Talking to relatives of the boy who cried wolf
June 16, 2010 4:07 PM   Subscribe

NeighborFilter: Kid in distress, probably made the wrong call. What now?

One of the neighbor kids showed up at my door today and asked me to call the police because he was afraid that a family member would beat him for a bad report card. I don't know the adults at his house that well, but Neighbor Kid is good friends with one of my kids. He has a history of embellishment, but this was so out of character for him (he usually avoids me) that I called.

An officer showed up in a squad car. He checked Neighbor Kid for marks and talked to a couple of the teenage kids who were home there (there were no adults home), and determined that while he does get hit, there was nothing actionable going on. While he was talking to Neighbor Kid and me, one of the adults from the house came home from work. She corroborated that the Neighbor Kid was embellishing, and asked why the squad car was at my house. The officer told her basically what I just told you.

After he left, my kids and I left the house in the hopes that it would alleviate any immediate embarrassment the neighbors might feel -- we're out now. But it wouldn't surprise me if at some point, one of the adults came over. I don't know whether they will be apologetic or accusatory. And I have no idea what I'd say in either situation.

For what it's worth, had any kid in the neighborhood come to my house and done what Neighbor Kid did, I would have probably done the same thing -- just like how I'd help if they were injured, or let them hang out at the house if they were locked out of theirs, or whatever. Also for what it's worth, my family is going through an unrelated ordeal right now and it's entirely possible that affects my judgment. The officer told me I'd done the right thing. But I really don't want my neighbors thinking that I think they abuse their kids, and I don't want them keeping Neighbor Kid from his friend, my kid, as a result. At the same time, I don't think this is a "bring over cookies and talk about your feelings" situation, either.

Any advice on how to handle this from here would be greatly appreciated. I'll be watching for questions and provide followup if need be -- I'm still out, and can't open a throwaway email account from where I am right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you said it all when you said that you'd do the same had any other kid in the neighborhood came over with the same story: tell them that you hope they'd do the same for your kid if he/she came over in distress.
posted by eve harrington at 4:14 PM on June 16, 2010 [10 favorites]

I think it is what it is. The kid gets hit, albeit perhaps less violently as he expressed, he asked you to call, you called. There is no reason for you to feel strange or defensive. If asked, I would say, "Yes, he asked me to call the police, so I did." Period. I wouldn't feel that I had to make the adults feel better -- they are the ones in charge of the situation which apparently includes hitting.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:14 PM on June 16, 2010 [17 favorites]

Make sure they understand exactly what happened and that if your child went to their place and said he felt threatened by you, you would expect them to do the same thing.

It's really hard to overreact when a child tells you they are afraid of being hit by anyone, especially their parents.
posted by elder18 at 4:15 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Imagine that your kid approached a neighbor in an emergency situation -- any emergency situation. Wouldn't you prefer that neighbor overreact than underreact to a child's plea for help?

Also, I find it striking that "he does get hit" is buried in this post.

It sure sounds like you did the right thing. If these people come at you in an accusatory way, refer them to my first paragraph. At any rate, I would not hide from them. You are serving the child's best interests in the future if you remain an aware, alert neighbor.
posted by thejoshu at 4:19 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you could simply say that because you respected them as a neighbor, since you couldn't say for sure what was going on, you wanted to take their child seriously when they came to you with what seemed to be a serious problem. It's unfortunate that it happened to involve them, but this is how you would respond on their behalf to any other call for help from one of their children, if they weren't available. Better to respond and find out it was nothing, than to not react at all, and find out that you failed to help protect the child. I would emphasize that that you would hope they would respond the same way towards your child if they came to them for help, and for whatever reason you were not available.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:22 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You made the right call. If any child asks you to call the police because of a stated fear of abuse, you should do it. It's not your job to decide what is "embellishment." If the kid asks you to do it again, you should do it again, unless the police tell you otherwise.
posted by grouse at 4:22 PM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

When the neighbour approaches you - and if they don't, you should approach them - I'd say "Listen, I have never been under the impression that there was anything like that going on at your house, but when your son asked me to call the police, I did - just as I hope you call the police if any of my kids asked you to."

You need to find a way to make this something that could have happened to either of you, so that they don't feel like they're being cast in an unfavourable light.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:27 PM on June 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

You did the right thing. This boy isn't "crying wolf", he DOES get hit, and he is likely legitimately scared of that. I would have trouble doing much more than stating the facts if these people asked me about this (he asked you for help, so you helped, as you would do for anyone). But then, I don't think grown adults should be hitting children (or anyone else for that matter).
posted by biscotti at 4:30 PM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

You did not make the wrong call. You did the right thing, and if the "adults" who have charge of this child truly care, they will know that.

Child abuse really exist, children are tortured everyday. You had (and have) no way of knowing if this child lives in that hell. And houses like that do not come with special flags. You did what needed to be done.

Children ask for help only when they are fearful, though they might misstate the type of fear they have. This wasn't some dramatic performance by this boy, something is going on and he wanted help, even if asking was going to cost him (and you know it has cost him more than you.)

"[D]etermined that while he does get hit, there was nothing actionable going on." That speaks tons, doesn't it? In most of the sane word, it is not acceptable for an adult to hit a child. Period. It really never was generally approved of in the way some people do it, but there is nothing that can be done until it gets horrible. The authorities can't intervene, and society is no longer closeknit enough for others to become involved, without feeling guilt for their efforts. No one really has the power to stop the abusers, or help the overstressed, incompetent or misguided parents.

You did the right thing. Now make sure the child knows that, no matter what, no matter how angry his parents get at you and your family, no matter how much they try to shut you out, you will be there to help him whenever he needs help.
posted by Some1 at 4:30 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing what everyone else said. You did the right thing; even if their kid isn't being obviously abused, if the kid is going to the effort to pull this kind of behaviour, then something else is going on in their family--even if it's only strained relations.

You didn't make the wrong call. I would take the simplest possible approach with your neighbor, that there was literally nothing else you could have done, and you would expect them to do the same.
posted by emjaybee at 4:32 PM on June 16, 2010

Your answer is already in your question...

"Why did you call the police about my kid?"

"For what it's worth, had any kid in the neighborhood come to my house and done what Neighbor Kid did, I would have probably done the same thing -- just like how I'd help if they were injured, or let them hang out at the house if they were locked out of theirs, or whatever."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:33 PM on June 16, 2010

Yeah, if you are questioned on it, just present it to them as you did here. That you were faced with an odd situation and did what you thought was best for someone in your situation to do.

Heck, unless they are complete jerks, I'd probably seek them out in the next day or so and offer a non-apology apology. You were pretty sure he was exaggerating, but he's not your kid and it wasn't really up to you to make that judgment call. You were in no way trying to "get them in trouble."

Also, I find it striking that "he does get hit" is buried in this post.

Not illegal in most places, and sometimes appropriate. (Not for grades, though.)
posted by gjc at 4:37 PM on June 16, 2010

I called the police when I heard my neighbors yelling at each other and something breaking once. It was scary and I was sure I had made the wrong call. I have a friend who is a lawyer who basically said that is sort of what you are supposed to do. You say "I do not know exactly what is going on here and I will pass this on to people whose job it is to figure this sort of thing out." I'm sure there are places where calling the cops is seen as always the wrong thing to do. For what it's worth my neighbor later came over and apologized to my landlady [he did not know who made the call, but there aren't that many people who could have heard them] fo rmaking noise and alarming her. If you want to be proactive, feel free to do what Darling Bri says. "Nothing personal, but it's my job to make sure this stuff gets passed on to make sure that all our kids are okay" [or something]
posted by jessamyn at 4:38 PM on June 16, 2010

What you did was responsible and right.
posted by Postroad at 4:43 PM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you'd feel a lot worse if you hadn't called. I don't know if I'd be heading over to the neighbours to chat. There's a chance they could take it the wrong way and get really defensive, really fast. I'd wait for them to come to you and talk about it in some kind of neutral environment.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:48 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

You did the right thing. To not call the police would have been the wrong thing. You have exactly zip zero zilch to feel sorry about.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:51 PM on June 16, 2010

It's entirely possible that the kid gets hit in the course of normal sibling tussling.

Just saying that's ambiguous, and may not refer to the parents at all.
posted by Netzapper at 4:53 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if I'd be heading over to the neighbours to chat. There's a chance they could take it the wrong way and get really defensive, really fast. I'd wait for them to come to you and talk about it in some kind of neutral environment.

Seconded. And you know what, if they hit their kids for getting a bad report card, then let them feel paranoid and weird. If they want to talk about it, by all means be polite and put it in the "I would do this for any kid" terms you put here, but capital-W Whatever to them.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:53 PM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

It wasn't your job to disbelieve the child, and it's as much a part of the social contract as parents being responsible for teaching their kids not to lie. This is simply what happens when those two responsibilities clash.
posted by rhizome at 5:12 PM on June 16, 2010

I agree with those sayiing you did the right thing. Imagine if you didn't call the police. Wouldn't that have been worse (even if only for your mind nagging you forever and ever with what-ifs)?

Besides, I embelleshed things quite a lot when I was little (not to this degree, but I can imagine a few key adults in my childhood deciding that I was full of BS). It never occurred to me (30+ years ago) to report the sort of abuse that was going on in my household when I was growing up (hey, maybe that's was why I liked making things up so much - who knows?). But if I had, I would always remember the person who took it seriously.

Maybe this kid is abused (well, he is - it's been established that he is "hit").

So what's out of line about any of this? Nothing.

If you're worried about what the parents might do or say (I know it would make me very uneasy) keep in mind that this whole thing might very well have made things a tiny bit better for Neighborhood Kid. You may never know it, but chances are that you helped. Neighborhood Kid also knows at least one adult that they can count on, now. That's huge.
posted by marimeko at 5:27 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You did the right thing, relax.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:30 PM on June 16, 2010

You didn't know what was going on and erring on the side of caution (calling the police) was prudent. Of course, that doesn't mean it makes things any less awkward. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn't make you feel good.

Still, don't let this deter you from doing it again if needed.
posted by inturnaround at 5:32 PM on June 16, 2010

You have absolutely done the right thing.

Think of what might have happened if the situation were reversed: the kid is being abused, and comes to you for help, and you refuse to get involved. You would be just another adult that this child can't count on to help. Instead, you've shown yourself to be someone they can trust. That's very valuable and important.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:52 PM on June 16, 2010

For the Xth time, you did the right thing!
posted by Lizsterr at 6:03 PM on June 16, 2010

It's going to be valuable to that kid down the road that he went to you for help and you believed him. Good one.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:07 PM on June 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

The kid is apparently terrified of the adults in his life, and he doesn't trust him. You showed him that "not trustworthy" is not the default position for adults, and there is at least one adult around he can trust. I'm not sure if we can express in words just how valuable that may be.
posted by COD at 6:36 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You did the right thing, relax.
This is easy to say but the OP is apparently kind of hiding out now, and trying to figure out how to deal with a potentially belligerent or accusatory adult when and if they show up. The OP did the right thing, but has to deal with the aftermath now, and the simple explanations offered by most in this thread may not cut it, given that we don't know what kind of folks we're dealing with, or what kind of neighborhood this is. And, a possible outcome here is that no adult shows up to talk things over and clear the air, especially if there actually is abuse going on.

OP, your concern is that they want the kids to be able to remain friends. That's the thing to focus on. If no adult shows up, but Neighbor Kid remains in touch with your kid, fine. Just maintain some sensitivity to possible followup reporting situations. If adult shows up and the air is cleared by any of the suggested lingo, also fine. But if no adult shows up and Kid stops interacting, obviously some adult has put the kibosh on the relationship. In that case, you may want to at least make an overture to see if Kid's adults want to talk things over, which will take some diplomacy and might best be done with a third party present (not a cop, but perhaps another neighbor or friend). Much of the suggested rhetoric still applies. In the long run, salvaging this particular relationship, including the Kid's demonstrated willingness to confide in you, might be a very important thing in Kid's life.
posted by beagle at 7:00 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You did the right thing. If your neighbours are embarrassed or angry about your calling the police, perhaps they should stop abusing their son.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:24 PM on June 16, 2010

I wonder about Neighbor Kid's habit of embellishing -- maybe he has continual experiences of his own ordinary self not being considered worthy or good enough? (A six-year-old from an abusive home, on being told what a great drawing she'd made, said, "Daddy says I'm a piece of shit." If I were told that, I'd probably try making stuff up, too, just to see if anyone would be fooled into thinking I was worth something.) Maybe small infractions are punished so severely at his house that he has developed a self-preservative habit of dishonesty?

I think it's quite possible that to him, his homelife is scary, and he was genuinely scared when he came to you. The idea that he was making something up on purpose to get a rise out of everyone (that's what "crying wolf" is, after all) seems to me to be far less likely than that he is afraid of something at home. Maybe unreasonably so, but not dishonestly so.

There's also the fact that the police and child protective services get it wrong sometimes.

Anyway, I think it was absolutely the right thing for you to do, and I did want to further suggest that it's not like the truth has been definitively discovered here; it may be that the Neighbor Kid came off as untrustworthy to the police officer, as he has to you, and yet is merely telling the truth. Impossible to know, but worth keeping your eye out for further signs.
posted by palliser at 8:47 PM on June 16, 2010

My best fried has to make the same decision all the time, as a doctor. And what she's decided, is that if there's any indication you should call authorities, then call. Period. Because here's what happens:
If the kid is in trouble, he needs to be put in safe care. Saving the kid is the number one priority.
If the kid isn't in trouble, then the authorities come, decide he's safe, and then nothing happens. The end. No big deal.

You did the right thing. I suggest telling the parents just that, that you wanted to be safe rather than sorry, and you were just looking out for the kid's well being, not tying to judge their parenting. And if they get mad, tell them that you weren't judging them, nothing is going to come of it, so just get off your back for tacking their son's well being in your best interest.
posted by shesaysgo at 9:02 PM on June 16, 2010

As a parent who has never hit her kid I can tell you right now, if any of the other people on this street thought it was a good idea to call the police to protect my child against me or anyone else, I hope like hell they would do so. I can talk to the police; I can talk to CPS. If I AM doing something wrong, I sure as shit want to know about it, because my child is precious to me.

(This actually came up, sort of, a couple of years ago -- my mother was out here and was walking my then-infant daughter in great loops around the block in an attempt to get her to go down for a nap. One of my neighbors looked out the window, saw a baby she knew with an adult she didn't, and flew out of the house and interrogated the HELL out of my mother. She felt a little sheepish afterwards, but both I and my mother were very grateful.)

Do this kid's parents feel the same way I do? Maybe, maybe not. They might well be furious at you, but I tell you: you did the right thing, whether the kid's parents agree or not. If they ask, I suggest just sticking to the mantra of "I didn't know what was going on and I had no way of finding out, so I called some people who did have a way. I like kids and I want them to be safe; I never intended to accuse you of anything."
posted by KathrynT at 9:32 PM on June 16, 2010

You did the right thing.

Look at it this way: would you rather deal with the fall out of the neighbor kid's parent being pissed at you because you DID call, or the fall out of something (more) horrible happening to the kid when you could have done something but didn't? I'd rather have a candid, even embarrassing conversation with another adult than know I could have done something to help a kid but didn't.

As for the kid's tendency to "embellish", is that something you've observed yourself or something his parent/s have told you? Because, sadly, I've known a few parents who put out the story that their kid would make things up as a cover for the fact that they were, in fact, being shitty (if not outright abusive) parents.

Don't regret helping. This kid clearly trusts you, and you showed him that he's right to do so. Even if home isn't as bad as he says, it can't hurt him to have you in his corner.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:33 PM on June 16, 2010

If they don't come talk to you (which is what I would do), going over "to clear the air" might be worth it. In doing so, you have to walk a tightrope of not offending her, nor giving in to your desire to smooth things over (and let the kid think you totally have joined her side). I would envision myself as a superhero, monk, or cowboy* (cowgirl) -- someone with a devotion to justice and compassion that causes them to travel through the world alone. No "smoothing over" for its own sake, no easy taking of sides, just standing alone and strong in protection of what's right.

* Cowboys are not a completely positive icon. I actually picture this one specific strong-but-silent rancher (wise, caring, pro-environment, tough as nails).
posted by salvia at 11:20 PM on June 16, 2010

"[D]etermined that while he does get hit, there was nothing actionable going on."

You did the right thing. The police, on the other hand...
posted by rodgerd at 3:15 AM on June 17, 2010

If asked, I would indicate that yes I did call, and it had nothing to do with my wanting to be involved, but that I would do the same again for any other child in the neighborhood and I'd hope they'd do it for my distressed child.

I would not, necessarily, indicate to the parent that their child had asked me to call. That is, of course, if I believed that the child could possibly be in any real danger.
posted by TomMelee at 5:49 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in with another "you did the right thing" and thank you for caring enough about the child and the family to have someone look into it. Child abuse comes in many different forms, but no child should ever have to be afraid of going home. I hope that things can be resolved amicably between you and your neighbors, and that it will be a wake-up call to the parents that something needs change at home.
posted by bahama mama at 1:22 PM on June 17, 2010

I would make an effort to talk to the kid in a couple days or so, and ask if everything was OK. Also, in case the "hitting" actually is serious enough to be considered "abuse", I'd consider telling the kid, point-blank, that if there's something wrong in the future he can still come to you and you'll believe him, because you trust him not to take advantage of your trust in him.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:27 PM on June 17, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for all of your comments. I was worried because unrelated things are going on that affect my state of mind, and it helped so much to get the hive's reassurance.

To answer someone's question: Yes, I have seen Neighbor Kid embellish the truth (without batting an eye) a few times have my kids. I tried to write the question without offering my opinion as to what happened because (1) I don't know and (2) I don't think my opinion matters at all anyway. What matters, of course, are many of the things you all brought up.

While I'm really not at all sorry I called the police, I did figure this out: It doesn't benefit Neighbor Kid at all for us to have a bad relationship with the adults in his house -- especially since our kids are friends. We certainly plan on keeping an eye on things more closely, and I did make it clear to Neighbor Kid that he can always come over if he doesn't feel safe.

Because my partner talks to the principal adult there more often than I do, I asked him to go over there and "apologize" on my behalf. I was worried that if I did it myself I'd make it worse -- plus we figured a Couple of Guys Talking would probably go better than Shrill Overemotional Woman Talking At Whoever Opens the Door. So my partner, the mensch that he is, went over there and talked to Neighbor Adult (Kid joined them) last night. The conversation was amicable. There was an explanation that involved custodial issues. (Again, we have no opinion on the truthiness of it.) Neighbor Adult added that Neighbor Kid has counselors in place, both in and out of the school system. My partner said he understood that sometimes it helps to talk to people outside of your family, and told Neighbor Kid that if ever needed to talk and couldn't find any of his regular helpers, he could talk to either of us.

Again, I appreciate everything you've said. It means a lot.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:38 PM on June 17, 2010

This is certainly a "better safe than sorry" situation, and can be seen as win-win from a certain perspective. If the kid is telling the truth, it was certainly the right thing to do. If he was "embellishing" things, the police involvement would be a perfect opportunity for the parent(s) to have a discussion about the consequences of "embellishment".

Looks like everyone is in agreement and this is resolved, but I wanted to add that as that child (thirty years later), thank you for doing what you did. Sincerely, thank you.

If someone much like yourself hadn't done the same thing way back in 1978, I know that I would not be alive today. Misunderstandings can be cleared up and relationships can be mended much easier than broken bones can.
posted by geckoinpdx at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2010

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