My Kid Just Called 911

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

In our ongoing salute to the dumb things kids do (and that parents have to manage), we take a look at what's the worst that could happen if your child calls 911 - and it's not an emergency.

FEAR: The police department is going to show up on my doorstep and haul my kid away to a juvenile detention center.

FACT: Mary Ham, who has been a dispatcher with the New Albany Police Department for 13 years, has heard it all: fighting siblings who call 911 on each other; the little boy who got grounded and sent to his room and called (from a cell phone) to report his mother for abuse; young children who heard a noise they can't identify; a child who saw smoke from a neighbor's cigarette and thought her house was on fire.

"It's usually children between the ages of 6 and 9 who make these calls," Ham explained.

The good news, Ham said, is that no one is likely to get in trouble for one errant call, and usually one is all it takes to educate a child about what an emergency really is.

"That's just misuse," Ham said, "but abuse is where someone makes call after call after call."

And in that case, a parent could be arrested and charged with abuse of the 911 system.

But in cases of simple misuse, depending on a police department's size and policy, a few different things could happen. In New Albany's case, a police officer will always be dispatched to educate the child about how to use 911 and to make sure the parents instruct the child properly, too.

"You can't be sure there isn't an emergency," Ham said, "because maybe the child was calling because he's upset about being grounded, but maybe he's also been hit."

In larger jurisdictions, a dispatcher may have the discretion to not send an officer if, after speaking with a parent or guardian in the home, the dispatcher feels confident there is not an emergency.

But it is critical that, no matter where you live or what the police department's policy is there, parents should not hang up the phone if they discover their child has called 911.

"Stay on the line," said Ham, who also conducts 911 education programs in her community for kids. "That's the most important thing because if you hang up, then I have to send two officers."

-Jane Hawes