- In an exceptional case, Illinois child protection authorities
have taken a 6-year-old boy from the custody of a Champaign mother because
she was still breastfeeding him, allegedly against his wishes.
- In the view of the mother fighting for the return of
her only child, the battle pits American norms about parenting against
her right to raise her son as she sees fitóa style that includes
allowing the boy to choose when he quits nursing.
- To state child welfare officials, the case is about abuse.
- Authorities at the Department of Children and Family
Services took the boy from the 32-year-old woman's home after a baby-sitter
called an abuse hot line and the child subsequently told investigators
that he no longer wanted to breastfeed, they said. The mother says she
told investigators her son never indicated he didn't want to nurse and
that she would continue to breastfeed as long as her son wished.
- The agency has determined that the child's living situation
constitutes sexual molestation and risk of harm.
- "Breastfeeding a child is not the issue," says
Deborah Kennedy, DCFS regional administrator in the central region. "It's
after he has stated that it is unwanted and she had that information and
didn't indicate she would halt that activity ... then you have unwanted
behavior on his part and that constitutes abuse."
- She added: "In general, any contact between a sexual
organ against the will of the child constitutes abuse ... because it's
breastfeeding, it's a sensitive issue."
- On Monday, final arguments are scheduled in the family
court case in Champaign County, which alleges emotional harm to the boy.
The case is to determine whether the boy was neglected or abused and whether
he should return home to his mother.
- The mother says the misguided case is based on society's
narrow ideas about what constitutes good parenting.
- Research shows that while rare, it is not unheard of
for a child to be nursing at 6.
- Indeed, some pediatricians and child-rearing experts
have come to espouse a revival of old parenting practices, such as extended
breastfeeding and sleeping in the same bed with childrenówhat some
- DC FS has said that co-sleeping was a factor in its decision
to take the child from the home. DCFS investigators say the woman slept
naked with the boy, which she denies.
- "They are saying because you're not practicing Dr.
Spock American-style parenting, you're a bad mom," says the petite,
feisty woman who was born on a farm in Downstate Illinois. "What about
all those places in the world where the family sleeps in one room and that
is co-sleeping and you're telling me all those people are maladjusted?
It's cultural bias.
- "My son would come to me and ask to nurse,"
says the woman. "It's not sexual. It was a closeness thing. When he's
ready for it, he will ask to end breastfeeding."
- A complete understanding of the case is elusive, in part
because not all the testimony and evidence is public. The judge in the
Champaign County case, Ann Einhorn, has refused to release any documents,
and the state's attorney as well as the lawyer representing the boy refuse
to discuss the case.
- (The Tribune editorial standard is not to name juveniles
in investigations of sexual abuse, so the names of the child and the mother,
who have the same last name, have been withheld. In interviews, the mother
did not request anonymity.)
- The woman is the oldest of nine children in a family
that she says practiced co-sleeping.
- Her current home is a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment,
cluttered with mounds of clothes, toys, newspapers and boxes of food through
which narrow pathways have been carved. Hoping her son will be home for
Christmas, she has purchased about a dozen presentsóa scooter, a
book, the game Battleshipówhich sit stacked on the stairs.
- The mother works part time at a liquor store and takes
continuing education classes. She never married the child's father, who
now lives in Oregon and only recently has instigated contact with the boy.
He did not return phone calls from the Tribune.
- The mother says she practices child-led weaning, which
is supported by the Schaumburg-based breastfeeding advocacy organization,
La Leche League International, and allows the child to determine when he
or she is done nursing.
- "My child was weaning himself," she says, "he
was nursing for 10 minutes a day and on weekends a little more. I don't
think DCFS has any right to be involved in this decision between me and
- Natural or the Norm?
- DCFS documents given to the Tribune by the mother indicate
that the boy told a child protection investigator that he no longer wanted
to nurse and had told his mom that; the mother says her son has never communicated
that to her.
- The documents also indicate that the boy told the investigator
that he still shared a bed with his mother and "sometimes when she
does not have clean clothes, she sleeps naked." The boy told the investigator
that he always slept in clothes.
- In an interview, the mother says she has not slept with
him naked since he was around age 3, when she stopped because her son commented
that she should put some clothes on. Though she has since moved, the mother
says her son did not have his own room or his own bed in their former three-bedroom
- Her parenting style and the way she was raised bring
to the fore areas of child-rearing that many of today's parents keep private
because they are not seen as widely acceptable in society, experts say.
While no researcher supports forcing a child to nurse or co-sleeping naked
if that creates discomfort for a child, they also say that co-sleeping
and extended nursing are both perfectly naturalóit is society that
makes them seem unnatural.
- Research shows that many women continue to nurse their
children well beyond infancy.
- Katherine Dettwyler, an associate professor of anthropology
and nutrition at Texas A&M University, conducted a study in the late
1990s on 1,280 children whose parents self-reported information about their
breastfeeding practices. Of the total, 375 children were still nursing
at age 4, 212 children were nursing at age 5, and 67 children were nursing
at age 6, according to Dettwyler.
- Elizabeth Baldwin, a Miami-based attorney who specializes
in breastfeeding cases and is an adviser to La Leche League International,
says "there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding at age 6."
- "You cannot make a child nurse; either the child
has the need or does not have the need," Baldwin said. "We have
sexualized the breast to the point where we assume that it is a sexual
thing rather than a tool for nursing."
- Extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping often go hand-in-hand,
- "Other countries wouldn't even know there was a
question to be asked about where should my baby sleep," said James
McKenna, a professor of anthropology and the director of a mother-baby
behavioral sleep lab at the University of Notre Dame. "It is a recent
Western concept engrained in us, an emphasis on individualism and the idea
that it's a moral principle that early in life babies and children need
to soothe themselves."
- McKenna added: "In our society, we equate nudity
with the potential for sexuality. It may not be a sexual act at all in
the minds of participants; it is externally influenced viewpoints that
make it so."
- He warned, however, that not all co-sleeping arrangements
are necessarily healthy.
- "The benefit of any kind of social behavior is determined
by the context in which it occurs," McKenna said. "In a healthy
human family, sleeping arrangements can enhance that which is already good,
or it could be the case sleeping arrangements can enhance that which is
- Focus on Boy's Reaction
- The Champaign case is similar toóbut also critically
different fromóa celebrated case out of New York state in 1991.
In that case Denise Periggo's 3-year-old daughter Cherlyn was taken from
her because Periggo had strong feelings of sexual arousal when breastfeeding.
- In the Champaign case, experts are divided on how the
nursing was affectingthe boy.
- A report by Champaign forensic psychologist Dr. Marty
Traver,who evaluated the boy upon referral from Judge Einhorn, described
an alert, relaxed child who expressed ambivalence about nursing.
- "It is clear that [the boy] has suffered some emotional
problems as a result of his extended nursing," Traver wrote. "Those
problems however do not appear to rise to the level of abuse unless there
is evidence that [the boy's] mother nursed him for her own gratification."
- "The primary detriment from extended nursing in
this case, was that [the boy] was ashamed of doing so and did not feel
socially appropriate in doing so," Traver's report states.
- "A parent must weigh the damage done by participating
in something society does not approve of against the positive effects and
advantages of continuing to do so. In this case, as in many others, the
parent and child had to keep the continuing breastfeeding a secret because
of societal disapproval. This sets the child up to keep other secrets that
he cannot yet understand," the report stated.
- Traver also said it was not appropriate for the boy to
continue to sleep with his mother. "At this age, it would be psychologically
harmful for him to be in his mother's presence when she is nude. ... (The
boy) must learn to sleep in his own bed and soothe himself to sleep."
- But a report by Kate McDougall, a Catholic Social Service
social worker who is counseling the mother and child, concluded that while
the mother's "parenting style may be considered somewhat permissive,
this therapist does not have concerns about [the boy's] safety while in
her care." McDougall added that she saw no evidence of any abuse in
- The boy "has come to feel ashamed and guilty about
breastfeeding as a result of his being removed from his mother's care due
to their nursing. This therapist has concerns that these feelings of shame
and guilt will be exacerbated by further separation," McDougall wrote
in a clinical assessment report.
- McDougall also stated in her report that she had no concerns
about the two sleeping in the same bed and recommended the boy be returned
- The woman's public defender, David DeThorne, said Traver's
testimony stated that the child was embarrassed.
- "That shouldn't be a reason the state should get
involved," DeThorne said. "She was doing something to him outside
the norm, and [perhaps] he didn't want toóthat is open to dispute
- He added: "Parents should be allowed to make decisions
that might be out of the norm. Most parents don't breastfeed at age of
6, but it doesn't mean it's wrong for the child."
- Countered DCFS spokeswoman Martha Allen: "There
is a problem when the mother is sleeping naked with a 6-year-old; we live
in America and we have our norms too.
- "This is a case that not just DCFS but the state's
attorney and judge determined was inappropriate and was a form of abuse.
- "It's inappropriate for a mother tobe breastfeeding
a child at 6 years old and to be sleeping naked with him. The reason DCFS
found it an issue was we're looking at the area of sexual abuse when we
say molestation. There is risk of actual and emotional abuse. We are in
the realm of sexual abuse; that is the reason that we took the child out
of the mother's care."
- On Monday, Judge Einhorn will hear final arguments from
both sides in the Champaign County case. Einhorn may decide on Monday,
or she could wait until a later date, to determine whether the boy was
neglected or abused. If her determination is that the child was abused,
another hearing will be held to decide whether the child can go home or
not, and to determine a plan for the mother to get her son back.
- Though she wants her son back, the mother also refuses
to compromise her methods.
- "They took my son because I'm not following the
DCFS cookbook on raising a kid," she says. "It's so outrageous,
they need to admit they made a mistake and drop it."
This is asinine! Meanwhile, all over the country, children are REALLY being
SEXUALLY abused and tortured by REAL sickos. There's a vast difference
between bohemian home culture and those who prey on children as sex objects.
The governing authorities have nothing better to do than interfere and
micromanage the lives of innocent citizens while ignoring horrendous atrocities
elsewhere. Surely a case like this can be handled discreetly and with some
intelligence... if the boy doesn't want to breast feed, fine. But there's
no reason to destroy the mother's life in the process. Why is the system
set up to crucify anyone who deviates one iota from the mindless status
quo when it comes to raising children? It's certainly not a useful tool
in discovery for sexual abuse! It appears to be the easiest thing a bureaucracy
can handle to get its budget renewed and increased every year... little
fish along the way, too poor to fight back, and ignore the big fish. There's
the REAL abuse.
Leave the damn parents alone, Big Brother! We don't need your help in raising
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