TIME Parenting

How Kitty Genovese Destroyed Childhood

We once may have been too slow to call the cops. Now we'll dial 911 if we see a couple kids walking alone to get pizza.

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death 50 years ago today. She was 28. A tragedy. The press reported 38 onlookers heard her screams and decided not to intervene. That account has since come under fire, but it nonetheless created a perception of ourselves (and certainly New Yorkers) as unconscionably reluctant to get involved.

We’ve been making up for it ever since — and that’s too bad.

We may once have been too slow to call the cops (though that’s still disputed), but today we are definitely too fast. Oh, I don’t mean we shouldn’t dial 911 if we see someone being murdered, or threatened, or hurt. Of course we should! In fact, the simple 911 number to call for emergencies was developed partly in response to the Genovese murder: Now everyone could have a quick, easy way to summon the cops anytime, anyplace. A great leap forward.

The leap sideways, or perhaps downward, came as the general public gradually became convinced that it not only had an obligation to help anyone in danger, it had the obligation to call the cops anytime it noticed people who could be in danger, especially kids, even if they were fine and dandy at the time.

This has given rise to a near mania for calling the cops when people spot a child on his or her own anywhere in public. And so we have a Connecticut mom charged with “risk of injury to a minor” and failure to appear after police said she allowed her seven- and 11-year-old children to walk to buy pizza unsupervised.

That’s right. Someone noticed kids off to get pizza and alerted the cops, as if stopping a potential tragedy.

Then there’s the dad who was arrested for child endangerment after a woman noticed “two children playing on the swings and slides alone without a guardian” in a suburban Pittsburgh park for two hours. (The charges were later dropped.)

And let’s not forget the mom in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who made her 10-year-old son walk 4.6 miles to school after he’d been suspended from the school bus for bad behavior. A bank guard saw him walking alone — horrors! — and called the cops. The mom was arrested for child endangerment. In the end, she plead guilty and was fined $520.

None of these kids encountered any danger other than a concerned citizen with 911 on speed dial. It has become so unusual to see children outside on their own that a nervous public immediately picks up the phone at such a sight, hyperventilating about danger.

” ‘If in doubt, call 911 to play it safe.’ That’s the lesson that was taken from Kitty Genovese,” says David Pimentel, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University. “But it stems from a faulty assumption, which is that there’s no harm in calling.” But unless the child is in true danger, “There is harm done. The harm that comes from the overreaction of everybody to this.” The courts get involved, CPS gets involved. There are fines, arrests, the threat (and sometimes the reality) of jail time.

Most of the folks calling the cops — and most of the cops themselves — remember walking to school and playing outside as kids. They are convinced that times have changed and made these activities dicey, even though, nationally, the crime rate is down from what it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. (And that’s not because we don’t let kids outside go anymore. The crime rate against adults is down, too, and we don’t helicopter them.)

So anyone who walked to the post office or the pizza shop as a kid was no safer than a kid today. But back then, bystanders didn’t dial 911 when they saw kids on their own. They waved.

Maybe the lesson from the Kitty Genovese era should be this: Let’s get more people back outside, including children. That way we can be looking out for each other, instead of freaking out.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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