The family’s nightmare began with a stop for muffins in their hometown of Elizabethtown, Ky., on March 30, 2017. Holly Curry was on her way to her 5-year-old’s morning karate practice. It was 67 degrees and partly cloudy. She had all six of her kids — ages 5, 4, 2 (twins) and 10 months (also twins!) in her 10-seater van. To get the kids a quick snack, Curry parked in front of the Cobbler’s Café. Police officers frequent the area because it’s near the courts — about the last place any kidnapper would nab a child, let alone six of them. Into the cafe Curry went.

When she came out less than 10 minutes later, two officers rebuked Curry for leaving her kids in the car. They told her she wasn’t being arrested, just “detained.” She started to cry and asked permission to call her husband, Josiah, but that request was denied. No one asked to see the kids, still sitting in the car.

The officers told Curry that while they were not charging her with any crime, they were going to file a “JC3 form” — a hotline-type alert to the Kentucky child protection system.

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All this, and much of the harrowing account that follows, is laid out in a suit that Curry and her husband later filed in U.S. District Court. We spoke to the Curry family and to their attorneys. The defendants, represented by counsel, have denied liability in court.

Similar parking lot encounters have become common across the country. One was the topic of a book last year by Kim Brooks, “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.” She was arrested for letting her son wait in the car for five minutes on a mild day in Virginia. Barbara Sarnecka, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, and her colleagues have studied the moral judgments that often underpin these run-ins, where mothers are judged harshly for seeming to put their own needs above keeping their children safe.

That none of this mother-bashing has much to do with actual child safety is clear from the crime statistics. As University of Idaho law professor David Pimentel has noted, a child is three times as likely to be hit by lightning than to be kidnapped and killed by a stranger. The idea that children can die in cars that overheat in a matter of minutes is also misguided. Heart-wrenching as the death of any child is, the children who perish in parked cars were generally forgotten there for hours — not simply waiting out a brief errand. Statistically speaking, it is safer for kids to wait in the car a short while than to cross the parking lot, even with an adult.

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In any event, the officers eventually allowed Curry to get back in the car and leave with her kids. according to the lawsuit.

But the next day, at 3:40 p.m., a child protection investigator from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services came to the Curry home and demanded to be let in. Curry was home with all the children. Her husband was away on a business trip. Curry, the lawsuit says, was reluctant to let the investigator in but offered to bring the children to the door for a quick visual check. The investigator insisted that she had to come inside. Curry asked to see her credentials and a warrant for entry. She also asked the investigator to come back another day, when her husband was home.

The investigator warned Curry that she would mark the case as a “refusal of entry” and return with police. Curry stood her ground and the investigator left, but this brief initial encounter left her frightened, according to the lawsuit.

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The courts are clear that authorities need a warrant or consent to enter homes, except in an emergency. Since no one was claiming any immediate danger to the kids, Curry was on firm legal ground in asking to see the warrant.

Soon, however, the investigator returned to the Curry home, this time with a sheriff’s deputy. Neither had a warrant, so Curry stopped them from entering. This time, the deputy and investigator said that if she didn’t let them in, they would return with an emergency custody order and take all her kids.

Continue to stand on your constitutional rights, they were telling her, and you will lose your children. So, as the lawsuit alleges, the authorities demanded, “What’s it gonna be?”

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Curry opened the door.

The investigator found nothing amiss in the home. She insisted on questioning the oldest child, all of 5 years old, alone behind closed doors in his bedroom without Curry’s consent.

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When the investigator reappeared, she questioned Curry about her home life. Curry answered fully, the lawsuit said, worried that any refusal would add to her peril. The investigator insisted on taking the youngest child from Curry’s lap and, without permission, began to undress her. In the presence of the male deputy, the investigator proceeded to undress each child, male and female, down to the genitals (removing the diapers of the two youngest). Curry tried to object, but she knew she was powerless to stop the investigator from doing full-body inspections.

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The last to be undressed was her 4-year-old son, taught by his pediatrician that he should never let a stranger take his clothes off without his mom’s okay. But when the boy tried to make eye contact with Curry, the investigator stood directly in his line of sight, leaving him helpless. Then the investigator pointed to the deputy and said, “Show that cop your muscles!” The little boy removed his shirt and flexed his biceps as ordered. The investigator and deputy began laughing while the investigator started to pull down his pants. When the little boy finally was able to look back at his mother, she was holding back tears. The little boy’s face registered shame and fear.

These systematic nude examinations by nonmedical personnel, all without Curry’s consent, yielded nothing in the way of evidence — no scrapes or bruises. But, Curry told us, “the experience left an indelible mark on our whole family. We all felt violated.”

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A few weeks later, the investigator closed the case as “unfounded.” She apparently told Curry she viewed her decision to get muffins as an “oopsy daisy” — a one-time mistake in judgment. The forced entry, the threat of taking the kids and the strip searches at the Curry home were not viewed as mistakes at all.

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The tactic of threatening child removal to gain entry into a home is apparently business-as-usual for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Recent reporting by WDRB News found a widespread practice in Jefferson County District Court of using preprinted court orders for investigators to issue emergency custody orders.

In another Kentucky case reported to Let Grow — a nonprofit organization we’re both associated with that promotes childhood resilience by advocating against overprotection — a public school told parents that it would call child protective services if an adult wasn’t always waiting at the bus stop to escort the child home, even if the child was fully capable of walking home alone.

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In the name of protecting kids from the boogeyman, children’s freedom of movement has been stripped away. Parents are threatened for not protecting their kids from dangers that are minimal to nonexistent.

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As for the Currys, their ordeal led them to work toward ensuring that what happened to them would not happen to other Kentucky families.

In December 2017, the family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to challenge the entry into their home under coercion, the seizure of the children inside the home and the strip-searches. Local Kentucky lawyers and the national Home School Legal Defense Association are counsel in the case.

Because this case is pending, Eric Clark, the commissioner of Kentucky’s Department for Community Based Services, could not comment on it, but he said in an email, “CPS workers are charged with assessing unique, case specific allegations of child maltreatment in real time and making extremely difficult decisions with whatever information they may have at that particular time.”

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As Congress reauthorizes the federal law that supports child-abuse hotlines and investigations, cases like this one cry out for increased federal protections for families that make reasonable parenting judgments. More states should join Utah’s lead in adopting “Free-Range Parenting” laws (model language is on the Let Grow site) to protect parents who — by choice or necessity — take their eyes off their kids, unless there is an obvious danger that the parent ignored.

Neglect is blatant disregard for a child’s true safety. Neglect is not when you let your kids wait out a less-than-10-minute errand or walk home from the bus stop.

And, frankly, abuse is strip-searching six kids because their mom got them muffins.

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