Thursday, November 03, 2011

11/3/11 The card on the door

Yesterday when I got home from work, I found a business card tucked into the front door, with a written note scrawled on the back: "Please call." The card was from a social worker with the Dept. of Family and Children's Services from the county. Child Protective Services, effectively.

I left a voice message and emailed the guy right away, and he emailed back the next day. "Unfortunately," he reported, "there was a report of possible physical abuse for your son Julian." I called him and we agreed to meet at our house tonight at 6pm -- he needed to meet the kids.

Oh my goodness. It's happened. Someone busted us. We're horrible horrendous awful parents. So many things go through your mind: who reported us? What are they referring to? Is this true? Is there any chance they'll take the kids away?

I fast-forwarded right to the most horrible incidents. The report happened in the week that Julian was sent to the principal's office twice, a truly bad week when he was horrendously defiant and obnoxious when we tried to talk sternly with him about it. This might have been the week that he got The Belt, and I could hear him screaming from way down the block -- a rare event, but it did happen. Of course, he screams even louder when Halloween candy is confiscated, and he has a very strong voice -- for all I know, a neighbor turned us in when some much more innocent form of discipline was applied.

But the neighbor theory has some problems. The social worker's email specifically said "Julian" -- something a concerned neighbor overhearing piercing shrieks next door wouldn't necessarily be able to discern. Also, to hear the horrible screaming, which isn't at all often, you'd have to be outside or have your windows open, which none of our neighbors would have at that time. The time I heard it, I happened to go outside for a walk to avoid hearing it indoors, and it was loud, but it was an infrequent thing and you'd have to be outside listening.

And does screaming really mean physical abuse? Most of our neighbors have raised kids themselves and are very understanding. And our neighbors were also very gracious and kind and welcoming during Trick-or-Treating -- I didn't get any radar that anyone disapproved of us.

Further, the social worker's initial visit was during the day when none of us were home -- neighbors tend to know when the incidents occur, and see our cars in the driveway. That is, a neighbor is likely to mention the timing and that we're at work during the day.

So we were increasingly suspicious that the report was actually not made by a neighbor.

We met with the social worker at home tonight. He isn't allowed to tell us who reported us, but he did mention "mandated reporting," such as schools or other childcare providers who are required to make a report based on certain information. The report was of "excessive spanking" -- again something that a neighbor who overhears screaming isn't likely to conclude. And "spank" is a word we use and that Julian knows. There are lots and lots of words that people use for corporal punishment -- "spank" is a common one indeed, but I didn't hear "beat" or "hit" or "whack" -- I heard what we say and what Julian knows: "spank."

Anyone who interacts with Julian on a regular basis knows that frankly, he often deserves it. Anyone who interacts with us on a regular basis, like his teacher and CDC workers, knows that we usually look for ways around it, but are grateful and relieved (!) that we're supportive and willing to back up discipline with that level of action. Anyone who knows Julian and us understands that if we do spank him, it's part of an overall picture of dealing with his troublemaking -- not a reflex, not undeserved, and not a habit, even if he thinks so.

The more we thought about it, the more it sounded like someone who doesn't know Julian, or us, well heard him complain about spanking. Like at school. Lord knows he's had enough opportunity with all his visits to the principal's office.

So, ironically, we had a positive and productive meeting with the social worker. We frankly told him that we do spank Julian sometimes when things escalate, but it's never the first step and we do all the other "right" things first. We pointed out that we've never spanked Katrina -- never needed to.

He met the boys, talked to them for a few minutes, and they came off as happy, healthy, thriving little boys. As we talked, he seemed increasingly impressed by the way we're raising them, including things we don't even notice -- such as the fact that there's no TV blaring on in the background. He was very impressed that our kids have such limited screen time, that they have chores, do their laundry, have early bedtimes, entertain themselves reading and trying to break the laws of physics in Gabriel's case, and overall do very well in school.

Perhaps the biggest supporter of our case was Katrina. The whole time we were sitting in the living room talking, Katrina was quietly working on her homework in the dining room, completely independent and focused. When the social worker asked how it is we managed to raise our kids without screens all around them, adding that in his work that's very unusual, we just pointed to her.

Later during our conversation, we noticed Katrina on the floor with a dustpan and dustbrush, sweeping up pencil shavings that had fallen on the floor. We laughed and said that usually she doesn't clean up after herself, but all the kids do know where the dustpan is, and are told to clean up a mess they make. Our funny odd little sprite of a daughter really underscored our case for being a non-abusive family. Even if we were good actors, you can't fake the behavior of a 5-year-old.

In the end, the social worker said not only were the accusations unfounded, but complimented us on what a great job we're doing raising them. What a rare source of encouragement and validation, especially during a low point of parenting-- being reported to the County Department of Family and Child Services is pretty low.

Despite all the real possibilities, I'm pretty sure what happened is that Julian said something to someone, probably at school, who felt it had to be reported. Julian says stuff all the time that I'm amazed people believe, and the social worker completely agreed. Just last week, Julian's teacher commented that Julian was tired because he'd slept on the floor the night before -- but not only hadn't he slept on the floor, I'd specifically instructed him that he couldn't, and I'd had to drag him out of bed -- bed -- that morning! I've had to clarify other similar things, like, no, he didn't stay up late watching a movie, or, no, he wasn't woken up early by his brother. Kids say stuff all the time that's not true.

Now, it is true that we've spanked Julian, and yes, we've even used a very harsh resort of The Belt on him before, but does this constitute physical abuse? If a darling child with big wide gray eyes says "My Mom spanks me too much!" and you don't know him, it could sure seem like that. And I suspect it was just someone like that, at the school, perhaps a well-meaning trusting parent or administrator, who reported us based on Julian's word. Don't these people know kids?!

OK -- so this counts for a new low in parenting, but with an unexpected pat on the back too. And now I'm well-armed when people suggest we're not being tough enough on our immature entitled little complainer.

While we were talking with the social worker, Katrina was doing her week's worth of homework, including some optional items on her own. The boys never had trouble with kindergarten homework either, but they never did the optional parts, and certainly not an essay!

I like my home for three reasons. It is fine. I have neihbers. It has a fine neihberhood! It has stuff like a bike. That's it!

Yeah. That's it.


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