As MrsDarwin wrote earlier today, our little run in with Child Protective Services has doubtless gone as well as such a thing can. I took some time off work this afternoon to drive down to the county building in our town and be interviewed by the social worker handling our "case". As one of the parents, I have to be interviewed as well to fill out the case file which will then be reviewed by her supervisor in order to decide what happens next.
As with everything else in this process, "what happens next" is something that their rules do not allow them to tell us, lest something somehow change. Putting on my corporate speak, I emphasized that I knew she couldn't provide us with a commitment as to how things would resolve, but asked that she walk me through an example of what might happen next in a best case scenario of a case similar to ours. The answer: The supervisor decides that there is no danger in the situation and the case is closed. I then asked for the less good scenario: The supervisor provides a voluntary plan for things we should do in order to prevent a similar situation (a two and a half year old 'escaping' into his own yard for a few minutes) from occurring again.
So let me emphasize: this is about as good an interaction with CPS as one could possibly have. Even the "bad" scenario currently sounds like it would involve no more than being given some voluntary guidelines, which I would apparently be free to ignore without further consequences.
And yet so much about this set of laws and procedures is maddening.
It went well for us because our situation was so easily explicable, so much something that could happen to anyone. It was not tied to any structural aspect of how we run our family. Even the same complaint (a brief escape by a toddler) could have gone much worse if, say, it had happened during the school year while MrsDarwin was doing school work with the older kids. (Is it safe for you to be teaching your older children when your younger child might slip out of the house? Your choice to homeschool is causing neglect!) But no, he snuck out during the bustle of everyone returning from an activity outside, and would have been caught in moments should some busybody stranger not have taken it upon herself to pull her car over and insert herself anonymously into our lives. And of course, it went well for us also because by the luck of the draw we got a social worker who did not find large families or religious families or homeschooling families to be scary and suspicious all on their own.
Yet even so, even though I have no fault to find with the social worker we are dealing with, the circumstance itself makes me angry and is corrosive to civil society. It's almost more so because of the fact that there is not something inherently suspicious that was going on.
There was a point, some years ago, when I was pulled over for having my emissions sticker on my car out of date. I already knew pretty much why I was being pulled over, since MrsDarwin had been pulled over in the car and ticketed for not having an up-to-date inspection sticker a week before. I'd taken the car into the shop, had the necessary work done on it to pass inspection but been told that I needed to drive fifty miles so the car's emissions computer could reset before I could get the inspection. I was dutifully driving my fifty miles when I was pulled over. Knowing why I was pulled over, I wasn't upset about it, but I did know that I needed to proceed with caution, because another problem with my car was that it had automatic windows and they were broken. If I seemed to refuse to roll down by window to talk to the cop, and then opened my door while he was standing right there next to me, he might think I was preparing to attack him and I might get shot. All this went through my head as I pulled over with the red and blue light flashing behind me, and so the first thing that I did was to open my door, step out with my hands up, and tell the policeman that my automatic windows didn't work. What did he want me to do? He told me to get back in the car, leave my door open, put my license and registration on the dashboard, and keep my hands on the wheel at all times. I complied, and everything went fine. Given that I knew why I'd been pulled over and why I seemed threatening, I did not feel particularly worried or helpless. We were managing each other.
Here the feeling was distinctly different. This came to a point for me as the social worker was working down her list of standard questions that she's required to ask. One of them is: Do you feel able to protect your family?
"Ordinarily, yes. Except, you know, from investigations caused by the the frivolous accusations of strangers driving by."
The social worker and I both laughed, but it was a nervous laugh on both sides. Normally, yes, I believe that I can protect my family. But this threat from an unknown and untrackable source, someone I know only from my mother-in-law's description of a middle-aged heavyset woman who plucked our son from the front yard and marched him up to the door, then returned to her car. There are a lot of middle-aged heavyset women with cars in Ohio. I've been noticing them a lot the last few days. As I left the library with my two youngest children I saw a woman who fit that description, sitting in an idling car. She fixed me with a sour expression. I looked back. Was she impatient, waiting for someone, and annoyed to see someone other than the person she wanted coming out the sliding doors? Or was this the person who'd reported us to the police and CPS as negligent? The supermarket. The park. There are people everywhere, and the only remedy is going to be to stop thinking about it. But right now I haven't quite managed to put the lurking enemy out of my mind yet.
And then, of course, there's the system itself. The system is designed to proactively protect children by looking into all aspects of child safety whenever any kind of compliant is made. But the result is that you don't just have to clear yourself of wrongdoing -- show that what you were reported for is not itself a dangerous situation in need of punishment or remedy. No. I need to prove that my family is a safe place for children to be. I need to prove my innocence.
This has given me a deeper sympathy for the way in which people who are frequently profiled by the police develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general. This was essentially a stop and frisk of the whole family, the whole house, our whole lives. Virtually none of the questions I and other members of the family were asked had to do with the actual incident that triggered it. Within moments it was clear that we do not have a chronic problem with children playing dangerously or wandering the neighborhood. However, the law and state policy require the social worker to dig into everything: How do we handle arguments? How do we relax? Do I ever drink? How do we punish the kids? Where do the kids sleep? What do they eat? What chores do they do?
And of course, the fact that they are even asking these means that any one of these must have a "wrong" answer. They could come on a report of a kid seen outside and decide they needed to intervene because they don't like our answer on how we argue. (As it is, we don't argue. But do they believe me about that?)
It's wrong and corrosive to the social fabric to stop people at random on the streets to see if they have weapons or drugs. It's wrong to conduct deep searches of their cars and persons just to see if they might be doing something illegal. It's wrong to subject a family to this kind of scrutiny in ways that have no relation to the "offense" reported. I don't blame the people we dealt with, who were as nice and accommodating as their jobs allow them to be, but I do blame our laws and our society. We have bad laws and a society in which people think they're doing some kind of a good deed to call down the heavy hand of the law on each other over the tiniest thing. Even before this happened, when thinking about issues such as how old a kid has to be to ride his bike around the block or walk to the library, I've worried far more about busybodies and the civic mechanisms which our society has turned into their weapons than I have about the likelihood of some stranger hurting them directly.
For us, this is likely to end well. But that doesn't make the feelings of helplessness and violation at having to prove one's innocence, having to submit to open-ended search and questioning just in case there might be something wrong, mere inconveniences. Whatever benefits may come either from this kind of stop-and-frisk-for-families or from the kind of aggressively pro-active policing that subjects many people committing no obvious crime to having their persons or property searched, those benefits are not worth the cost in loss of faith in the law and its enforcers.
Passages on Self-Command in Sense and Sensibility
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