Sanctimonious Concern

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go.

In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.

The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.

One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”

I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”

“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”

“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”

She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.

“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”

I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.

After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.

Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.

Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.

On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.

I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.

This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”

I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.

When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.

The Ugly Familiar 5: Down Comes the Night

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 5. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies.

January 2, 1994

When Robert and I married, we moved into a house with an adorable green-and-white tiled kitchen. I rented it, hell-and-gone though it was from the part of Albuquerque in which we had always lived, because it was not an apartment, a word Robert said as if it tasted like curdled milk. It wasn’t a house, either. Not precisely. I suppose it could have been called a row house if you stretched the definition.

For Robert, what we lived in was far more important than where we lived, and where we lived was damn scary. In the three years we lived in that neighborhood (first in the row house, then in an actual house a few blocks away), we were robbed 3 times, our house was set on fire, and someone threw a large rock through a bedroom window and into the baby crib just minutes after I had gotten Jacob out of it. Once, as I pushed the stroller into the house, I heard POP POP POP and the squeal of tires. The drive-by shooting killed one boy and seriously injured another. My babies had smiled and waved at those boys when we walked past them less than 90 seconds earlier.

But all of that was in the future on the second day of 1994. The world was a haze of milk and dampishness and overzealous hormones. I knew that having a baby would be an emotional experience; that I would be exhausted, weepy, and maybe even depressed. I knew that I would love my baby. What I could not have comprehended was how deeply I would feel all of those things. I could not have imagined that falling in love with Jacob would be my first real encounter with divinity.

Over everything, there was a veil. I was me, but not quite me. More instinctual; more animal. Some kind of hormonal magic made me feel as if I was one step removed from everything and everyone except Jacob. He and I were learning to dance together, moving to primal rhythms in our slow, warm bubble.

On that Sunday evening that was the second day of 1994, Jacob was asleep in his bassinet and I was drying off after a shower. The derelict water heater provided hot water for approximately 4 minutes, or tepid water for about 6, so in the winter I finished every shower shivering since I could never manage to get the conditioner entirely rinsed out of my hair before the water ran cold. I stepped out, towel wrapped around my head, intent on dashing to the bed and huddling there under the blankets until I was warm, but Robert was standing in the bathroom door.

“Jackie called,” he said. I recognized the name of his high school girlfriend. “She was calling to talk to me about my son. I have a seven year old son.”

“You told me Jackie had a miscarriage.” I wasn’t shivering anymore. I felt like a dead tree, rooted in place but lifeless.

“I guess she lied. Jackie’s crazy.”

“What’s his name?”

Robert looked around the bathroom as if someone may have written his son’s name there somewhere. “I don’t know.”

A few days later, an envelope full of pictures arrived in our mailbox. They left me with no doubt that the child in the pictures was Robert’s son.

His name is Anthony.

And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.

May 9, 2011

I was at Robert’s apartment, chatting with Abbie while we waited for Jacob to come home so the three of us could go shopping, when I saw a picture on the wall of a girl about Abbie’s age who l I didn’t know but who was, somehow, familiar.

“Who’s that?”

Abbie shrugged. “Casey. I guess she’s my sister.”

I recoiled and caught myself. Trying not to let anything but curiosity show on my face I said, “She looks about the same age as you. Have you met her?”

“Oh, that’s an old picture. She’s 20, I think. Or maybe 21. She doesn’t want to talk to us. Dad just found out about her last summer.”

“Do you want to meet her? Are you curious?”

“Nah. I don’t care, really.”

Robert and Jacob got home. “Abbie told me that’s your daughter.” I gestured toward the photo. “She’s Amy’s, right? You always said that wasn’t your baby.” I remembered Amy, a wisp of a girl with a blond baby on her hip, from the early years of my relationship with Robert. We ran in loosely-connected social circles but none of my friends was close with Amy.

“Yeah, whatever. Amy’s crazy. Neither of them will talk to me.”

“Have you talked to Anthony lately?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but hey, do you know his last name? Maybe I can find him on Facebook.”

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence – damn the dark, damn the light.

Part 6