Not a Tale for Children

Recently, I had to make a decision about whether or not to call Child Protective Services. The boy involved is a smart boy. He is not a troublemaker. The people who needed to be reported were the boy’s parents who left him, alone, without any organized adult supervision for several days. In the end, I decided not to do it, but I have fretted over this decision every day since. This is my way of working it out a little.


Not a Tale for Children

His face is not a face. It is an onion to be peeled, a puzzle to be pieced together. His pain is so deep under the surface even he cannot find the center, the source. He remembers very little, but he recalls two sets of hands. The woman’s hands first: long, slender fingers pointing to her chest, and a heart beating there. These hands lifted him when he was tired and could walk no further; these hands ruffled his locks even when he hadn’t bathed; these hands felt like sunshine warming his knee.

The other hands were different. Those hands had fingernails sharpened to claws. Those hands had scarred knuckles. Those hands smelled metallic and gripped a gun with a feeling that he imagines is something close to love. He remembers bruises and fists and, finally, he remembers no hands at all.

He remembers the smell of grass vaguely, but then he is not sure. Maybe he is recalling warm bread with apricot jam, or the scent behind a baby’s knees, or the memory of a thick yellow comforter on a soft bed. A real bed. A place to rest a body or a head.

He remembers he used to have wings, feathers that extended from the center of his back, in the place where his shoulder blades met. His wings were eggshell-colored and silky, too — of this he is certain.

He remembers the day his wings caught fire.

It was the twenty-seventh day after they noticed the wind had stopped moving across the land. Twenty-seven days since the last orange butterfly visited the blue flowers that puffed out purple tongues. On that day, he felt a fist of fire cracking its way up his back and then his wings — which he had always been taught to believe could fly him away from the cracking cement and the muffled rumbling in the distance, the rubble — his beautiful wings turned brown and curled into wispy tendrils of dust.

It had not been a slow burning. His wings exploded into flame and the air around him turned brown and green. He remembers the smell of burning flesh.

Because he was ashamed of his loss, he hid for five days, coming out only at night to scavenge amidst the wreckage, searching for marshmallows and sunflower seeds and bits of cheese. After a while, he forgot what he was hiding for and emerged, small and pigeon-toed. Amazingly, no-one seemed to notice that his wings were gone. Tall, crooked shadows curved over his tiny frame and then rushed past, leaving him questioning if he had ever had them in the first place.

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61 thoughts on “Not a Tale for Children

  1. I don’t know. I don’t want to second guess you because you know the situation better than I, but I probably would have called Child Protective Services. Tell me explain why. I am a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children). I also err on the side of the child and let the parents prove they are not neglecting the child. If they aren’t it’s easily proven. If not, I was right. The children and their welfare are paramount. I have a current case of child neglect and it is sad indeed, and the end outcome will be that the children will never go home, to a home where they would just experience more neglect. Instead they are going to an aunt, where they will receive love and acre and be together. A hard decision–yes, but the best in a bad situation. Sometimes, the hard choices have to be made, for the children’s sake and safety.

    1. This was really rough, Maire. The child did not live in-NYS. His parents dropped him off, leaving him to fend for himself — which he did for the most part. Until I realized he was here alone without adult supervision. I had a feeling NYS would say he is not a resident, so they could not do anything. There were so many questions swirling around. Bottom line, he found a way to take care of himself. And I was able to help make arrangements for him. And yet. I know his parents have left him before. He’s so young. I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again. It was hard.

  2. This just hit me in my bones, lady. Just watched some celebrity interview. The girl had a traumatic childhood and was asked what she would, as a new mother, would change the most in raising her daughter. She answered that she’d be there to greet her girl at the bus stop. It is that simple stuff that is so huge. Every child deserves at the very least to know someone is there waiting for them.

    1. I believe that. And I believe, in some small way, those of us who were involved in this very minor event, helped this child realize what incredible coping skills he has developed over the years. Hopefully, he will not slip to the dark side. I can tell you, this child’s parents? They don’t know what they’ve got.

    1. He took my breath away. I couldn’t believe parents would leave their child so far away from home without adult supervision. He’d lost his cell phone and was walking everywhere. He managed to arrange sleepovers and meals at people’s houses. Talk about coping skills. But when I caught him in a half-truth, he got weepy. That was when I considered it. Who leaves a child like that?

  3. Very difficult, indeed. And truthfully, I don’t know what I what have done in your situation. Obviously, I would need more facts to decide how I would have proceeded. But I’m sure you did what your heart and soul felt was best, and that is all any of us can do.

    And what powerful prose this was, Renee. The imagery was evocative and heartbreaking all at once. You are indeed a gifted writer. Never stop putting words to page. Bravo.

    1. It was a hard decision. This wasn’t the first time this family has left their child unattended. But they have moved out of state. I didn’t think CPS would help him. I had the weigh things out and, in doing so, I decided the greater harm would be removing him from his family. I’m sure he looks after hid younger brothers. And, to be clear, he was creative and resourceful about finding meals and places to stay.

      It’s just. Who dumps their 13-year-old like that? Don’t they recognize how precious their cargo is? I would have watched him for a week, had I known in advance and been given emergency contact information. Or someone to call for backup. I couldn’t reach the parents on their cell phones. How was he supposed to? It was heartbreaking. Truly.

    1. I don’t know what these parents were thinking. Truly. I imagine they thought he could take care of himself, which he managed to do pretty well (for the most part). It was just distressing to know they had abandoned him without any real place to go. No real contact person. It kind of broke my heart a little.

  4. So so tough. As a school teacher, I’ve had to make calls before. Under law, if I suspect something, I have to. I’m lucky now, though. One of the administrators I work for is a retired police officer who spent a lot of time in the child abuse unit (I’m sure it has a euphemistic name), and she knows how to handle everything, include frazzled teachers.

    Great post, Renzay.

    1. I’ve had to make those calls while I was teaching, but I always knew the school was behind me — and that being a designated reporter was part of my job description. As it turns out, life is sometimes harder without those rules set in place. Thanks for stopping by, Leanne.

  5. Wow, Renee. The tale you wrote is heartrending and beautifully done. Regarding the real child, you can only do so much. Don’t feel guilty, as guilt tends to be a useless emotion. What you’ve done here is let us all know we should be aware. It also opens our eyes to choices to be made, so thank you for that.

    Hugs hon!

  6. Sometimes I feel sorry for my little guy. Because I feel like he’s a little bit… broken. But then I realize that my love and commitment to him will make him transcend it all, and be a happy man someday.

    Thinking about kids who are whole, but won’t ever be that makes my heart ache.

  7. That’s a haunting story. It tells me the impact of our actions can go a long way, but if we do nothing the damage can be irreversible. Also, the things you know are one thing…and then you might think about all the things that could be happening that you don’t know about. I think in the case of child’s life, the risk is too great to not act. But, it’s tough position to be in, Renee. I hope for the best.

    1. Thank you for your honest response. I know I need to do better in the future. If something like this ever happens again, I will not stand by. And truth be told, I didn’t exactly stand by. I made sure the boy had a place to go. And people to stay with as we could not take care of him. And I got the facts as best I could. I tried to contact the boy’s parents, but I couldn’t ever get a hold of them. That said, if I ever feel those little hairs on the back of my neck standing up like that again? I need to pay attention and do the hard thing.

      1. Renee, It’s such a difficult position to be in. Sometimes, we have to trust our instincts, too. So, I’m sure you did what you felt was right. Don’t worry, I am in no way judging you.

  8. I can’t believe someone would dump their kid like that. It really is hard to know what to do, but it sounds like you made the write call.

    Lovely, lovely writing, Renee.

  9. Phew. That was a moving piece, and now I’ve read all the comments too, I realise the story really was a very tough one. He sounds a really good kid. His childhood may be more than a little rough, but it sounds as though he’s not allowing himself to go down the wrong tracks just now. If that continues, just think what a resourceful young adult he may become. I hope he has a few more adults in his life who, like you, care about him.

  10. So beautifully written, yet with so much pain. I commend you for sharing this side of yourself (once again, again, again…). On a related note, I find it hard believe that we are given a license to drive, but anyone can be a parent. Precious cargo, indeed!

  11. It truly is a puzzlement what to do. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I probably would have asked more questions to the child and asked if he needed help. Renee, your use of words to express your feeling was beautifully done..

  12. Oh the agony of it all. My heart just breaks for him… and for the struggle you went through. So many difficult moving pieces in this situation. No one can judge your decision as we only know a little. Your wrestling tells me your heart is soft and tender for him.

  13. Powerful writing, Renee. I’ve been in that tough spot a few times. It’s never easy because you know no matter how it’s handled, the child will never be quite the same again.

  14. I’m sorry you had to be in that position and have to make – or not make – a decision like that. Aside from that, your writing is stunning. It made me shiver.

  15. Wow, you don’t write about the easy decisions, do ya? I just don’t know enough about the situation as it occurred at the time to say what you should or shouldn’t have done. I suspect in hindsight, based on what I’m reading, you would have done it differently. Don’t feel badly; every event that’s riddled with regret is ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY FOR FUTURE CLARITY.

    This child made it through without a tragic result, thank goodness (and anything less tangible than “tragedy” – like “benign neglect” – you can’t do anything about).

    Consider this: you could be in a position to help another child someday. You have learned something. Thanks for sharing this with us, sweetie.

    1. Thanks Kathy!

      I like to think I will have the courage to do something differently next time. There were other voices involved that got in the way of hearing my own. I am pretty sure this would have been considered benign neglect. I asked someone fom CPS afterwards who said there would have been very little they could have done. The parents could have blamed the child, saying he made plans with friends and they assumed he was being supervised. My friend said no one in NYS would want to touch the case because they don’t live here anymore. I don’t know where they are now. They move around a lot, apparently.

  16. Because my sister is a supervisor for CPS, I probably would have called her to see what I should do, though I’m 99% sure she’d have said to file a complaint. If you know who these people are, and what state they live in now, you might give the CPS office there a heads up about this. Especially if they’ve done it before. He’s way too young to be wandering the streets like that. Based on what you wrote, and a comment about him taking care of his younger brothers, it might be the greater kindness to get someone with authority involved with the family.

    1. I WISH I knew where these people live! That was a huge part of the problem. I never was able to reach them. Ever. If I knew how to get in touch with them, I’d have loved to have told them a thing or two. I’d have asked them to consider what could have happened if their child needed medical attention, or he he’d been in an accident. At 13 years old, he was too young to be trying to figure it out on his own. Agreed.

      I will be stronger next time.

      But I hope there isn’t a next time.

  17. Blow me away. Wow, girl, this is lovely and heartbreaking. I agree with your readers who have said you’ll help another child one day because of your experience with this one (through this post at the very least). I trust your power and strength and believe in your instincts. Inspiring. Beautiful post.

  18. Not common knowledge but I was 8 when my brother was born. I turned 9 the end of August. When school started, it was my responsibility to pick him up at the babysitters house which was right behind ours, I also toted my younger sister with me to help carry the bags and such. This happened in the winter too. I had to have coffee ready when my folks got home from work, dishwasher empty and dinner started. Some kids are able to handle alot. We didn’t have family near by nor did we have cell phones. We did thankfully have a neighbor that liked me and would stick her head in to see how I was doing almost daily. 9 years old and all that responsibility. There were times that my parents would go out or go away in the evening, that scared me. The dark and being responsible for others. When I was 14 they took a ten day vacation and I stayed home, in the middle of no where, no car, no ability to get anywhere, just a fridge full of food and the home phone. Not something I would do with my children but times were a bit differant. And I never ever would just “dump” them somewhere without making sure there were arrangements in place. I couldn’t imagine doing that with Abigail who is 12 now, we are just working on staying home for 45 minutes after school. She would be mortified if it was anything other than that 🙁 Sorry you had to go through something like that.

    1. Lisa: I remember that your parents gave you a lot of responsibility when we were young. Much more than many of us had at that age. One the one hand, I’m sure knowing they trusted you made you feel good. And I’m sure that you developed a lot of strength. I’m sure you are pretty fearless and independent. You learned to be very young. On the other hand, when you were alone and in the dark, I imagine that you were very scared. Were you ever angry at your parents for assuming you could handle so much responsibility? Have you ever discussed with your parents the choices they made? If so, what did they say? You can send me a private email if you’d prefer, but I am truly interested.

  19. Why have kids if you are not going to be there for them? That is our job as parents…. I read this yesterday morning and had to get off to school and it reminded me of the e-mail I read from a parent earlier this year about what her child had heard from another child in my class about the bruise on her face…. and how it troubled me. I am a teacher becuase I care about kids, and (as a designated reporter) I had to tell someone… it still bothered me. I don’t know if I would have the courage to knock on the door and ask the parents if I could help, be there for the kid.

  20. That is so beautiful. The simple act of meeting her at the bus stop. You are so right. In our memories, my greatest ones are not of “big” things but the everyday ones that somehow froze in my mind. A present in my lunchbox. The simple kisses on my forehead. The joy of seeing that face in the crowd, knowing they were there for me.

  21. This post may be one of the most beautiful and haunting posts I have read in a long time. I am so sorry for that boy. I want to hold him and help him heal. Any child who goes through this kind of neglect breaks my heart.


  22. Oy, Renee, that’s so heartbreaking. I don’t understand how that can happen, either. I just don’t. There was a girl in my brother’s class who was abandoned by her parents. She was squatting in her old house and slowly the phone and power were cut off, until she was living in the cold, dark house, hungry and struggling. When my family found out, I don’t remember how, they took her in for the rest of the school year (they’re amazing like that).

    But what about the kids who are never found out? Who just struggle in the dark? What kind of damage can that do to a person. So sad.

    Your writing is very evocative, I’m going to re-read it a few times to get all those images organized in my head.

    1. See? So THAT is what I was wrestling with. That he was THAT kid. I know he has been dumped before. This was not an isolated event, but it caught me so off-guard. He was just here passing thru. As I said before, if there is a next time, I will be better prepared as to how to handle the situation. Never again.

  23. This was one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces I’ve ever read. I’m blown away by your talent and so sad for the ugly reality behind your gorgeous words.

  24. Heartbreaking and beautifully written. I don’t know what I would have done in your position. As an ex-street child and a former foster parent, I think I would have simply taken him in. I have done this in the past with other children. It is a hard choice, we can’t help them all or save them all. His parents need to be horse whipped.

  25. Renee,
    How funny is it that I thought know one knew all the responsibility that I had. I really tried to hide everything that was going on at home, as my friends had such wonderful and normal lives and mine was so screwed up and scary. My parents trusted me out of necessity not out of confidence. I may be pretty fearless and independent now but when I was younger I was a terrified child that was given way too much responsibility. I never really had the oppurtunity to be a child, I was a mom at 9 for the most part. The one thing this experience did teach me was not to depend on my parents. I was very angry at my parents for assuming you could handle so much responsibility, there were not lessons, there was not a babysittying course that I took nothing, just do this and you are on your own. But truth be told I did handle it and well I guess, my siblings survived.

    I have three children of my own and the boys took the babysitting course and learned first aid before I let them stay home alone, they were 12ish. Sadly my parents have a selective memory about my upbringing. On one hand my mother indicates she did the best she could, at least she didn’t beat me like her parents did she points out, then she apoligizes for the choices that were thrust upon me. Dissusions with them was always hard, as depending on the mood, how much one had to drink (them not me lol) and the position of the moon, you could end up with any number of answers or personalities. I tried to do the best I could with my children, who knows how bad I screwed them up. Maybe in 20 years they will be able to tell me. I do know that they didn’t need anything, they worked for the things they wanted and the boys (25 and 21) are both productive members of society, so hey I must have done ok. All their little friends ended up at my house for dinners and weekends as I was the normal mom lol. They got a dinner and totally knew what to expect from me. I made the boys friends take care of their dinner dishes as if they were my own. I was always the same person to them when they walked in that door. Wow never thought I would be the normal anything. The little one is still in my clutches, there might be hope for her lol

  26. HI Renee,

    I can’t imagine a scenario where I would choose to leave my pre-teen child unsupervised for hours, let alone days, but people have differing views on parenting. From your premise, I know neither the age of the child nor if other forms of abuse are apparent, so it’s tough to say whether “reporting them” was the right or wrong thing to do.

    Your piece was a compelling tale of the loss of innocence. Well done. Please confirm that it’s a work of fiction and that I didn’t misunderstand it’s import, as being unrelated to your opening.

    “…no-one seemed to notice,” is the most troublesome and heartbreaking aspect of those situations.

  27. One of my great frustrations with the public schools is that so much ridiculous crap is put on teachers that when something legitimate comes up it’s too much of a hassle for them to deal with it. I saw a 7th grade girl come into the nurse’s room stoned off her butt. My guess was prescription pills. I pointed it out to the “nurse” — no such thing as a real nurse in a school anymore — and she said not to worry. The girl comes in like that all the time. Kids smoke pot in the hall, walk around in skirts with their butt cheeks hanging out, and cuss and backtalk the teachers all the time. No one does anything because the process in place is one that casts aspersions on the reporter of the behavior rather than kicking the innocent little darlings out on their asses.

    That being said, a 13-yr-old is generally too young to spend days on end alone unless it’s 1850 and the parents have no choice because they’re taking the baby to the doctor 90 miles away on horseback. 8 or 10? No question about it. 15? Possibly not a big deal. I would have talked to the kid and learned more about the circumstances, but unless Aunt Mary and Uncle Fred live next door, this was incredibly stupid and dangerous on the part of the parents.

    I realize it’s a hard call because the system can make the reporter’s life hell and possibly turn the investigations back on them. You have to be ready to go to the mat to make that phone call, and possibly open yourself to a civil law suit brought by the parents. You’d better well have your ducks in order.

    Comparing this to the Holocaust is a bit unfair. The Jews involved likely wanted help and didn’t give the helper a life of hell for reaching out. To make that call today in all but the most clear cut of circumstances could do more harm than good for everyone involved.

    1. Piper: thank you for your input. Your words ease my mind a bit. It was a complicated situation — more complicated than I explained here.

      And yet, I probably could have one more.


      I’m not sure.

      All I know is that IF there is a similar situation with this family — knowing their past history like I do, my response will be different.

  28. Renee, I can only guess that this boy’s parents are very ill. Very…. ill.

    I think, were I to have been in your place, I would have at least spoken to someone either at a local community center or even the police department if not CPS. Allow another eye or two that is involved in the system to help watch out and offer options. And… perhaps intervene. You don’t have to file a report officially in NYS either.. there is an anonymous tip line too.

    Of course, we know what anonymous tips can do too.

  29. Your words are so haunting. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve been in the position before several times. We had to call CPS on our neighbors because their autistic son (only three at the time) would wander out in our backyard (we live in a huge field) unsupervised for hours. One day he crossed the road (we live in a 50 mph zone) and just stood there and was almost hit by a car. They had two other kids (only 8 and 6) and would leave the 8 year old in ‘charge’ of the other kids for hours and hours. I certainly didn’t want to see that poor child hit by a car, I had no choice but to call CPS. Turns out their apartment was a disaster area, not fit for a dog to live. I don’t regret calling CPS now.

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