Before we received a letter in the mail from child protective services (CPS) regarding child neglect, my husband had broken his heels in a climbing accident. He couldn’t walk, much less carry our children. My strong-willed son, already sensitive to transitions, became even more emotional.
Some days I wanted to weep; some days my son wailed.
How do you judge a child’s cry?
While expressing emotions through tears is normal for toddlers, my son belted louder than the best of them. His back arched, his face turned red, giant tears dripped down his cheeks.
Some believe a boy toddler shouldn’t cry. Others judge rather than empathize, or they watch a mother lug two children and a wheelchair-bound husband up and down stairs without offering to help. And some call CPS for child neglect.
It’s hard to hear your child sob. Research shows that a crying child throws a mother into a fight-or-flight response. All you want to do is make it stop and ease their tears. Yet, we, as parents sometimes struggle to find reasons and answers about why our children are crying.
In the book The Whole-Brain Child, we learn that toddlers lack the communication, motor, and physical skills to get what they want, so naturally, they become frustrated. Toddlers cry when they get the big spoon instead of the small one. Or when they are hungry or overtired. Or when they feel overstimulated or stressed. And often, that negative behavior is directed toward you. Here’s how a mixture of those things led to CPS visiting me.
Is this how it happens?
On a regular Monday, I picked up my kiddos from daycare. Going to the grocery store took courage, but I needed milk. Somewhere between the bread and the milk, my son began to whimper.
By the time we left the store, the sounds had escalated to bawling. My tired and cranky son screamed all the way home. He screamed as I took him out of the car and carried him to the second floor of our apartment. He cried off and on throughout dinner and bath time. Everyone fell asleep exhausted.
Tuesday morning, I found pages torn from a child abuse book on my windshield. I was sure this was a sick joke. Wednesday evening, the police came to my door to investigate a report of domestic violence. Since everyone was asleep, I was sure they had the wrong apartment. Thursday evening, I found the CPS card in my mailbox, asking me to call. This time, I was certain it was for me.
Turns out, I’m not alone in being accused of child neglect.
I’d like to think this doesn’t happen that often. But my reading proved otherwise.
According to NBC News and the Houston Chronicle, children are wrongly taken from hundreds of parents each year due to false child neglect and abuse accusations. Dylan and Lisa Bright briefly lost both of their children after a child abuse specialist claimed they caused their child’s skull fracture.
The Starbucks mom was accused of child abuse for leaving her three daughters to get a latte, even though they were within her line of vision. Another mom was accused of slapping her son while she strapped him into his car seat. Has the person who called CPS ever tried to put a screaming toddler into a car seat?
Confused and shocked, I called the number on the card.
“We are here to help,” she explained. “We can get you enrolled in parenting classes.”
While I don’t claim to be a perfect parent, I was offended that I suddenly needed to be first in line for training.
As she spoke, I cried.
I struggled for years with infertility. My son, a miracle IVF baby, blessed our lives. Now someone claimed I’d done him harm. It didn’t make any sense to me. How had one anonymous phone call made me guilty of bad parenting?
The weeks that followed were some of the lowest in my life. I went back and forth between disbelief, fear, and sadness. Could I lose my children? My teaching job? Was I a bad mom?
The social worker refused to give details over the phone and wanted to meet all of us in person. When we did finally cozy up around my kitchen table, she opened the report to go over the details.
Say goodbye to the notion of privacy.
“Your son cries a lot,” she said.
“He’s a toddler,” I answered.
“Your neighbor told your husband your son was cute.”
We waited for the rest.
"And your husband said, ‘Yeah, but he's a handful.’"
My husband's a quiet person who finds interactions with strangers uncomfortable. For Christmas, I got him socks that say, "I'm introverting." Taking a compliment has always been hard for him. Of course, our son is cute, but should saying “he’s a handful” to deflect the compliment constitute child abuse?
She ticked through her list. I had read that I needed to be very cautious when answering these questions because anything you say can be considered a red flag. I answered each one with one- or two-word answers.
Were you abused as a child?
Would you describe your childhood as happy?
Tell me about your darkest moments as a mom.
Do you spank your children?
She asked my son, who was 2 and a half, if he'd ever been touched on his private parts. A stranger introduced this delicate topic to my child! A report that a child cries too much can apparently lead to suspicions of sexual abuse.
While I know she was doing her job—going through her checklist for child neglect, conducting an investigation—the questions invaded our privacy. The last thing she did before leaving was open my refrigerator to make sure I had enough food.
You never really get over it.
Thirty days later, the allegation was classified as “unfounded or unsubstantiated” and closed. In California, where we live, even when there is no evidence to support a claim, all suspected abuse reports are kept for 10 years in a state-wide central registry. If I want my name removed earlier, I have to go through a lengthy request process.
Now, when my son cries, whether it’s because of a missing LEGO or because it's time to leave the park, I worry. I want to wipe his tears, but I’m also concerned about being falsely accused of child neglect. How are you supposed to be a parent if your child isn’t allowed to cry?
My husband has the opposite feeling. "If they want to come into my home again, let them. They'll see how much we love our children," he says.
But will they? One person has all the power to determine if you're a good parent.
Here’s what you can do to protect your family from child neglect allegations.
First, remember you’re not alone. I found comfort in women brave enough to speak out about being falsely accused of child neglect or abuse. It helped me to understand that my experience wasn't an isolated moment but instead becoming more common.
Next, trust that you’re a good parent. If this happens to you, it's reasonable to experience many emotions. I dealt with feelings of shame, guilt, outrage, and melancholy. Sometimes I felt I was somehow to blame. The nightmare, never quite forgotten, was accompanied by a nagging feeling I could have been better. It took some time before I realized it didn't matter what others thought of me; my kiddos are my everything.
Educate yourself on state laws regarding child neglect and abuse. I learned as much as possible about the child abuse laws in my state. Thankfully, I was a member of ARAG (insurance that connects you with attorneys for a reduced cost) and spoke to a lawyer about my case. You might not need anything more than a quick chat, but speaking to a legal expert armed me with knowledge and helped me understand my rights.
If you do get accused, form a team. I got up the courage to ask three people to write letters on my behalf, explaining how I was a good mother, and gave those letters to the social worker. It was hard to tell even people I trusted about what happened, but these same confidants knew my family, and their responses showed CPS that our friends and family believed in me.
Finally, keep detailed notes. Anytime I spoke to CPS, I wrote things down. If you decide to allow social workers into your home, keep a diary of conversations with times and dates. We also recorded all our interactions, so we had a complete account. You can also request a copy of the report.
Let’s try to get all the information we can first.
Afterward, when I was brave enough to tell other friends, I heard things like, "Yeah, but child neglect and abuse happens, and people need to call. Just in case." As a society, we've decided that policing moms is okay, even if we’re unsure or lack proof. Ethicist and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote an article on this topic for the New York Times, and he makes the important distinction between good intentions and poor information.
I wish my neighbor had asked me questions or gotten to know my family before calling. If only she had taken the time to get a better perspective about and look at what was happening in our home, she might have changed her mind about making that call. She might have seen my husband crawling on the floor next to my daughter as his heels healed. Perhaps, she would have seen us laughing when I reminded my son not to purposely drop food on the floor since his sister (or papa) might crawl on it.
Perhaps, she might realize that in our house, we laugh and cry. And it's okay to do both.