What started out as a normal Sunday morning for Jeffrey Williamson of Blanchester, Ohio, turned into a nightmare when police officers showed up to his front door and arrested him in front of his family. His crime? Child endangerment—as the authorities described it—because his son skipped church to go play with friends. He now faces up to six months in jail.
According to Williamson, the local Woodville Baptist Church sends a van to his neighborhood twice a week to offer free transportation to those interested in attending services. Williamson’s children ride the van regularly on Wednesdays and Sundays. This morning was no different, as his eight-year-old son Justin and siblings said goodbye to their father and left their house to board the van.
One problem: Justin skipped church and went to play instead.
The young boy stayed in the neighborhood to play with friends and then later ended up at the local Family Dollar store down the road. After police officers were called to the store by a customer who recognized Justin, they took him back to his neighborhood where they proceeded to arrest his father for child endangerment.
Williamson recounted his interaction with the police officer, stating, “The next thing you know, he comes up to me and he says, ‘You’re under arrest.’ My kids start crying their eyes out wondering why I’m getting arrested.”
To make matters worse, as a result of local news coverage of the event, Williamson was fired from his job and remained unemployed for a period of time.
The police action had a traumatic impact on Williamson’s children as well. “Every time that we leave in our car or drive down the street or something like that, every time they see a cop in Blanchester, they freak out and say, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, are they going to arrest you?’” Williamson said.
Child endangerment is prohibited in Ohio under R.C. 2919.22(A), which states: “No person, who is the parent of achildunder eighteen years of age, shall create a substantial risk to the health or safety of thechild, by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.” This means that if Williamson created or ignored a situation where a substantial risk of danger existed for his son, he would be liable under the code provision.
However, Ohio case law specifically requires the element of mens rea (guilty mind) in order to convict a defendant for endangering a child. Significantly, in 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court held in State v. McGee that the existence of a culpable mental state of recklessness is an essential element of the crime of endangering children under the statute. Thus, only if prosecutors can prove that Williamson acted recklessly due to his son’s behavior could a conviction be possible.
But should this case even make it to court?
Common sense should be applied to this situation. Young children are especially prone to play with neighborhood friends, even without their parents’ permission. More likely than not, we all can remember a time as children when we disregarded the instructions of our parents and engaged in youth time play instead. Should our parents have been prosecuted and put in jail for our misbehavior?
Child neglect and endangerment is a real issue that should be taken seriously. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States every year. But should the sobering reality of actual endangerment be conflated with a young boy skipping church to go play with friends?
Scant evidence exists to support the notion that Williamson acted recklessly in this situation. He allowed his son to attend a religious service, but when Justin strayed from Williamson’s instruction, the authorities punished the father for the son’s innocent activities and needlessly escalated the situation into the worst possible outcome.
The haste by the police to arrest Williamson instead of inquiring further about the situation led to him losing his job, and thus, his ability to financially provide for those same children. Thankfully, after a period of unemployment, Williamson was able to find work elsewhere. But the more important question is whether he can repair his reputation in the community after this incident.
Skipping church led to young Justin being grounded for his behavior, but perhaps the police force in Blanchester, Ohio, should have a “come to Jesus” moment, too, and acknowledge that sometimes kids will be kids.