Tuesday, October 15, 2013
To the mother of 2 young girls who sent them on their own to the bathroom at the mall, I was on my way to lunch with several social worker acquaintances when I saw your two little girls. They were huddled together in the elevator. The older one (about six years old) was very protective of the younger (about 4). I wanted to compliment her on what a good big sister she was but realized that may be a bit presumptuous as most little children are taught not to talk to strangers. I noticed the woman who I thought was with the little girls was not very attentive. When we all got off the elevator, I realized the woman was not with the girls as she went a separate direction. The little girls hurried to one section of the food court. They seemed to know where they were going. I have a strict policy when it comes to little children alone in public places. I do not let them out of my sight until I know for sure they are in the safe hands of their guardian. I do this for several reasons: A. I have seen one too many docudramas about children being taken from their parents and never returned or returned too late to keep them from harm B. I have lost one too many children in a public place and frantically searched for them with that sick feeling that only a parent knows oh too well C. I have seen one too many videos of children being snatched on store cameras D. I have an acquaintance whose child was raped in a men's room while she was standing outside waiting for him. D. I am a social worker and have heard about every disgusting, revolting thing creepy people are capable of when it comes to harming children E. I live in the 21st century Suffice it to say, a child will NOT be abducted on my watch. However, having been at a social worker conference (which was why I was on my way to lunch with several new social worker friends), I also am very aware of what the general public's opinion may be about social workers. To many, we are busy-body do gooders who can't seem to mind our own business. When people hear the term "social worker" they often think, "person who comes to your house to take your children away" So I realized I would need to strike a balance between protecting the innocent and minding my own business. Yes I make it my business to protect children. I followed the girls into the bathroom. If you have been to the fifth avenue mall in Anchorage you are aware that it is a very busy place. The bathrooms off the food court can be difficult to get to. There is a winding hallway that leads to them and also goes to other directions as well. A child could easily be taken down one of these back hallways and out a door. I stood in the bathroom and waited for the two little girls. They had gone into the handicapped stall and were taking turns going potty. The little one was singing to herself while she tinkled and the older one was obviously being very careful to take good care of her little sister. When they emerged from the stall (no hand washing, straight to the door) I saw that the older child had a cell phone.) I asked her where her mom was and she said she was on the phone with her. I told her I was going to make sure she got back safely to her mom. She made little eye contact with me but scurried her sister along. They went right to the elevator and got on. I followed them. There was a man on the elevator. If I had not got on with them they would have been alone with this individual. He may or may not have been an axe murderer, pedophile, pervert or any combination of the above. He may have just been a nice guy. We will never know, thankfully. I followed the little girls to where their mother was seated on a bench. There was a little boy sitting in a stroller near her. He was about a year old. She said to the six year old, "I know you were scared but you did it and everything was fine. Thank you for taking Janie to the bathroom." I introduced myself to the woman and told her I was a mother too and I just wanted to make sure her children made it back to her safely. She made little eye contact with me but mumbled a thanks. I walked away with a sinking feeling that all was not well. I thought about the situation and realized I needed to let this mother know that what she did was not safe. I had no intention of reporting her, (which I very well could have done, being mandated by law to do so) I thought of the women who were court ordered to attend the parenting class I taught. One of them almost had her seven-year-old taken away because she left him asleep in the car while she went to the grocery store. She came out to a cop car and several concerned biddies who had reported the unattended child. I realized it was my responsibility to at least say something to this woman. I returned to the bench but she was gone. I wish I would have said four words to her: NOT WORTH THE RISK Because it wasn't. For the rest of the day, far into the night and again early this morning the whole situation bothered me on many different levels. Why didn't I respond verbally? a. fear of this mother thinking I am in fact a busy body social worker there to take her children from her. b. shame and guilt because I know I have very likely done something similar with my children in the past. (There was the time I left the nine-year-old to watch the 3 year old. She fell asleep and the 3 year old (who we later discovered had mild autism) was wondering around the neighborhood on his own wearing a diaper and barney snow boots.) And then there is the fact that my own three little girls often walked home from school (the oldest was eight) when we lived in East Cleveland not far from the area where the creep kidnapped and held three young women hostage for 10 years. c. sheepishness to be the only one of the five social workers I was with to even take notice and be concerned. I was caught up in wanting to "fit in" with them and they were busy talking theories and techniques. I guess I did respond. But I wish I would have told the mother that it is NOT WORTH THE RISK If it ever happens again I will. I will tell well meaning but neglectful parents, Your six year old has the right to be protected by you. It is NOT her responsibility to be the protector right now. It doesn't matter how mature she may seem, she is still a little child herself. I know very well how desperate it feels to be the mommy of many and the temptation to allow a responsible older child to take some of the load is beyond enticing. I have done it myself! But she is vulnerable in a way that you are not. A cell phone is not an effective babysitter. What would the plan be if there was trouble? That she would let you know by screaming into the phone? And then what would you have done? Called the cops? Screamed for the oh-so-capable mall cop and his trusty ring of keys? I am attempting to analyse just why I feel so strongly about this. I know it isn't just because I have "been there done that" as a mommy and counseled other mommies who have "been there done that" and been busted for it. I guess a big part of it is that not only have I been the desperate mother in a similar situation, I have been the six-year-old expected to protect the four-year-old and completely incapable of doing so. I couldn't protect my little sister from an abusive situation. I couldn't even protect myself. I realize the reason I should have reported or at least spoke to the woman was because her six-year-old needs to know that there are people out there who believe that protecting her little sister from the world should not be her responsibility. She has a right to feel safe and protected herself. Sending children unattended to the bathroom in this day and age is equivalent to sending them swimming with sharks or hiking with wolves in past times. A CELL PHONE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE BABYSITTER!!!