Should I call social services?
August 5, 2008 5:42 PM   Subscribe

The little girl who lives upstairs is subjected to frequent verbal abuse, drug use, and occasional physical violence, though she's not being physically or verbally abused herself. How should I help her?

Our upstairs neighbors have an eight-year-old girl — I'll call her Elizabeth — who is curious, intelligent, and funny. We've got to know her better than any other person in this tiny Nova Scotia town, which is a mark of her outgoing character, since it's unusual to elicit a return wave from anyone else in her family or people on the street.

And the rest of her family is the problem. This community almost died fifteen years ago when the fishing stocks dried up and times have been hard for locals ever since. Accordingly, lifelong residents have taken up some of the habits that desperate people fall into. Her mother can't communicate displeasure to anyone without screaming and peppering her speech with expletives (Elizabeth isn't spared, and is often present during her parents' screaming fights). Her father is friends with some shady characters, one of whom we know to be a sexual predator (not of children), another a drug dealer (who the mother suspects is also a murderer).

Then there's Elizabeth's older half-brother, who doesn't live there but visits every few weeks with his girlfriend. Elizabeth has described some of his antics to us: breaking school windows, starting fires, street fights, and the like. Over the three years we've been here, I've only actually seen him for about 20 minutes (though I've heard him and his drunken friends for hours), but I've observed him violently push his girlfriend twice, and have overheard screaming fights a number of times.

On the other hand, Elizabeth's older sister, who does live upstairs, is occasionally friendly, works full time as a waitress, and will be the first person in her family to attend university this Fall.

What's pushed me to write tonight, though, is the fact that I was just sitting on our deck (from where I overhear all of their business; not eavesdropping, I always let them know I'm there), and the drug dealer, Elizabeth's father and brother are upstairs now smoking what smells to be a potent joint, hacking phlegm as you do, and laughing at Elizabeth's imitations of doing the same. The three men laughed and one of them reminded her that she couldn't tell anyone, especially not her mother, who is working tonight, as she does most nights.

And this is where my biggest problem lies: I absolutely hate that it's being put on an eight-year-old's shoulders to keep her parents' secrets. I have no problem with parents blowing off steam— it's a hard job— and especially in these circumstances, where the father hasn't had any work this summer. But in my opinion, there's no excuse to smoke up when your kid is in the room, and there's no excuse for weighing her down with that kind of responsibility: "If you tell anyone, we could all get in trouble, maybe even go to jail." (I've run into this situation before in my own family, and it didn't end well.)

So, I'm wondering: should I call child protective services? I certainly don't think Elizabeth should be removed from the home. Her parents love her very much, and she adores them. And the parents can't be that terrible at their jobs, because despite the brother's failures, the sister has succeeded so far. And if Elizabeth has difficult circumstances to overcome later in life, she is clearly strong enough to do it.

And, perhaps most importantly, I don't know whether what happens upstairs really constitutes abuse. Right now, I'd describe her as at risk.

But it seems as though the situation is deteriorating. Their finances are getting worse, which means the fights are getting worse and more frequent, as are visits from the drug dealing friend. I think just a visit from a social worker would help get the father back on track, but I don't want them to suspect that I'm involved at all (and no other neighbors are near enough to share suspicion. If either the brother or mother suspected I had called social services, I'd wind up with fewer teeth in short order.

So what action should I take? Should I take any at all? I'm hoping the hive mind can help me here; I've been wrestling with it for months.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just watch out for her and be a good influence in her life. It might not seem like much but to her it could make all the difference in the world.
posted by ian1977 at 5:52 PM on August 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Maybe you can talk to her for a moment and give her a magic quarter.

Your kindness and company is already doing her good -- maybe not enough for her life, but more than you realize. I think you have the perspective and the discretion to really help, if there is a proper service in your area that you can contact anonymously. But you also know already that there is no way to help more directly than that.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:53 PM on August 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

Consider this: How would you feel if something happened to that child and you hadn't made the call?

The basic rule of thumb is that if you are wondering whether or not you should make a call to protective services you should make the call. You can do so anonymously.

Have you ever been in a room with people smoking up? I have. I got buzzed. Getting your 8 year old stoned is abusive. Period.
posted by Abbril at 5:57 PM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

First of all, you might want to consider asking an admin to anonymize this post.

Second of all, at least according to my understanding of *US* law, what you're describing would constitute abuse. Also, if there is any physical abuse in the home, a child witnessing domestic violence is also considered to be a victim of abuse.

Other than that, I don't think Ask Metafilter can answer this question for you. You need to do what you need to do to feel safe and to stand up for the vulnerable child.
posted by Skwirl at 6:01 PM on August 5, 2008

I don't know much about CPS in your town but calling someone may not necessarily result in Elizabeth being removed. They might be able to offer her some counseling or someone supportive to talk to and might suggest parenting classes for her parents. I'm not sure if they're beyond this already but it is worth looking into.

Many times, CPS will simply monitor a family to make sure things aren't escalating. I worked with at-risk for many years and found that sometimes, they were really hoping someone would reach out and offer help for the family. Also, you can be completely anonymous about this. They never have to know you called. An additional safety net might be to notify the school and allow them to do the rest (though my experience is that this can get far messier than most folks would like.)

If you're still nervous about that, I think offering to read with Elizabeth, take her to the library or just spend 15 minutes asking her about her day could go a long way to making her feel that she matters.

Good for you for keeping your eyes and heart open.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 6:03 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nova Scotia CFS:
Everyone has the duty to immediately report to a child welfare agency even a suspicion that a child under 16 may be in need of protective services.
I am sure it isn't an easy thing to do, but will it be easier to watch this continue long term? Bon courage.
posted by jeather at 6:10 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd start documenting this stuff . . . dates and details and a rundown of who's involved. It may come in handy if things escalate.

The drug thing is abhorrent. I think it's a private matter, but exposing a child to it, and making the child complicit (even if only in the child's mind) is beyond abuse. If they think it's funny when she imitates them, she's clearly getting the wrong message, and it sounds like they're probably a week away from thinking it would be even funnier if they had her smoke "just a little." I'd certainly be working to see what the mom may know about this. Though it may cause a divide between mom and dad, if it's in the best interest of Elizabeth to foster an informative relationship with the mom, I'd do that. Figure out what her state of mind is on all this.

But the main thing to do is give that girl a whole lot of love and to create a much better environment for her. Let her know your space is a safe space, and do what you can to present her with an alternative reality. Take her out and befriend her if you can.

I'm sure she loves her parents, but kids in abusive or dangerous situations often seem to love their parents more than "normal" kids would - it's a defense mechanism against perceived dangers and insecurities in her situation. So don't let that dissuade you, should the need to call protective services arise. It's their job to assess the situation; it wouldn't necessarily mean she was removed from the home. It would certainly be a wake-up call if the parents are still fundamentally good parents. I wouldn't call just yet . . . I'd wait until I'd created a sort of history of bad things. But I wouldn't rule a call out in the near future either. You don't know what sort of mitigating factor her older sister may be, and how things may change when she goes off to school.

Thank you for caring about nice young child. When communities fall apart, it affects families in terrible ways. Things can be turned around - her parents didn't always live in an "almost dead" community; they know something of better times. But Elizabeth has always lived in an almost dead town; she won't know much else. So she's in need of more protection and better care.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:11 PM on August 5, 2008

Generally protective services can't be guaranteed to provide the outcome you want. You don't know the entire story. The risk is just too great. If you care enough about the child, you can take the time over months and years to provide a supportive friend role to her and her family. Heck, you could even dramatically change your life so you could provide these roles. If you call protective services, you could disrupt the lives of the entire family, and not necessarily for the better.

You can be watchful, however, and if there is an immediate threat to health and safety you can intervene.

Be a good judge, a good watcher, a good evaluator. Much here (pushing of other family members) is a genuine threat. Other stuff is part-threat, part-judgement on your part, such as the evaluation of people's communication styles, the evaluation of someone who's committed a crime in the past, and the judgements on someone you've actually seen for 20 minutes total.

Considering that one call to protective services could result in profound changes for this child, maybe you should get more information before you make that call.

That said, I'd like to extend you warmth and affirmation - this might not come through in most of my post - for your committment to good for this child. Use this good energy and walk the harder road of longer observation and support. You can't make her life better with a single phone call.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:21 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

My wife has been a child protective worker for ten years. Only a small fraction of cases result in the child being removed and very few removals are permanent. Their primary goal will be to make the child safe in her own family.
posted by winston at 6:28 PM on August 5, 2008

You need to report it. As noted, it can be an anonymous call/report.

The agency will meet with the family, the child, the friends and neighbours. The first step will be to make sure the children are safe. The second step will either be to help the parents get their lives back on track (with Elizabeth still living there) or, alternately, to remove the child and try to get the parents help so their daughter can be returned. As winston said, very few removals are permanent. Sometimes parents just need a wakeup call that their behaviours and will turn things around on their own.

I admit to being biased in that my three boys were adopted from the foster care system in my province - and I know how an unhealthy atmosphere can make a major impact on a child. My kids were not hit, they were not sexually abused, but what they DID experience has left some major scars nonetheless.

My advice is to do it anonymously. Tell them your caveats and concerns and "maybe this isn't a big deal but I'm concerned"s. The agencies are quite overwhelmed in a lot of eastern provinces these days, but they'll look into it and (as terrible as it may sound) due to the overwhelmed system, you can be assure that they won't do anything dramatic if the circumstances don't warrant it.
posted by VioletU at 7:01 PM on August 5, 2008

I feel for you. No one here is going to be able to tell you what to do for sure, but it's clear that you care about what happens to this child, and that's a good thing. If it helps, do know that as others have said above, calling child protection doesn't mean the child will automatically be taken away.

A long time ago, I lived in an apartment building across from a woman who had a little girl about 3 years old. We were friendly in the halls and outside the building, but I didn't know her well. She seemed to be doing okay, and she seemed to be pretty good with her daughter, but she also seemed to be struggling with some stuff. Anyway, one night I was woken up by absolutely terrifying noises from across the hall that I had never heard the likes of before and hope I never hear again. The child was sobbing hysterically, the mother screaming abuse and swearing at the little girl, calling her a fucking little bitch (and addressing her by her name--I knew she wasn't talking to some other adult), furniture and god knows what being hurled at walls, thumps and bumps and you name it. It was hair raising. I didn't know what to do, but I felt I had to do something. I seriously feared for the child's life. I went over and knocked on the door and the noises (except the crying) stopped. No answer. I knocked some more, no answer. I had no plan for what to do if anyone did answer the door, and maybe it was kind of stupid for me to go over there, but I did not know what else to do. I went back to my apartment and phoned the RCMP and reported what I had heard. I can't remember exactly what the dispatcher said, but two officers came and spoke to the mother--I could hear them talking, but I couldn't hear exactly what they were saying. After a while, they went away. I also called child protection services as soon as I could. I think I had to wait until they were open in the morning, which was a couple of hours later. I actually said exactly what VioletU recommended: "I don't know the whole situation and maybe this isn't a big deal but I'm concerned about this." The social worker I reported it to was very calm and reassuring, but I worried and worried for days about what was going to happen to the two of them. I didn't want the child to be taken away permanently, but I knew that what I had heard was DEFINITELY abuse. Still, I agonized over it. [Interestingly, during that day while I was at work, someone put up a piece of paper on the mother's door with a note saying something like, "I heard what you were saying. You should be ashamed of yourself." Clearly it hadn't just been me who heard it and was alarmed.]

Anyway, no one ever came to take the daughter away, and a few weeks later I ran into the mother and daughter in the hallway and they seemed fine. The mother invited me in for tea, and while I was there I noticed there were some pamphlets on the kitchen table about parenting classes and local parent support services. It made me feel a little less guilty. I don't know if she ever knew it was me who had reported her, but if she did she didn't let on. There were only eight apartments in the whole building, so it wouldn't have been hard to narrow it down.

I do get it when people say, well you don't know the whole story, and it's true that calling child services doesn't guarantee a rosy ending. I didn't know it was going to turn out OK when I called the RCMP and CPS. I know that yours is a different situation, but I wanted to let you know it's not necessarily going to be bad for the child and family if you do make the call. There's no guarantee all her problems will be solved, but it's not necessarily going to be bad.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:24 PM on August 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

There's no right answer here that I see. Do you get any time alone with the child? Maybe you should ask her input. If she is as smart as you say, she might have insight you lack.
posted by chairface at 7:25 PM on August 5, 2008

How about calling CPS and initially letting them know your concerns without identifying Elizabeth's family? Telling all without knowing what they will do is scary. Bad result if the father/hoodlums think you reported them, and maybe worse result if they suspect Elizabeth hasn't kept her secret as she promised (I bet pops would ask her, or maybe accuse her -- the pot smoking could get a lot less fun).
posted by Bixby23 at 7:30 PM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just want to back up what Winston said -- removal from the home is an absolute last resort for CPS here in the US. I'd imagine that Canadian CPS is even more noble and efficient, since Canada's just like that.

Here in California, CPS would first work to determine whether neglect or abuse was occurring. They might well find that it wasn't and close the case. If they determined that there were problems, the social workers would work with the parents to try to form a plan -- drug/alcohol counseling or treatment, parenting classes, help finding work, etc.

Only if the home situation was irreversibly bad, or if the kid was in immediate danger, would they remove her.

It doesn't hurt to call and to outline what you know. They could well decide that it's not worth their time. But if they decide that it is, you may really be helping that little girl. The chances of you getting her removed from the home are very, very slim.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:34 PM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't answer your question directly, but I can offer an anecdote.

A few years ago a boy in my apartment complex latched onto me because I fixed and gave away old computers. He got one and decided he wanted to learn how to fix old computers too. His mom was fine with him coming over and playing with electronics so my girlfriend and I got to know him pretty well. As time progressed we learned bout his home life, which was possibly worse than you describe Elizabeth's. He had been taken away from his mother in the past, but the foster homes he'd been sent to were worse yet.

My girlfriend and debated for years whether we should call CPS on the mother and have the boy taken from her custody in the hopes that the final outcome would be for the best. We never did. Instead we focused on making him everything he could be, giving him little treats when he got good grades and when he kept his room clean. We focused on undoing or at least mitigating all the damage his mother was doing to him. We took him out for a birthday dinner when his mom forgot it.

Long story short, he's graduated high school, gotten a job and gotten his own apartment; his mother hasn't, to my understanding, done any of these things. He's independent and bright despite the shit he's gone through. From what he and other foster-home kids have told me, I don't think he would have gotten the attention and respect he needed to become his own person.

So, I'd say that you can make a direct, personal impact on this child's life or you can hope the bureaucracy does. It's not an easy decision, it's one I struggled with for years.

Good luck. Elizabeth's lucky to have someone looking out for her.
posted by lekvar at 7:40 PM on August 5, 2008 [10 favorites]

The first sentence of you post states, "she's not being physically or verbally abused." It also doesn't sound like she fits the definition of neglect (she's fed, clothed, housed). What you go on to describe is more a problem of chronic domestic disturbance than of child abuse or neglect. While this doesn't mean there isn't some amount of trauma being inflicted on the child by virtue of her proximity to her parent's domestic problems, it also doesn't make child abuse or neglect the primary issue in the child's home.

Start making domestic disturbance calls to the police. Call every time it happens. Call every time you smell weed coming from their apartment. When law enforcement arrives they will note the presence of the child and if they feel because of the presence of drugs or other safety concerns that the child needs to be monitored, they will bring child welfare into the picture. There's a good chance, since you qualify them as generally good people hitting a rough stretch, that if the parents realize their behavior is drawing the attention of police that a lot of this madness will stop.

This is what I would recommend as a first course of action, it's certainly better than sitting on your balcony and continuing to contribute to the child's difficulties by inaction. You can't base the likelihood of this child being placed into foster care on someone else's experience with child welfare halfway across the country. These are local agencies and local conditions can influence these matters. It's a very serious decision, and since you haven't made any indication of imminent danger to the child I think you should concentrate on the parents first.
posted by The Straightener at 7:47 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I may have misread, but it seems that what has pushed you over the edge is that they were "smoking a potent joint" while she was around? And they were all having a laugh at her joke, as she also pretended to cough? That sounds like fun to me.

Please, leave her family alone. If you want to be a person in Elizabeth's life that's great, but her family doesn't need the Man on them and doesn't need to be ratted out because you disapprove of their lifestyle and child rearing choices.

One of the first "serious" things I needed to teach my son was not to talk about my special plants, because the police didn't like them and I would get in trouble if anyone found out. Questioning and distrusting authority is a valuable lesson for young children, and you can't imagine the difficult time you and I would have if you decided to "fix" my parenting by involving the authorities, anon. Leave it be, not your business.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:46 AM on August 6, 2008

Leave it be, not your business.

I totally respect where you're coming from, here, Meatbomb, but I would say that insofar as the neighbor's behavior disrupts the OP's ability to enjoy his/her own space it is the OP's business. Which is why this sounds to me more like a typical disturbance issue as opposed to a child welfare issue. Now, of course, the OP could just go upstairs and knock on the neighbor's door and say, "you guys are at it again, keep the noise down," "keep your son from from fighting on the lawn," etc., but it sounds like there are some people involved that the OP is somewhat intimidated by, which is why it would be a better idea to let the police handle it. I don't think that necessarily counts as siccing the Man on them, but I understand why you do.

These "should I call CPS" questions come up fairly regularly and part of the issue as to why the answers are often disconcerting to me is a lack of understanding about what child welfare agencies do. A child welfare home inspection, at least here in the states, really stops at a visual assessment of the living space (is the building dangerous, is the apartment inhabitable, is there food in the fridge) and and of the child (is the child bruised, burned, scratched, emaciated, wearing filthy clothing).

One of the qualifiers that questioners often bring into these questions is, "the parents are using drugs" but that's not necessarily something that is going to be captured by a home inspection. A CPS inspection is going to happen during the daytime hours, and unless the parents really have drugs and empty booze bottles laying out in the open, it's going to be a nonfactor. Social workers aren't cops. It's not their jobs nor do they have the authority to open drawers, medicine cabinets, look under mattresses or sofa cushions, etc.

The most likely scenario in this situation is that a home inspection probably wouldn't even happen, because the intake worker is going to ask, "is the child being abused or neglected" and given the information the OP provider his/her answer would likely be, "No, but..." "No, but..." doesn't bring CPS to someone's home. And if it did, they would probably wouldn't find anything that would merit opening a case against the family.

I think Meatbomb's input here is really valuable as a counterbalance to everything upthread. These "should I call CPS" questions are very troubling to me, let's just leave it at that.
posted by The Straightener at 6:22 AM on August 6, 2008

So, I'm wondering: should I call child protective services? I certainly don't think Elizabeth should be removed from the home.

So I'm wondering... what do you want 'em to do?

Sounds like it's more a case of a relationship breaking down or going through a rough patch. She's going to work and he's sitting at home smoking weed with his buddies instead of doing the dishes or finding another job.

IMO Child Services should only be called when you know they're just going to fly on in and snap that kid up out of there.. and you don't care if they know it was you!!
And just quietly, this person ended up getting the child back! ...Sweet jeebus!! I felt nothing but sadness to hear that.
-If I run into this person, it won't be pretty but that's ok, at least... it was all for fucking nothing anyway. It was completely futile, unless my goal was making a bitter enemy. It still makes me sad. What a fucking joke.

Basically, they're kinda hostile already. They will know it was you. CPS won't take her but you'll never be allowed to speak to the child again that's for sure. Instead of 'no wave' you'll now get 'the finger' :)

who the mother suspects is also a murderer So... you guys talk then? You know what you have to do :) Channel stupid men and their ignorant (yet equally stupid anyway) friends everywhere - and let the cat out of the bag. Innocently give her the clues and then take the girl to the park. She works every night (the daughter works/school), they're getting further in the hole and he responds by.. smoking more weed, behind her back. (You gotta admit, sounds like something people would argue about.)

Oooh. I just read the teeth thing. Yeahhh. Not only will it not change a damn thing - but you will loose your teeth. If you want to help - then help them. He needs stop spending his families money, that he did not even earn, on himself. Get a job. Or leave. The weed, who knows? But the vicious fighting would ease. Probably. But if this woman doesn't know what is going on when she's at work, maybe she needs (more?) clues to figure it out. Exhaust all your options on the inside first, anyway.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 7:07 AM on August 6, 2008

CPS involvement doesn't necessarily mean that a child will be removed. In fact, that's probably going to be the last resort -- before that, DCF should try many other things, ranging from referrals to community agencies (for example -- rehab, medicaid/medicare, child care, counselling), voluntary services (peer education, home visiting programs, respite care), court-ordered in-home services or even placement with a relative.

If you were in the USA I would suggest finding a local contact for Prevent Child Abuse America from their website (there may be a Canadian analogue) and find possible service providers from there.

Disclosure: I work in FL. My comments are anecdotal and based on my own observations. I don't know Canada, but I like your Queen.
posted by subbes at 5:48 PM on August 6, 2008

Call DSS, stat. Seriously, like now.
posted by dagnyduquette at 5:28 PM on August 7, 2008

« Older Help me embarass my friend.   |   How do you fail at making noodles? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.