Are these kids alright?
November 30, 2004 7:47 PM   Subscribe

ChildNeglectFilter: The new neighbor children have started coming to our door every day, desperately needing attention. What should (or can) we do? [mi]

There are three kids, aged about 11, 8, and 6. The two youngest, a boy and a girl, come over multiple times every day after school –- 9:00 am this past Sunday -- asking to come in and be in our apartment and play with us. We can hear their mother and her boyfriend yelling at them all the time (and we’re talking verbal and emotional abuse here), so I know why they come over. We have been kind to them so far, but they are getting increasingly attached and really insistent on being with us. They are excessively needy and, truth be told, exasperatingly annoying to two people who don’t even want children of their own. My boyfriend is self-employed and works at home, and these kids are really hard to get rid of, and we feel bad because they have no where to go. We need serious advice.
posted by butternut to Law & Government (26 answers total)
Reach Child Protective Services and tell them what's going on. They should be in the phone book.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 8:02 PM on November 30, 2004

That is, if you're in the U.S. If not, your local/provincial government probably has some similar service.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 8:04 PM on November 30, 2004

Yelling at Nothing has it. You've been more than kind to provide them a respite, but obviously there is a problem that needs to be attended to. Alert the proper authorities and get these kids help.
posted by jenovus at 8:17 PM on November 30, 2004

Another option is to have a frank and open conversation with the children. Explain to them that you enjoy their company and like when they come over, but that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to visit. Explain that your partner works at home and thus the day time is his time alone for work. Explain that you like to sleep in on the weekends, or that Sundays are special days for you and your partner to spend time alone. State a time that's good for them to come by, say 5- 6 pm, post work, pre-dinner.

So, I guess I'm basically saying that you need to create boundaries and then stick by them or these kids will make you crazy.
posted by Ms Snit at 8:18 PM on November 30, 2004

Child Protective Services may not find them in enough danger to do very much. Please don't flame me; I don't work for them. I used to have a job where I referred to them, and they are overloaded. You might be able to make a deal with the kids that they could visit at a specific time only. Lay in a few movies or books. Are they settled down enough to do some homework? Just hanging out in your home may be a real respite, but it's clearly a burden on you.
posted by theora55 at 8:21 PM on November 30, 2004

It may be true that CPS will not do anything, especially if this is the first report. However, it is their job to determine whether anything should be done, not yours. In fact, if you even suspect abuse, and you do not report it, you can be named as an accessory if anything happens to the kids. (That's right--- I'm talking about criminal charges files against you).

I was a Cub Scout leader when my kids were little, and that's what they told me in Youth Protection Training.
posted by Doohickie at 8:31 PM on November 30, 2004

David Sedaris wrote about this very problem in his very sad story The Girl Next Door. I don't think it will give you any solutions, but you might find some echoes of your problem.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on November 30, 2004

Miko makes a good point and read my mind. Be careful of getting entangled in the lives of these people. I suppose if nothing is going to talk you away from philanthropy you might offer to walk them to the park or for an ice cream, etc.

When I was in residency, we lived in a place with this sort of scenario, but we were far more misanthropic and the message just sort of got out. It's a tragedy, but what was clear was that the shitbox of a mom next door clearly just felt as though it was someone else's job to raise her kids when she didn't feel like it, and we made it clear that it wasn't going to be us. You sound more gracious than I could ever be in this situation.
posted by docpops at 8:42 PM on November 30, 2004

Last night I saw a heartwarming French film, le Papillon, about a similar situation. It won't solve your problem, but it may give you perspective. The kids' parents are the ones who need to see the film. Maybe you could arrange that.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:59 PM on November 30, 2004

You guys, I just love MetaFilter. This is, like, eighty million times more helpful than therapy. David Sedaris? French movies? What could be better?? Many thanks.

It has definitely occurred to me to call "the authorities," and I probably will at some point, for the reason that Doohickie points out -- it does seem to be our responsibility in some fashion, if not legally than human-ly, no?

I am just incredulous at how people can have kids that they don't really want. I am a totally impotent slack-jawed bystander at the scene of social tragedy-in-the-making.
posted by butternut at 9:14 PM on November 30, 2004

I am just incredulous at how people can have kids that they don't really want.

The kids are just unfortunate side effects of sex.

Sad, really, especially when there are lots of couples that would be wonderful parents that can't have their own kids.

In the meantime, I think the idea of setting time limits is a good one.
posted by Doohickie at 9:41 PM on November 30, 2004

Wow, I saw Papillion, too, but I got something totally different out of it.
posted by waldo at 10:19 PM on November 30, 2004

Call CPS sooner rather than later. The longer it goes on, the more fucked up these kids are. My mom has spent her entire life working in CPS and the sooner a (good) social worker gets involved, the better. On the other side of that same coin, the longer it goes on, the more fucked up those kids get. And statistically speaking, they're almost certain to have kids of their own by the time they're 25 and proceed to fuck those kids up too. Like, call CPS tomorrow, please. I grew up hearing stories over the dinner table. Infants beaten to death, and it comes out later that the neighbour was planning on calling, but hadn't gotten around to it. This doesn't sound like physical abuse, but you never know, and neglect/verbal abuse are nearly as damaging.
posted by kavasa at 10:24 PM on November 30, 2004

...I can't believe I forgot to add this part too: time limits may be a good thing, for the kids. One of the things that neglected children really lack is rules and structure, which despite what they may think, they really miss. For kids, rules are, in the end, a secure blanket. Without them they feel unsafe and unloved, and alot of the time that is in fact the case. If you can provide some structure for them while the CPS investigation is ongoing, that can definitely benefit them. Make it clear, however, that you are not angry at them, even if they are.
posted by kavasa at 10:27 PM on November 30, 2004

All good advice, but remember, these kids are coming to your door because they need you. You didn't ask for and don't want the responsibility, but here you are. Limit the time, but do so in a positive and affirmative way, and let them come back. Could you have something to take up their time in a non-TV way--an art set or something where they could play creatively and independently? You could make a difference in their lives.
posted by LarryC at 10:42 PM on November 30, 2004

Once word gets out that you ratted to the CPS, your problem with these kids bothering you too much will be over, I assure you.
posted by grouse at 1:33 AM on December 1, 2004

The problem is with the parents, more than in the children. Would it be too risky to let the parents become aware of what you know? Are they threatening to you in any way (never put yourself at risk)? Do any other neighbours see the tell-tale signs, or get visits from the kids?

If you have other witnesses like that, then a bit more can be done: when my downstairs neighbour has had 'domestics' in the past, it has disturbed my opposite neighbour and me, to the extent that we open our doors to investigate the disturbance, together. It's not an easy thing to co-ordinate, and there are implications for the kids - if mum & boyfriend find out that their behaviour has attracted attention, the kids could suffer.

I could only ignore so much: beyond that, I'd be turning away from a real tragedy, and feel (almost) as responsible as the perps. But they are where I would start.

I also have called the police when I thought anyone was at risk of violence: mum, partner and child. You never know when passion will result in injury in homes shielded from public protection.
posted by dash_slot- at 2:03 AM on December 1, 2004

I'd suggest contacting the guidance department of the schools they go to first. Explain to them the situation, along with your concerns. At the least their guidance counselor should be able to help them understand appropriate behavior ( coming over when they are invited, etc) and may be able to get help for the family as a whole. As a neighbor (I believe) you are not a mandated reporter, but scout leaders, teachers and guidance counselors are.
posted by a22lamia at 6:14 AM on December 1, 2004

Unless there's something more than three kids coming to see you and their mom hollering at them, I'd be careful before calling CPS (or DCFS, as we call it in Chicago). DCFS' FAQ on Abuse and Neglect is here; it looks helpful. A North Carolina anti-abuse site is here.

My wife is a lawyer who represents kids that are in the DCFS system here, and tells me some really sad stories. Here in Chicago, it takes a lot to remove the kids from the custody of their parents, particularly if the parents are clean, the kids are in school, and nobody is getting hit.

It may be that if you call CPS, mom and her boyfriend will get more angry at the children and escalate the tension. It's not their fault, obviously, but mom will make the overly-simple connection between her kids coming to see you and the state at her door asking questions.

Or it may be that if you call CPS, mom and her boyfriend will get angry at you and will do something irrational. People don't like strangers telling them how to raise their kids; particularly people who suck at raising their kids.

On the other hand, as suggested a bunch of times above, if there's really something there you have an obligation to stand up and say something. NC Gen Stat. § 7B-301 (scroll down on this page) makes reporting the obligation of "any person" who suspects abuse. Section 101 on that page says that "serious emotional damage is evidenced by a juvenile's severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward himself or others."

I hope this helps. I realize it's a lot of blah blah, but I think you should be careful before getting the state involved if you are not really convinced the state will do something. Otherwise, you are setting those kids (and maybe yourselves) up for trouble.

mandatory disclaimer: IAAL, but not yours, so take this overview for what it is and nothing else.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:32 AM on December 1, 2004

You should also consider contacting Child Protective Services from a self-defense perspective. When mom and her boyfriend find out that the kids are coming to you for help, it's entirely likely that they might file charges against you for "messing around with their kids."
posted by SPrintF at 7:17 AM on December 1, 2004

I'd be wary of DCFS too for the reasons AgentR points out.

You've been doing a great thing for these kids and if you want to continue to provide respite you should most definitely do it in the manner that people have suggested: set boundaries and stick to them. I would throw in another step you can take: at some point when there isn't yelling coming through the walls, stop over and ask mom if she'd mind you taking the kids to the local Y to get them involved in the Big Brother/Big Sister program (I know Hands On Charlotte in NC has a similar program; I imagine there's something in Chapel Hill). Be nonconfrontational and try to frame it as something that will make her life easier, not as something which will make up for her deficiencies. Chances are some part of her knows and feels bad that her children are neglected, but she's just not capable of putting them first. If you show her an easy way of filling that gap, she may jump at it. Once a kid is enrolled in a Big Brother program, the Big Brother is responsible for getting the kid to and from activities, not the Mom, so kids tend to stay involved in the services.

Not sure how much it matters coming from a complete stranger on the internet, but I'm glad you've been kind to them so far. Even after you've managed to regain your distance from these kids' screwed up lives, you'll probably have made an enormous difference.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:30 AM on December 1, 2004

This is all a great help. I agree that calling in the state is a move that should not be done without careful deliberation, and this is helping me get there. As folks have pointed out, there will be many repercussions of doing so.

I like this idea of talking with the kids and setting up guidelines for their behavior with us. I also like the idea of getting them to the Y -- it's actually just up the street from where we live, and I do know that there's a Big Brother/Big Sister program in town. I hadn't thought of that. I would definitely be willing to take them there, if the mother would agree.

I guess I'd have to talk to her then. Urgh.
posted by butternut at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2004

it may be that if you call CPS, mom and her boyfriend will get angry at you and will do something irrational

This implies that CPS will tell them who ratted them out.

That simply can't be true. Can't be. There must be rules about confidentiality.

If not, my god, what a horrible system you've got.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:40 AM on December 1, 2004

I can't reiterate strongly enough what kavasa said. Seriously.

My old job involved dealing kids in exactly this situation, and worse, on a semi-regular basis. Speaking as someone who was most definetly not trained to deal with this kind of stituation, I learned very quickly that calling the authorities was preferable in almost every way to trying to handle the problem yourself.

First and foremost, there may be physical abuse happening. It's not just the kids with black eyes and cigarette burns that are being hit at home.

CPS shouldn't tell the parents who called them, but even if the parents figure it out, the situation you'll be in is no different than the one you're in if the parents find out you're sending their kids to the YMCA without their permission, or suggesting they send them to a Big Brother/Sister, etc.

Chances are some part of her knows and feels bad that her children are neglected

True. And this means that the parents are unlikely to respond well to your well-intentioned interferance. I never heard of an abusive parent who 'saw the light' when a neighbor or co-worker or whoever else broached the subject with them.

The bottom line is that this is a sticky situation, and will be no matter how you deal with it. CPS has the training and resources to address the problem; you do not.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 12:10 PM on December 1, 2004

I'd make sure and talk to the mom before I did anything. She's really the heart of your dilemma, and you ought to get to know her better before you act.

You could tell her that it's OK for the kids to come over under such-and-such guidelines. It would also help you get a glimpse into her personality and her house. That may help you decide whether you want to call the authorities and report her as a neglectful mother.

In the end, you might decide that taking them to the Y or whatever is as far as you go.

Make no mistake: If you call the authorities, she'll know it was you (based on your description of the situation -- who else would know the details?).

Again, if it was me, I'd want to be pretty sure something worse than crappy mothering and some yelling was going on before I got a file opened up on that family. (i.e. physical abuse, or extreme neglect like kids wandering neighborhood at night while mom is gone or doped up.)

I've seen numerous cases of CPS-equivalent involvement. Some gave the kids a chance. Some stabilized the family. Many did not. But that depends mainly, I think, on the competence and level of funding of your local authorities.

Whatever you do, I admire you for caring enough to get involved.
posted by sacre_bleu at 3:12 PM on December 1, 2004

My instincts say that the parents are overwhelmed--by personal problems, financial worries, drugs, etc. It would be wise to approach them in a non-threatening, helpful manner, otherwise it could be another straw on the camel's back, and they could take it out on the kids. If you could get an idea of their problem, you may be able to subtly nudge them in helpful directions.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:45 PM on December 4, 2004

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