Vanessa Peoples knows all too well about parental rights abuses. She was a 25-year-old nursing student when a “wellness visit” to check on her children turned into an all-out assault on her family and home. And none of it was called for.

According to this article by Diane Redleaf at Reason, the story began in June 2017 when Peoples and her two children, ages 2 and 4, enjoyed a gathering with about 15 relatives at a local park. When Peoples’ youngest followed a departing cousin toward her car, a passerby assumed the child was unattended, grabbed him, and called the police. Peoples was there immediately and demanded the woman let the boy go, but she refused.

Police on the Scene

When the police arrived, they, too, demanded Peoples prove she was the boy’s mother, even as he was continually reaching for her and calling her “mom.” Finally, with several relatives lending support to Peoples’ claim, the “child rescuer” relented and returned the boy. The police cited Peoples for child neglect and departed.

Already, this should not have happened. The police dispatch could easily have said, “the mother is there now? Then let the child go to his mother.”

Barring that, the police arriving on the scene could have done the same thing. To cite a mother for neglect because a child wandered from her sight at a park among relatives for a period of “about a minute” (according to reports) is uncalled for.

But the police rejected any appeal to common sense and gave Vanessa a citation.

She Didn’t Hear Them Knock

Fast forward about four weeks, and a child welfare investigator is at Vanessa’s door. Only Vanessa has no idea.

The investigator knocked, but Vanessa didn’t hear her. She had just bathed the kids and was in the basement doing laundry.

When one of the boys leaned out a first floor window, still naked from his bath, the investigator phoned a supervisor, and then the police. She feared the children were unsupervised, home alone.

When police arrived, mom was still in the basement with the washer and dryer running. She didn’t hear them when they entered her home—without a warrant or probable cause—and came looking for her.

She was startled when she came up the stairs to find police officers with guns pointed at her. She explained that she is hard of hearing in one ear and that she did not hear them knock, and at that point, any cause they had for entering her home evaporated.

The children were not unattended. They were not home alone. They were not in any danger.

It Never Should Have Happened

At that point, the investigator or any one of the officers could have said, “we see the children are not unattended. We have no warrant and we no longer have grounds for concerns of imminent danger, so we’re going to step outside and start again, asking for permission to enter.”

Only none of them did that, either.

Instead, they investigated the home, noting that the children were undressed, the door was unlocked, the front screen was loose, and there was “little food in the pantry.” Distraught, Vanessa called her mother—Patricia Russell, with whom Vanessa lived—and asked her to return home quickly from a doctor’s appointment.

The invaders were just wrapping up their exploration when Russell arrived home, understandably angry, and insisted they leave her house. (It is worth repeating here that they had no warrant, and by this time no probable cause of any imminent danger.) Officers refused, and continued giving orders.

Russell took one of the children into a bedroom to get him clothed, but an officer wouldn’t let her shut the door. A power struggle was escalating, and Vanessa attempted to step in, joining her mother in the bedroom.

Instead, she was wrestled to the floor, hogtied, and literally carried out to a police cruiser. Officers actually dislocated her shoulder in the process of hogtying her, and emergency medical personnel had to be called.

And I repeat yet again, none of this should have happened.

The Aftermath

Fortunately, Peoples got a good lawyer and sued the county, who settled out of court. Her dislocated shoulder was a dead giveaway that they did not want the case going to trial.

But to keep her children, Vanessa was forced to plead guilty to child endangerment, which will no doubt be a severe hurdle to her career options when she finishes nursing school. All over something that was never neglect in the first place.

Had just one of these officers or investigators recognized Vanessa’s rights as a mother, including her Fourth Amendment right to be secure in her person and in her home, this entire trauma could have been avoided.

Parents Don’t Have to Be Perfect

Yes, Vanessa’s child toddled away at a picnic. She lost sight of him for about a minute. But who among us hasn’t had that happen?

Fortunately for all of us, the US Supreme Court has more than once held that parental rights do not evaporate simply because someone is not a perfect parent. “Neglect” does not mean turning your back for a minute and having to chase down your child. “Neglect” is a willful act of abandonment, of failing (by choice) to provide for your child when you have the means to do so.

But the police in Aurora, Colorado failed to recognize that, and Vanessa’s two children were traumatized. According to the Reason article, “The government’s well-being check on Peoples’ children left them with nightmares and a fear that the cops could come, tie up, and take away their parents.”

In the name of child protection, they left the children devastated.

That is why parental rights must be protected from government overreach, and how protecting parents’ rights protects children, as well.

Thank you for standing with us as we work to protect the right of parents like Vanessa from the kind of overreach she experienced, and to protect children from the kind of nightmares her children now endure.

Sincerely,

Michael Ramey
Executive Director