted me to carry that crime with me for the rest of my life, a scarlet letter that would symbolically humiliate me, teach me a lesson’, says Kevane.
At first, Kevane felt defiant. ‘I wasn’t a gracious criminal.’ Her lawyer even staged a mock jury of four people from the local area to test out how the case might go in court. But the results were devastating. Only one of the mock jury members, an older rancher, thought the charges against Kevane were ridiculous – the other three displayed varying degrees of shock at what Kevane had done. They all agreed that the only way she had any chance of winning her case was to ‘cry and show remorse’. At that point Kevane decided that she would not – could not – do what was required to win the case, and so her lawyer began the long, difficult task of trying to find an alternative to a trial.
After fraught negotiations, which lasted for months, Kevane accepted a ‘deferred prosecution’ – a special court programme designed to give people who are charged with relatively minor offences, and who are unlikely to reoffend, the opportunity to avoid getting a criminal record. ‘I didn’t have to plead guilty or go to trial’, she says. ‘But the charges are still out there…’ Which means they could be used against her if she were ever charged with a similar offence again.
Though there was no admission of guilt, there was still a sentence. Kevane was put on probation for a year, during which time she was required to report to a bail supervisor and attend parenting classes. If she was late for anything or displeased her supervisors in any way, her sentence could be extended. Though this arrangement spared her the ordeal of a public trial, it took its toll nonetheless.
In addition to the regular Monday morning phone calls, Kevane had to report to a bail supervisor in person every other week. ‘My assigned supervisor was very young. Our interactions were cursory and hostile. She made it very clear from the outset that she thought I had gotten off easy. [On] each visit I’d answer her questions and she’d type in my answers: Had I left my children alone? Was there any change in my situation? I also had to leave them a written itinerary. I was made to feel like a criminal.’
The bail supervisor set the time for the fortnightly interviews. It was non-negotiable. Kevane had to be on time every time. Once she was 15 minutes late because the time of the interview was close to the time that she drops her daughter at school. ‘I tried to explain to the supervisor on duty, but he wouldn’t listen and I blew up at him. He threatened to extend my sentence. I would cry before and after those visits.’
Kevane was required to attend parenting class for six months. It turns out that Bozeman is something of a Mecca for parenting education in Montana. The classes were run by an organisation called Thrive, a not-for-profit outfit formerly focused on preventing child abuse but which now aims its ‘help’ at all parents.
Kevane was enrolled in the ‘Love and Logic’ programme. Developed by the Love and Logic Parenting Institute of Golden Colorado, this programme for raising ‘responsible children’ touts ‘The Five Essential Es’: example, experience, empathy, encouragement and expectation. Kevane says: ‘Basically it suggests that you can address any problem through love and logic, that you can become a perfect parent. I found it very emasculating. You couldn’t ever just do something spontaneously and, of course, there was no room for blowing up.’
‘It felt more like foreign relations than parenting’, she says.
The classes were held at The Parent Place, Thrive’s parenting centre. Unlike Kevane, the other parents in the class seemed to be attending voluntarily. ‘They were mostly couples in their thirties or forties with well-paid jobs. Most had toddlers and a few had babies.’ As a mother with three older children, Kevane had far more experience than the other parents, but she held back from contributing to the discussions. ‘I never said a word because I was afraid that something I said might be used against me.’
‘I usually kept my distance from the other parents’, Kevane says, but there was one time when she felt some affinity with them. ‘It was when our instructor told us about the time she “lost it” with her child. She had once been so frustrated with her daughter that she… threw down the hairbrush in anger! We looked at one another as if to say “That’s what you consider as “losing it?”’
Until she wrote about her story in an article for Brain, Child magazine in the summer of 2009, Kevane’s case did not have a public dimension. Indeed, she was even prohibited from discussing it with her children since they were considered the ‘victims of her crime’. Instead it became a burden she carried with her in secret. ‘I thought the whole thing was absurd’, she told me. ‘But then I slowly came to doubt myself, to wonder about things. Should I have known better?’
‘I felt this terrible sense of fear. There were times when I would talk to neighbours or an acquaintance about the normal things parents do, and then I began to wonder, maybe because of something they said to me, whether they knew… It made me very self-conscious. I wouldn’t ever speak freely. Things I wouldn’t have thought twice about, like leaving the kids in the car while I ran into the store, filled me with worry.’
Almost three years since the ‘crime’, and nearly a year since her magazine article triggered some much-needed public debate about officialdom’s overreaction to so-called ‘bad parenting’, life has moved on. The younger children remember the incident as the time they got candy at the mall. Her older daughter, now 15, makes a point of giving the perfume ladies at Macy’s the stink eye. But these days her husband and kids mostly joke about the incident. Kevane is resolute:
‘I still really firmly believe that the more opportunities we give our children to learn independence, the better. We live in a very safe environment.’
There’s a sudden, subtle catch of unexpected emotion in her voice as she speaks. It’s no wonder. Bridget Kevane was never convicted of a crime; she never had to put on an orange jump suit or suffer the public humiliation of a trial. But in many ways, the degradation of having her judgments as a parent monitored by the state were every bit as hard.
We say our goodbyes on a windy street corner. I’m both amazed at Kevane’s ability to be positive in spite of her ordeal, and angry that she had to endure it in the first place.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.