Two years ago, a stranger called the police on US writer Lauren Knight and accused her of abusing her children.
Recently, it seems that everywhere I look I am confronted with stories of accusations, of questions and judgments, of involvement from Child Protective Services. The free-range kids, the kids left in the car for a few moments, the kids on their own at a playground - the debates are endless and at times, cruel. And I feel an uneasiness with it all, so much so that I tend to avoid the discussions all together. It's not that I think it's not an important issue; it's that it hits a little too close to home for me. After two years, I still feel the racing heartbeat, the unwarranted shame and fear, the embarrassment of being reported by a stranger: in this case, for something I had not even done. Two years ago, a stranger called the police on me and accused me of abusing my child. Here is the original post from January, 2012:
It took all the courage in my entire being to write this post, and an ounce more to hit publish. Butterflies in my stomach, my face felt hot. I kept thinking about my readers. Not the people who know me in real life, but those who I have worked hard to establish a relationship with online, mainly through blogging. Will they judge me? Will they believe me?
Last week, I was falsely accused of child abuse.
I woke up well-rested, thanks to several days of recuperation after hernia-repair surgery. Determined to do something kind for Andrew, who had been working extra hard at childcare and household chores while I was recovering, I set out to the grocery store down the street for doughnuts and coffee. I brought the boys with me with the promise of a sweet treat, despite bitter cold and wind and frost on the van's windshield. I felt good. I felt capable again, albeit a bit sore.
It was early, near 8am, so we took our time in the nearly-deserted grocery store, picking out doughnuts: sprinkles for Oliver, chocolate for Milo, and two apple fritters for Andrew, me, and Emil to split. We paid, then hand-in-hand, a daisy chain of little people, and made our way back to the van. I put Emil in first, then opened the door for Milo and Oliver. Milo climbed into the way back and immediately buckled himself in, as usual. Oliver climbed in, then stopped. He turned to me, and in an interesting turn of events (after a week of doing so much without his mama, and from encouragement from his papa, he had been so independent), he asked me to lift him into his car seat. Usually, he just climbs in, and then I buckle his straps. But today, he was craving some extra attention from his mama.
"Oliver, I can't lift you, buddy. Remember? Mama has a boo-boo on her belly and can't pick you up because it hurts my tummy." I recognised his need for extra love, so I spoke to him gently. Oliver dug in his heels.
We stood there, my three-year-old and me. It was so cold. Back and forth for about a full minute. I stayed firm, repeated my request. "Oliver, please hop in, it's time to go."
"I'm COLD! CLOSE THE DOOR!!!! LIFT ME IN!!!!" he screamed.
I went around to the driver's side of the car and turned on the car to warm the inside while I waited (and hoped) for Oliver to get into his seat. When I walked back around to Oliver, he was crying and shouting and kicking. "PUT ME IN!!! I DON'T WANT THE DOOR OPEN! LIFT ME IN!"
I raised my voice. "Oliver, please get into your car seat now. I cannot lift you." More screaming and crying.
Clearly, this was not working. The counting to 1. . . 2. . . 3. No dice. Finally, I gave in. I climbed into the van (Oliver's seat is in the middle row), lifted him up underneath his armpits, and plopped him into his seat, setting him down hard and with a huff. He started screaming louder. (Why? I have no idea. He is 3.) I buckled him in, shut the door, and climbed into the driver's seat. Then I drove home. Along the way, Oliver stopped crying and said sheepishly, "Sorry Mama for not getting in my seat." And just like that, it was over. We brought Andrew his doughnut and I mentioned that Oliver and I had had quite the standoff. It was a fairly unremarkable incident, far from the worst we've ever had.
Fast forward to 5pm. I was in the middle of dinner preparations. The boys (and dog) were running circles and the news was blaring on the radio when I heard a knock at the door. I put down my knife and pushed it back from the edge of the counter, remembering the baby's reach. As I approached the door, I could see through the window a police officer's uniform. Great. I thought. Someone has broken into our car again. My thoughts briefly went to Andrew having an accident, but he had walked to work that day. I opened the door and saw a social worker. Oh no! Maybe one of the neighborhood kids has gone missing! I remember thinking about the school kids half a block away and feeling worried for them.
But they were there for me.
The social worker stepped in with three police officers and asked if I had been in the grocery store parking lot with my kids that morning. That someone had anonymously called the police reporting a woman for slapping her two kids in the face while she loaded them into the car. The caller had followed me out of the lot to get my license plate number and then made the call. Someone had accused me of child abuse.
I remember saying something to the effect of "Oh my God! Are you serious? Who would say such a thing! Why would anyone say that about me?" I invited them into the living room, where all three boys had gathered to steal glances at the big uniformed men in our house. I tried to stay calm and collected as I explained what had really happened, and assured them that not only had I not slapped anyone in my life, but that in 5-and-a-half years of parenting I had never even spanked my children. They interviewed Milo, who relayed to them an impressively detailed account of the morning's events. Then they took a look at Oliver, inspecting his cheeks for marks. I began to cry. And shake like a leaf.
The social worker spoke in hushed tones to the three officers, and as I stood to the side, tears streaming down my cheeks, I picked up on words ". . . unsubstantiated. . . obviously mistaken. . . I see no abuse here. . ." before she dismissed them. She turned to me and asked me to sit and chat for a while. Her tone was apologetic, but I was completely in shock. I remember leading her into our dining room and sitting down at the table, offering her a drink of water in a raspy voice. I couldn't stop crying.
The social worker told me that there would be no charges and no record, that the witness was obviously mistaken, and that these things happen. NO! I screamed inside of my head, "These things do not happen to ME!" I tried to catch my breath. I kept shaking my head no. Saying that I couldn't believe it, that I would never lay a finger on my kids and cannot imagine how my interaction with Oliver had been so grossly misread. When she asked me about the ways we discipline our kids, I told her that we used 1. . . 2. . . 3, we used time-outs, or they lost privileges. What kind of privileges? She asked. I told her about the loss of a video or bedtime story and I laughed between tears as I thought of the way we raise our boys: we don't allow violence in our home and if they hit, they receive an automatic time-out; we don't even allow toy guns in our home and we teach our boys that bodies are not for hurting. I told her about the irony: that I was a social worker for heaven's sake!
And then, to add insult to injury, she asked me for a character reference. Someone who "knows what kind of parent you are." I thought of neighbors, friends, our community, our family. What would they think of me? I gave her my mom's phone number and sobbed. After trying to put my mind at ease, the social worker left.
I began crying hysterically. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My heart ached. My thoughts swam. I called my mom in hysterics, trying to make sense of the assault on my very being. When Andrew came home, he found me in the kitchen, sobbing, with my hand over my mouth, trying to get it together enough to finish making dinner and feed the boys. I relayed the events that had occurred merely minutes before in complete disbelief. Shortly thereafter, a detective came by to investigate. We sat on the couch while the boys ate dinner and I recounted once again the incident in the parking lot. I felt exhausted.
That night Andrew and I talked for hours. Andrew was quickly able to move past it and even make jokes about the ridiculousness of it all. But I was left feeling steamrolled and bewildered. My self-esteem, most recently built largely on what kind of mother I am, had taken a major hit.
I lay awake in bed, emotionally wrecked, until the wee hours of the morning. I couldn't stop thinking about the person who had called in. Who? Why? Was it a retaliation against something? What had this person actually seen? How long did he/she witness my interaction with Oliver before making up his/her mind about what was going on?
And the worst of it came from my assumptions about people in general. I believe that people are good. That in general, people are looking out for each other and mean no harm. That this person was not evil or out to get me. This person thought he or she was helping in some way. Which means that there is someone out there who thinks I was actually hurting my kids. He saw me as an abuser. This thought just kills me.
I know that I am a good mum. I know that I didn't do anything wrong. Yes, I could have refrained from yelling at my kid in public. I could have stood my ground by closing the van door and sitting in the front seat until Oliver was finished tantruming, waiting him out until he was ready to listen and follow my instructions so I could strap him into his seat without a big show. But the fact is, I'm not perfect. Someone out there heard my raised voice, saw Oliver screaming and crying, and connected some dots that just weren't there. I know this in my head, but my heart just feels assaulted by this accusation.
This incident raises so many important questions. Are we too hard/judgmental on parents these days? What would I have done if I had seen this situation unfolding? I'd like to think that I would have made eye contact with the mum, smiled knowingly and sympathetically, or maybe even asked her if she needed a hand. I would like to think that I would have stopped. To be sure. A part of me wonders what the universe is trying to tell me by this whole experience, to be wrongly accused of something horrible. I wracked my brain thinking of all the cases of abuse I reported in my years of school social work. Had I made a mistake too? Was this social work karma coming back around? Had I unknowingly wreaked this kind of havoc on some innocent mother years ago? Maybe. And if so, I am so very, very sorry.
As a former social worker, I saw the system in action in a very different light. How many of these anonymous tips uncovers an actual case of abuse? Is sending five uniformed workers in two separate trips to someone's house for this type of report the most effective way to use our community's resources?
If anything good is to come of this, it is to be awakened. I am humbled by this experience. To be on the other side of this is a learning experience I will never need to relearn. I am not untouchable. I am not a perfect parent. I can do better and be more understanding of other parents. I can be more patient with my own children. To be better.
• Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.