Thursday, March 05, 2009

Bring Your Sister to School Day

CPS officer: Did you carry your baby sister to school yesterday?
Levi: Yes, because my mom and dad forgot her at home.
CPS officer: Did you get in trouble?
Levi: No.

This is why we don't base conclusions on anything a 7-year-old says. Last week Levi was getting ready for school, I brought the girls with me while Troy stayed here with the 2 little girls. Levi, thinking Troy was not home (as if we have ever left our kids home unattended, he still somehow thought we had even though Troy was in fact in our room getting dressed), picked up the baby (who was playing on the rug in front of our open bedroom door) and tried to walk to school with her. Our neighbor saw him on the sidewalk a few houses down from ours (certainly not all the 4 blocks to school that Levi reported) and handed the baby to me as I was walking back from the school and Troy was finished dressing and wondering if he was mistaken and I had really taken the baby with me after all. Now, I see this as a frightening and unfortunate experience of misplaced intentions on the part of my son, trying to be helpful, yet a great success story of our "village" support and safety system kicking in. And just because Levi only recognizes time out or grounding as punishment, he certainly did get in trouble! Chastisement, many serious talks about how we would never leave them home alone, lectures on learning good judgment, and having baby-holding privileges revoked only appear not to be punishment to him, yet with good intentions gone seriously awry are more valid and effective punishments than time out.

Enter the CPS officer.

And my piece of advice to anyone out there who has ever had any suspicions of child abuse or neglect: except in obvious circumstances, PLEASE speak directly to those involved before picking up that phone. If you have witnessed this or have strong suspicions, make the call. If you are merely head scratching, vague wondering, maybe, "bad feeling," take appropriate measures first, such as speaking to the parents and asking for the reasonable explanation. And here is why.
The CPS, without our knowledge or consent (on the strength of a single phone call with well-intentioned yet out-of-context information gained through the informant's relationship with my 7-year-old ADD son) went to our children's school, pulled them out of class one by one, and in a recorded interview asked for extremely personal information (that we have tried and tried to instill in them to not divulge without our permission, especially to strangers or when we are not present), such as their full names, address, phone number, sleeping arrangements, family interactions, and of course their private parts.

This is wrong.

It undermines all our attempts to keep them safe, from falling prey to tricky ploys by adults to lure children into behavior that is innapropriate. The next time someone asks my 5-year-old questions about where she lives, or about her private parts, it will be that much easier for her to give out this information because, why not, she's done it before. She has no idea what's legitimate or not.
So my kids came home Friday after school and dropped this bomb on us, my 5th grader understandably terrified and my young children completely clueless about the future danger they may face from a chink out of their safety armor. I could care less about the home visit; I knew they'd walk in and know right away the allegations were baseless. But what I cannot take back is the invasion of my children's privacy that makes them more vulnerable to the next person who asks innapropriate or personal questions.

The CPS itself recommends:
"Will the person know I've reported him or her?
Your report is confidential, and it is not subject to public release under the Open Records Act. The law provides for immunity from civil or criminal liability for innocent persons who report even unfounded suspicions, as long as your report is made in good faith. Your identity is kept confidential.

What are Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation?
  • Abuse is mental, emotional, physical, or sexual injury to a child or person 65 years or older or an adult with disabilities or failure to prevent such injury.
  • Neglect of a child includes failure to provide a child with food, clothing, shelter and/or medical care; and/or leaving a child in a situation where the child is at risk of harm.
  • Neglect of a person 65 years or older or an adult with disabilities that results in starvation, dehydration, over- or under-medication, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of heat, running water, electricity, medical care, and personal hygiene.
  • Exploitation is misusing the resources of a person 65 years or older or an adult with disabilities for personal or monetary benefit. This includes taking Social Security or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) checks, abusing a joint checking account, and taking property and other resources.
What if I'm not sure?
If you have reason to suspect abuse, but are not positive, make the report. If you have any doubts about whether or not it is abuse, call the hotline. They can advise you on whether the signs you have observed are abuse."

The social worker we spoke with recommends that the informant should first consult the parents about concerning situations where reasonable. If preserving confidentiality is your concern, the report is quite detailed and usually very obvious as to who called it in, even though the identity of the informant is illegal to divulge. Making that call without first expressing concern is far more damaging to a relationship than the parent knowing who made it after the conversation.
Every parent has scary stories, and so many things can be easily taken out of context. The investigations by the CPS are very invasive, so be aware of what happens after that report is made, and do your best to make sure your reaction to the situation is appropriate. It's not a simple call and a little knock at the door. It is an extremely strong response.
We appreciate our "village" that we've carefully assembled of friends, neighbors, and teachers, watching out for us, helping us, supporting us, by invtervening to keep our kids safe, or by expressing their concerns to us directly, but while the CPS definitely has its place, please be reasonably sure if their place in your particular situation is appropriate before making a report. One of the best ways to do this is simply to express your concern to the children's guardian, and then make a decision on whether or not an expert is needed.

Furthermore, the ability of this agency to do an end-run around our parental rights by using the childcare and public school system to question our children is wrong. When 50% of the reports to the CPS are actually found to be baseless, the net is too wide, catching up in it too many unaffected children who are then placed in disturbing and possibly traumatic circumstances. There are better ways to obtain inverviews from allegedly abused or neglected children.

The Texas Family Code states:
(a) The investigation may include:
(b) The interview with and examination of the child may:
(1) be conducted at any reasonable time and place, including the child's home or the child's school;"

However, the home interview has been found to be subject to 4th and 14th Ammendment limitations that require due process by obtaining consent or court order before entering the home. Allowing children to be interviewed while they are not in our care should carry with it some controls and requirements beyond an initial report, and should not be the first step of an investigation. Parents should always have the right to be informed of official interviews of minors, regardless of whose care they are in at the time, and barring enough evidence or imminently dangerous allegations worthy of a court order to conduct interviews, parents should have the right to consent to or deny the interview.
Child interviews are innacurate and often not considered evidence. If a child is truly involved in neglect or abuse, the interview alone will not and cannot substantiate it: there will be other signs. Child interviews should be used in conjunction with home visits and caretaker interviews, and only when steps have been taken to reasonably assure that a child interview is necessary or beneficial. Again, they should not be the first action taken!
To make your voice heard, contacting your state representative is easy. Laws are created and changed by our request, and our power to be heard is tremendous, especially in local government. In Texas, use
and type in your address to find your representatives. Our children cannot consent to questioning, and no one should be able to consent on their behalf other than their legal guardians. The CPS cannot be allowed to make that determination, which is how the law now stands by allowing interviews without parental knowledge or consent when children are in childcare.
Please comment if you are interested in being involved in the process or participating in a group letter to our state representatives on this specific area of the Texas Family Code.
This can so easily happen to any of our children. Protect yourselves by always being vigilant, asking for help from your support system (like a neighborhood watch for crime, make sure others have an interest in protecting your children), be approachable so those with concerns will involve you before they involve the state, and fight for laws that do a better job of identifying children who are truly victims of abuse or neglect.


Liz McCoy said...

wow! what an experience for your family. Alot to learn thanks for sharing.

Cyndi said...

What a nightmare! I wish that person had not called CPS FIRST, but some people are just too afraid or don't know how to confront someone. I agree with you, CPS should confront the parents first and assess the situation BEFORE questioning the children and it should be in a less threatening manner. Those poor kids! To have to be subjected to that kind of questioning! The law needs to change! I wish I were there to help you get it changed. On the other hand, I'm glad CPS is there for the real cases and are as hard on the parents that abuse their kids as they have been to you....but first they need to do a home evaluation to make sure it is truly an abusive situation!

Ang said...

OH man, that stinks! I would be quite frustrated if I were you too. I'm so sorry you all had that experience.

Bethany said...

Awe, so sorry that happened to your family *hugs* I would be just as upset with CPS as you are if it had happened to me

Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how mad it makes me to hear that your kids and you and Troy had to go thru this..absolutely horrible. What angers me more is that the person decided to call first..doesn't it make more sense to watch the family first and see if its a re-occurring thing? Lots of good info..too bad you had to learn it all the hard way.