Bad Day in Winthrop, Maine
Some days it's hard to get perspective. Other days you don't want it.
In June, on a Thursday morning, a police officer knocked on my door and told me that he'd gotten a complaint and he needed to investigate for possible abuse of my kids. He said they'd received a call from a neighbor, someone walking along the street: "She said she heard something that sounded like a whip and a child crying."
I have no idea who this woman is, of course. Anonymous tip.
So, yeah, my kids cry. Loudly. I can think of at least four separate times that morning when one of my kids had pitched a fit. The biggest fit, probably, was from Emma, who wailed for about twenty minutes because the other kids had come upstairs, leaving her alone downstairs. Another was Brigid, put in time out for hitting Max. She was pissed at me and she let me know it.
So my kids cry, but ... the sound of a whip? For the record, I don't own a whip. The woman said she heard "what sounded like a whip." What sounds like a whip? A slamming door? A broom falling on the floor? She was walking along the street at least a hundred yards from the house.
Max, Brigid and Emma had to take off their shirts for the Chief of police today. And this was a favor the Chief did for us. He did it so he could close the file quickly and not report it to Human Services ... which would have been a nightmare. The kids stripped. No marks on their bodies. Case closed. Unfounded. "Of course, she could call Human Services herself."
When the police called the woman who had complained and told her that they'd found no evidence of abuse, she said to them, "You're not doing your job. I know what I heard!" She was irate.
When I heard that, I felt fear, and I felt hatred.
The next day, a hot day, Max wanted to wear a long-sleeved shirt. I wouldn't let him, because that can be a "sign" of abuse. What are you hiding under those long sleeves? People really do think like that.
That weekend, we took off to visit my folks in New Jersey. We'd been intending to go all along it was Memorial Day, after all. Just the same, Sheryl called the Chief of Police to ask if it would look bad, us leaving the state at such a time. The Chief said, kindly, that it would not look "bad." The investigation was closed, he reminded us, and we thanked him. Paranoia may have been giving good sense a run for its money, but leaving for New Jersey felt a little bit like getting out of Dodge when the getting was good.
I could have used some perspective, then.
A week later, I've got some, and I'm not sure I want it.
I realize, for example, that society, as a whole, must have a mechanism for investigating such complaints. There are many reasons why a guiltless family, such as ours, will feel anger and humiliation at having their parenting abilities questioned in this extreme way. Among these are pride and insecurity. On the one hand, we feel pride in what we accomplish as parents it is, after all, a really really really hard job and react badly to having that challenged. On the other, we feel insecurity as parents most of us do, anyway and are terrified at having those insecurities confirmed.
Neither of these should outweigh the legitimate interests of society in seeing that none of its children are suffering abuse. The core of the matter is this: if I believed I saw and heard what this woman believes she saw and heard, I would have felt compelled to do something about it. I like to think that I'd approach the family myself, but depending on the situation, I could see myself reporting it to the police.
I would hope, if I did end up reporting the incident, that whoever I called the complaint on would have the benefit of a thoroughly professional police officer performing the investigation. The Winthrop PD gets my highest marks on walking the fine line between a woman who "knows what she saw" and a parent who has no idea what she saw, but knows it wasn't that.
I would hope that the family had a network of support as wide and far reaching as I discovered mine to be. From my father-in-law to a friend in Minnesota who offered to fly out and testify on my behalf (should it ever, God forbid, come to that), I was inundated with sympathy, good will, and good sense. All of which were in short supply on that bad day.
I would hope, finally, that the complaint would be dismissed as unfounded; that I would have been completely wrong in my interpretation of what I saw; that I would welcome this evidence of my fallibility eagerly.
It's all so reasonable, this perspective, so complicated. Inchoate anger is much simpler, can be much more satisfying. Even if it doesn't do you much good.
Who knows? Maybe, as someone suggested, I'll be able to see the humor in this one day. When I told a friend what happened, particularly the bit about the whip, she said, "But she couldn't have heard a whip. You guys keep all your whips in a sound proofed chamber in the basement."
Funny? Not yet. Not to me. But one day ... I can see it. Yeah, one day.
Editors Note: This article was written in 1998.© 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.