Causes Parental Suffering

Its official name is Child Protective Services (and most parents recognize its acronym, “CPS”), but I have to think that my post title more accurately describes it, especially when it’s aided by busy-bodies — people who don’t really want to help a situation, but who do want to cause a little excitement in their lives. I have a collection of CPS stories — all of which happened to friends, family or neighbors — and they’re a reminder of what happens when you set up an agency that exists only if it can ensure that a sufficient problem exists to justify its mandate. With details changed to protect people’s identities, here are the CPS stories of people I know well:

In the era before digital cameras, a young mother had her baby asleep in the car. She wanted to drop film off at one of those parking lot photo booths, so she drove to a parking space immediately adjacent to the photo booth. She got out of the car, locked the car, walked the few feet to the photo booth, and conducted her business. What she didn’t know is that, during the few minutes she was away from her car, a busy-body had seen a baby inside, written down her license plate and then reported her to CPS. Based on this witness’ testimony, CPS went after her with a vengeance. I never heard how that one ended up, but I assume it did the way so many of these stories do: with CPS guaranteeing itself the right to look over the parents’ shoulder forever.

Last year, a mother with a 5 year old and a 3 year old went to pick her 5 year old up from preschool. The 3 year old was napping in the car, so she parked the car in front of the school where a bunch of other parents were milling about, locked the car, grabbed her 5 year old and hustled back to the car. Total time gone: about 4 minutes. When she got backed to the car, a woman grabbed her, announced a citizen’s arrest, and reported that she’d already called the police. The police showed up, arrested the mother, and she’s now negotiating with CPS for custody of her children. I know her well and can guarantee you that she is in all respects an exemplary and loving mother — nor is CPS saying otherwise.

A mother had a running battle with her 13 year old about the fact that the latter liked to leave her plugged in blow-dryer next to the bathtub. The teenager refused to believe that this was an electrical hazard. Eventually, one morning, the mother took the blow dryer away. The daughter left the house in tears, bewailing the fact that her mother was cruel for leaving her with un-styled hair. A neighbor called CPS. CPS stormed in and informed the mother that, henceforth, she was not allowed to take away any of her daughter’s possessions or interfere in any way with her daughter’s grooming, or discipline her in any way. Doing any of those things would give CPS justification to remove the child. No one — including CPS personnel — claimed that the mother had done anything other than remove her daughter’s blow-dryer, making her cry.

A mom got into a fight with her 10 year old son about household chores. The 10 year old went to school and, aided by his friends, told the teacher he was being abused. The teacher called CPS. CPS arrived, and the 10 year old son, when pressed, stated that the abuse consisted of the fact that his mother sometimes forgot to buy milk. There were no other allegations against her and, again, every indication was that she was an attentive, loving mother (as attested by her other three children). CPS required her to go to child-rearing classes and kept up surprise inspections for over a year. She was told “comply or lose your child.”

Parents of a newborn took their child into the pediatrician about a spot on the child’s arm. The pediatrician found nothing wrong but over-worried parents. The next time the mom saw the pediatrician, she complained that she and her husband were sleep deprived and their tempers were fraying. The pediatrician called CPS. Solely on the basis of the one doctor’s visit and the mother’s statement about frayed tempers, CPS arranged with a prosecutor to have the father charged with child endangerment and threatened him with the loss of his green card and deportation.

I had my own little run-in with a busy-body the other day. I had some books to return to the library, but my kids, 7 and 9 at the time, elected to stay in the car and play with their video games. While I was in the library, an elderly couple came running and told the librarian, “You need to call the police. There’s a [describing my car] car out there with two infants in it.” I listened into disbelief and then announced to the librarian, “That’s my car, and Bookworm 1 and Bookworm 2 are playing their Nintendos in there.” Within a second of receiving this information, the librarian relaxed completely and hustled the couple away. She knew my kids and knew this was a ridiculous charge. However, if I hadn’t been right there, I’m sure she would have called the police and I would have had to answer to charges of child abandonment.

Those are just stories I know. I bet all of you have stories.

By telling these stories I am not denying that there are terrible cases of child abuse going on around us. Nor do I deny that affluent communities can have child abuse too — although I’d be willing to bet that, no matter how politically correct you want to be, child abuse is going to be more prevalent where people are dogged by poverty, crowded housing and substance abuse. In each of the cases I’ve described, the problem was that a busy-body went off half-cocked, and CPS came in with all guns blazing, using its massive power — mostly in the form of a threat to remove children — to charge parents with criminal acts, to entitle CPS to free run of a home, and to remove from parents any ability reasonably to discipline their children.

It’s this last that has always gotten to me. When I was a kid, my mother had two weapons in her arsenal to deal with naughty behavior. When I was very little, she put me in a playpen. In there, I was safe, I was near her, and I had to learn to entertain myself. When I got older, my Mom spanked, with her hand. She didn’t beat me, she didn’t whip me, she didn’t strike out randomly. She made a rule and, if I broke it, there was a quick “whap!” and it was over. I usually didn’t break the rule a second time, and I never broke it a third. In my house, we all knew the rules, and my Mom could trust us a lot. My Mom didn’t have a lot of residual anger, either, because the house ran like a well-oiled machine. It was very peaceful.

My kids are lovely human beings but, when they were little, they were distinguished by being exceptionally headstrong, impulsive and independent. My kids had no off switch, nor was I able to provide one. Because I was afraid of CPS, I didn’t put them in play pens (instead, I cordoned off my entire house) and I tried never to use even mild corporal punishment. When they broke a rule, the response was “time outs” and “removal of privileges” and “long talks” — all of these with children under six. My spirited children couldn’t have cared less. Time outs didn’t affect my energizer bunnies in the least. Removal of privileges? Who cares? Talks? Great.

What all this meant was that, for me, parenting was unbearably frustrating. I had enormous responsibility and no power whatsoever. I ended up doing what any reasonably intelligent person would do under those circumstances: I put them in preschool. Having them around was too much work and too little pleasure. Preschool made their behavior issues someone else’s problem. And because I had a good preschool, and because my kids are great people, and because I love them very much, things have turned out pretty darn well. I do wonder, though, if I would have kept my children home more if the threat of CPS hadn’t made me such a passive parent that it was easier not to have my children around at all.

What do you all think? Do you have CPS stories? Can you defend CPS — not in its role as defender of genuinely abused children, but in its role as bully of the middle class?