Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 30, 2007

An anonymous complaint brought a scary visitor with a list of accusations.


Dear Cary,

I have an unusual problem that is really hurting me. About two months ago, a worker from the child protection agency in my town appeared on my doorstep. She told me she had received a report about me and my child and was investigating. She came in and read off the accusations. I was reeling and in shock. Someone associated with my small church had sent in a complaint anonymously. The accusations were ridiculous and untrue except for one. My child had kicked another child whom my child was really upset with. This child was jealous and had been teasing a lot, but his parents weren’t aware of it. This incident was reported in detail to the agency with the statement that “she didn’t care about it,” which is, of course, untrue. I was really upset about the kicking and talked to my child about how we settle differences, and then I took away a planned play date. We talked to the parents and I thought the matter had been settled.

I had to furnish names of people who could vouch for my parenting and I gave two friends from church. I also talked to the minister, who is very new to our church and to other church leaders. Everyone I’ve talked to is shocked and supportive and no one has any idea who could have done this or why.

The mother of this boy grew increasingly distant and angry after this incident and then refused to speak to my child and me at all. They quit coming to our church soon after. This family didn’t have many close friends as they are hard to get along with and didn’t come very often. Their child didn’t have friends at the church either except for my child. We had been very good friends at one time.

I could tell from the worker’s demeanor that the charges weren’t going to go anywhere but I still haven’t heard from the agency. I could be in for a surprise but I seriously doubt it. No one at the church has been contacted by the agency, but the worker had already visited my child and the school counselor before she came to my door. There were no concerns at the school and my child handled herself well so far as I can tell. It’s a real nightmare to have this happen.

My problem is that I don’t know for sure who did this. If it is this family, they aren’t at my church anymore and probably aren’t going to be much of a threat in the future. If it’s not this family, then it’s someone from my church and that is very scary as we are active at the church. We’re still going to the church and participating in selected activities. I’ve curtailed some of my child’s activities to lessen the chance that someone might observe something that can be twisted around to look damaging. Other than this mother, I’ve had no conflicts with anyone else in this town and neither has my child.

What is the most prudent thing for me to do? What is the psychological profile of someone who would do something like this to a child and his mother? Is it likely to be someone I’ve had a conflict with or a relative stranger?

Thank you so much. I think you give very thoughtful responses to people.

Pretty Good Mom

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Dear Pretty Good Mom,

You’re telling me that an employee of the state, acting on an anonymous accusation, visited your child and your child’s school counselor, and then came into your house and read you a list of accusations made by someone associated with your church. Then you were required by law to furnish a list of people who could vouch for your parenting.

Your letter inspires great outrage. Where is this place? Who are these people?

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

But here’s what a reasonable citizen might do. A reasonable citizen might go to the agency and ask for a meeting with the caseworker and the caseworker’s boss. I would want to learn as much as I could, not about who made this particular complaint, but about how such a system operates. Does it happen often that people are referred in this way? What are the procedures? What records are public and what are private? What is the agency’s funding? What is its charter? Who makes decisions about who is hired and fired?

Now, of course our society has to protect children. There are some truly evil people out there.

But I would want to know if I, too, could simply make a complaint about someone at random and cause a case worker to go visit them and scare the living daylights out of them. I would ask them to show me the form and the process by which I could make such an anonymous complaint. I would ask them how they determine the credibility of such a complaint. Must a person making a complaint appear in person, or could such a complaint be made in writing or over the phone? Must the person furnish identification? Are records kept of the person’s visit or phone call? Under what conditions are those records made public? What threshold of credibility must a complainant meet? What evidence must be given prior to the sending out of an investigator? What protections are in place so that any old sociopathic busybody can’t just use this agency to harass and terrorize his or her neighbors? And if there are protections in place, were they used in this instance?

Finally, I would be very curious to figure out — though I wouldn’t ask this directly — if a person making a complaint might be able to use specific knowledge of the agency and its personnel in order to cause an investigator to come out.

You know what else I would want to know? I would want to know what kind of academic background and credentials these people have, these people who are empowered to walk into some family’s home and read off a list of anonymous accusations. Of all the powers of the state that are available to petty, misguided bureaucrats who might have just a touch of the sadistic and the power-hungry in them, this is one power that ought not be entrusted to just anybody. I’d want to know that anyone doing this job at least had an understanding of the limits on state power in a free society.

And I would want to know how often it can happen that a totally bogus complaint reaches this point. I’d want to know if they audit their activities to determine this. I would want to know if this agency had a higher incidence of such false complaints than other agencies.

And I’d say, well, if this is a public agency with public records, then the press has a right to see them.

And then once I’d learned all I could, I’d contact a reporter at the local newspaper.

I’d tell them my story.

I’d beg the reporter to at least call the agency and inquire about my case.

You wouldn’t have to get the reporter to promise to do a story, just to make a phone call.

Come to think of it, the logic is sweet: In the same way that a child protective agency is more or less compelled to investigate any complaint, so a newspaper reporter is more or less compelled to at least make a phone call to check out a tip.

Now, I’m kind of dumb about small town life. It may be that doing these things would make life too uncomfortable for you. If so, I would still suggest that, in order to understand what happened, you learn as much as you can about the social forces in American life that could lead to such a thing. And if I were you I would think seriously about moving to a more cosmopolitan area.

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My daughter is dating a grandchild of Nazis

Dear reader,

I had been thinking about forgiveness, and gratitude, and certain aspects of my own personality that are maddeningly perverse, and how boring I’ve become, and how hard it is to install a new piece of software, and how much we miss the dogs, and novelistic structure, and how we need to fill the January getaway, and the books I’m reading which I have opinions about, and how we are going to enjoy Thanksgiving, and all kinds of things. And now, after writing this column, all that just seems kind of frivolous. For again, as has happened often in the 12 years of writing this column, a reader has proposed a vexing and painful moral problem and I have responded but do not feel at all equal to the task.

The only thing I believe with confidence is that children are born innocent of the crimes of their forbears. This I believe, though even this I cannot prove. Perhaps babies can be criminals. Perhaps I don’t understand evil. Perhaps children bear a historic burden to right the wrongs of their ancestors. Perhaps I don’t have a large enough consciousness to see that. But what I see is the innocence of the child. It seems to me that we must treat children as innocent of the crimes of their forbears.

Dear Cary,

You know how they say that “life can be stranger than fiction”? What I’m about to tell you is no joke, and it’s eating me up inside. About 12 years ago, I returned to college as an adult, and enrolled in a class whose subject matter covered World War II, and the Holocaust in particular. I came away from the class very disturbed.

I’m not sure what disturbed me more, the fact that the Holocaust happened, or seeing my younger classmates casually eating their  lunches while we watched a devastating and graphic film that left me badly shaken. In fact, after the term ended, I became so severely depressed that I could barely get out of bed for months. I had many revelations when I was deeply depressed, and to this day, I’ve never quite seen people, or the world, in the same way.

Fast forward 12 years later, and my daughter has begun dating a boy around her age.  I have recently found verifiable evidence that the boy’s German grandparents participated as Nazis during Hitler’s regime. In addition, the grandfather emigrated to the U.S. and was employed by a highly respected university after the war where he worked in research. All of his children also went to the best schools in the U.S. which makes me sick.

Cary, I’m not Jewish, but I have a strong emotional connection to the Jewish people,  and to anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of another person. My daughter’s boyfriend is now applying to some of the best schools in the country, and I’m very angry that this family can enjoy their advantages like nothing ever happened.  As unbelievable as this sounds, last  week, the boy came over to spend some time with my daughter and handed me some baked goods from his parents. When I unwrapped it I found a piece of challah  bread and a Bavarian pretzel.

I was so shaken when I saw it, that I almost vomited. (I can provide a picture to prove that this actually happened.) For some reason, God or the universe has dropped this into my lap and I don’t know how to deal with it. I want my daughter to be happy, but I feel myself slipping into another depression.

What should I do?

Horrified

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Dear Horrified,

What you should do is meditate on the fact that we are born innocent. We are born innocent to parents not of our choosing. We are born innocent of the crimes of our parents and grandparents and of the state crimes in which they were implicated. A baby knows nothing of its parents’ crimes and later in life is powerless to undo those crimes, not only for the obvious reason that those crimes are now historic facts and cannot be undone but also because the filial bond is so strong that to oppose the parent or grandparent, to condemn them, to sever ties with them is so psychologically difficult that it is rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished.

Consider your own birth. Consider how many ancestors you have, stretching back into human evolution. Consider the long string of successful births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies … that eventually resulted in your own birth, your own mating and your own pregnancy and now the approaching adulthood of your own child, who now meets a child who also is the product of a different but also unfathomably deep chain of being.

Imagine what crimes and also what glorious victories lie in your unknowable lineage and also in his. Imagine all the descendants of all the bloody tyrants of all time. Imagine all the descendants of rapists and murderers and child molesters throughout our long evolution. Where are we to draw the line? Who among us can claim with certainty to have no criminals in his or her lineage? And what importance are we to assign to one’s lineage, anyway? At a certain point does it not sound like the very classifications by lineage that underlay the philosophy that resulted in the Holocaust?

You took to heart this film. It scarred you and awakened you. It was both a gift and a burden. You are now vexed by the horrors it bequeathed to you. But maybe there is some gift in this. What gift can you give the world as a result of taking all this to heart? Compassion and forgiveness are gifts. You can give the gift of compassion and forgiveness. For as long as we assign blame to innocent people based not on their behavior and their character but on the acts of their forebears, such social crimes as slavery and the Holocaust will happen again. Only when we greet each individual as an innocent child deserving of love will we eliminate crimes against humanity. Humanity means all humanity, not just those who can claim a lineage unblemished by crimes known at the time or discovered later. We extend our love to the descendants of Nazis and the descendants of slavers and the descendants of murderers and rapists and all whose acts we term foul and repugnant.

Otherwise, we will continue to persecute people for where they come from and who their daddy was and what their people did.

The dream of America is that we start out innocent. Children also start out innocent. This boy your daughter is dating is just as innocent as any child gassed in the Holocaust.

I don’t want to say anything trite. I don’t want to suggest that we all just forgive and forget.

But this child your daughter is dating brought you an innocent gift of bread. Perhaps it was a mistake on his part. But it sounds like an innocent mistake.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13Consider him innocent.