Jenna Farelyn, author of the blogs The Frelle Show and Made More Beautiful, has been a fan of all things social media since 1993. She lives in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina with her four children, loves her music loud, and her coffee cream-and-sugared within an inch of its life. Jenna and her boyfriend, The Viking, are currently writing a non-fiction book together. When she gets a few moments to herself, she enjoys photography, reading romance novels, and binge-watching TV series on Netflix.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but there are scenes from my life that I’m sure I would go back and handle differently if technology ever gets its act together and produces a time machine. Stop for a minute and try to think of one of those moments in your own life. I bet there’s one that jumps right out at you. Me too. I’ve made some bad choices that, even at the time, I knew were bad. They come to mind first. However, there are other choices like the one I’m going to write about here that seemed totally safe at the time, but ended up having absolutely disastrous unforeseen consequences.
I ran a couple of errands early one Friday afternoon about four years ago, and left my two younger children in the care of a teenage babysitter. Kate (not her real name) was someone I had known for several years and had proven her capability to care for my kids both while I was home and while I was out. I ran errands a few times a week while she stayed with them, and I was completely comfortable doing so. This particular day was a day like any other day, really.
Monday morning comes around, and my toddler son and I settled down on the couch after returning from Smallish Girl’s preschool drop-off. The phone rang, and I saw that the caller ID read: Child Protective Services. The bottom dropped out of my stomach as I considered whether or not I even wanted to answer the call, assuming my worst fear as a mother has finally been realized. I decided to answer, and was informed that an anonymous caller had reported me to CPS for neglect on Friday.
I can’t begin to explain to you the slow moving horror that washed over me as I listened to the caseworker tell me that Little Fella had gotten out of the house and was riding his Batman big wheel in the street, unsupervised. The anonymous caller had approached my son and asked him if I was at home. He said no. It’s true.. I wasn’t at home. But my babysitter was! Unfortunately, nobody asked him that question!
The caller admitted that they had LEFT MY CHILD IN THE STREET, gone back inside their house, and continued to observe him until they saw my minivan pull into the driveway. They assumed, based on the answer of a toddler, that I had left him home, and outside, completely unattended, and called CPS and told them as much. The caller said that my children were outside unsupervised in the road all the time, nearly hit often, and that the other neighbors had learned to watch out for my kids because I didn’t. The caller also stated that a city police officer had talked to me on more than one occasion about the neglect of my children.
It’s hard to describe the mixture of emotions I was feeling, hearing these accusations. I was ashamed to even be having this conversation, but I was also filled with a brand new, previously unexplored level of rage at this faceless coward who had left my son in the street just so they could nail my ass to the wall. I became very defensive with the caseworker, and said “Can you repeat the part where the caller admitted that they left my 3 year old son in the street? The neglect on their part is even more obvious than me not being home to ensure that my babysitter was watching my kids!”. The caseworker had nothing to say on the subject, of course, as the caller was anonymous and could not be followed up with.
I was livid.
The truth of the matter was that my babysitter was in the house with my preschooler when the observation by the neighbor took place. At age 3, Little Fella was testing the escape artist boundary on a regular basis, and the sitter absolutely should have been watching him more closely. But the caller ought to have had the common decency to knock on my door, stick their head inside and yell, or chosen to take my son into their house for safety’s sake until I came home. IF there was genuine concern for his safety. But no, there wasn’t. This was just the golden opportunity that the caller had been waiting for.
The caseworker came to my house to visit with me in person a few hours after our phone call. He mentioned that he had been to school to talk to my two older kids in the interim. I wasn’t prepared for that, and I was shocked at the invasion of my family’s privacy without permission, but was told it was just the way their office does things. My 10 year old and my 7 year old both admitted (in separate interviews) that their little brother did try to get out of the house a lot, but that someone was always right behind him as soon as they heard the door slam. Apparently the getting out repeatedly was the big issue, because it corroborated with the anonymous caller’s assertion. My daughters denied the accusation that they are allowed to play in the street alone, and defended my supervision of them while playing outside.
I feel like the caller must have been the kind of person who sat in her front room, watching my house in sick, twisted anticipation just to see what might happen. I have four kids. I’ll be honest, sometimes it got a little crazy, but I’ve never let them run wild in the yard, much less in the street. I’ve never been the type to just open the door and say “Shoo! Go play!” while I get housework done or cook or whatever… You’d find me in the backyard, or on the deck, or on the front porch, or right in the middle of things with them. At the time, we spent most of our time in the house, or away on playdates at the park, or in the back yard. So there couldn’t have been that much to keep this woman entertained.
And I have never been approached by a police officer about the care of my children. Ever. Not even one time.
I have reason to believe that the caller was my across the street neighbor. About a year before this incident, Little Fella ran out of the house and into the street and Oldest Sister ran out to grab him. I was in the shower and didn’t know he’d escaped. This neighbor came out of her front door screaming at my oldest and told her that one day, the police were going to come and take the kids away from me. If she had ever actually been concerned for their safety, I would think she would have come to talk to me, yell at me, do something. But clearly, she’d rather just sit in judgment, waiting for the right time to make a call to the authorities.
After the initial home visit, there was a safety plan I was sent in the mail and required to sign. It included the following:
1) Kate was not allowed to babysit Little Fella
2) Kate was allowed to watch the girls for short periods of time
3) All my babysitters must be at least 16 years old, and if babysitting in the evening, they have to be 18
4) Required to obtain and show proof of better security installed on the doors to the outside.
The letter attached to the safety plan essentially told me that If I failed to adhere to this agreement, and they found out, that life would be very difficult for me. I complied with the age range for babysitters after that, and I did have a latch installed high up on the door. At the time, my ex was unwilling to go so far as to put in a deadbolt. And I solved the problem of the kids going into the street by essentially banning bike riding unless I knew the lady across the street was not home, and all other play happened in the back yard or away from the house. I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to make another call.
To be honest, the whole incident left me traumatized. At the time I was in the midst of some serious post-partum depression, as well as beginning divorce proceedings with my ex. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and terrified of doing anything that might even look like I was not following the safety plan agreement. That led to some general paranoia, panic attacks, and approximately a truckload of anger toward the crazy neighbor lady/nameless, faceless coward that reported me
If I could do it over, the choice I would have made that Friday was to stay home. But you and I both know that it’s pretty likely that there would have been some other incident, some other day, where the meddling neighbor would have found an opportunity to call me in. People who are willing to frighten my children by telling them she will see to it that they get taken away from me, and who leave toddlers in the street.. they won’t give up until their perverse sense of justice is satisfied.
That nasty neighbor lady moved away not too long ago, but I continue to secretly hope that karma pays her a visit one day for what she did to me. I know the sense of superiority and vindication she probably felt as the “better mother” and “model citizen”, and truthfully, she was being horrible and cruel to an already overwhelmed and distracted fellow mom. I feel like there should be a special place in hell for women who treat other women that way.
To those overwhelmed moms who have Mrs. Judgy McJudgerson for a neighbor, my heart goes out to you. If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar position, particularly if you’ve kept it to yourself and never told another living soul, I hope hearing my story made you feel seen and understood. As a mom who has had Social Services called on her, I look for opportunities to encourage visibly struggling moms, and you won’t catch me assuming the worst of anyone who confides in me about their worst day as a parent. I’d challenge you to do the same if you’re tempted to jump to conclusions about someone else’s situation. We’re all really just trying to do the best we can. The world would be a better place if we could learn to look for more ways to extend grace and compassion and stop tearing one another down.