“Grab some clothes and get into the van, now.”
For an instant, that directive, and the tone in which it was issued, had the opposite of its intended effect: Korrin and our five older children, momentarily paralyzed by shock, looked at me in alarm. There was something in both the tone of my voice, and the expression on my face, that was new and a little frightening. None of them had seen my “game face” before. They were seeing it now.
Just seconds earlier, Korrin and I had been confronted on our doorstep by two very nice, well-dressed women who informed us that an anonymous “child endangerment” complaint had been filed with the Child Protective Services.
One of the visitors was a social worker we’ve known for several years, and consider a friend. The other was a stranger who introduced herself as a CPS investigator. She intended to inspect our home and speak with our children.
After being summoned to the doorstep, I had ushered our children into our house and closed the door behind me. Short of being removed by force, there was no way I was going to permit a CPS investigator to have access to our home as long as our children were vulnerable to government abduction.
“You seem like a conscientious and well-intentioned person,” I quietly told the investigator, “but this is an adversarial situation, and I can’t allow you to have access to my home in the absence of a warrant, and until I’ve consulted with legal counsel.”
Although this clearly wasn’t the response she had expected or desired, the investigator retained her professional composure.
“Well, that is your right,” she replied. “I must advise you that I will consult with law enforcement and return later today.”
“I understand,” I said, shooting a quick glance at the slender silver digital recorder the investigator wasn’t successfully concealing in her left hand. “I also want the record to reflect the fact that I didn’t consent for our conversation to be recorded.”
The investigator nodded in assent, her brows pulling together ever-so-slightly as if in puzzlement. She and her associate returned to their car and drove away. As they turned the corner I turned to Korrin and our children and ordered — yes, it was an order, not a request — them to get in the van.
“Don’t bother packing,” I told them in syllables drawn taut with urgency. “Just grab a couple of things and get in the van.” The kids, suddenly understanding that we were at Def-Con One, quietly and quickly did as they were told.
Minutes later we were headed out of Payette County, beyond the jurisdiction of the local police and Sheriff, en route to a pre-designated safe house.
Earlier this year, I met with a handful of close and trusted friends to discuss various crisis scenarios — from the systemic breakdown of the commercial food distribution network to the possibility that one of us might find his family targeted by the CPS. Those meetings were the idea of a good friend who is a very well-informed and astute survivalist. Relatively little was accomplished at those meetings, but as recent events testify, what little was done proved to be indispensable.
One of the participants at those gatherings (we chose a local club whose owner is defying an asinine local smoking ban; we refractory individualists need to support each other) very generously offered his home as a temporary refuge for my children in the event that the CPS came after my family. From there, working through communications cut-outs, we could make arrangements for Korrin and our children to stay in the homes of other reliable people who share our convictions.
When the balloon went up, we knew what to do. I spirited our family to my friend’s house, casting frequent glances in the rear-view mirror.
“This reminds me of that movie Not Without My Daughter,” commented my genius son William Wallace, our family’s resident cineaste. There was no undertone of eagerness or excitement in his voice; William was scared. So was Isaiah, who quietly explained that in cases of this kind children are often taken from their parents.
That was a hard thing to say, but it needed to be said. Not surprisingly, this terrified our girls, six-year-old Katrina and four-year-old Sophia. Although he has the reflexive aversion to girls of any kind that typifies an eight-year-old boy, Jefferson wrapped his arms around Katrina and comforted her as she cried.
Once we crossed the county border, I relaxed a little bit and gave some instructions to Korrin and the kids. I told Korrin that it was important not to call our home, since caller ID would reveal the location of the safe house. I would contact them through an intermediary, and if she needed anything she was to call that person. I told the kids that they would be safe with our friends until I came to get them, but that if people from the government arrived they were to be courteously uncooperative.
The plan was for me to return to our house, tidy it up, and deal with the CPS and the police. This might mean I could face obstruction charges if they insisted on seeing Korrin and the children, I explained, so there was a possibility I would be in jail by day’s end. They had to be prepared for that possibility, because I would not give the CPS an opportunity to seize our children.
Once at the safe house I called a friend who agreed to be my cut-out. Then we gathered for prayer and I went back home by a different route.
Please, Dear Lord, I prayed silently as I neared our house, don’t let it be a crime scene already. To my relief, nobody was there.
About forty minutes later, following a minimal investment of effort, the house was tidied up. We’re messy, but not unclean; no parent would be surprised to see the clutter we deal with, given that we have six small children, and no honest person would consider our unremarkable untidiness to be a threat to our children’s health or well-being. But I’m well aware of CPS enforcement actions that have resulted in charges being filed against parents whose homes aren’t as antiseptic as a NASA white room.
Roughly a half-hour later, while speaking on the phone to my mother, I saw a city police car drive slowly by our house, turn around, and park in front of our walkway. From it emerged a young man, clean-cut and squared away, who strode up to our front door.
Well, here we go, I thought. I was wrong — and the day took an even stranger turn.
“Who owns the vacant lot?” the young police officer politely inquired.
“Do you mean the lot next to our house?” I asked.
“No, the one behind it,” he persisted.
“That’s not a `lot,’ it’s our back yard,” I pointed out, gesturing for him to come with me to look through a nearby gate.
“Who owns this property?” asked the officer. I explained that we were renters, not owners.
“Well, there are some weeds in the backyard that apparently need to be taken care of,” the officer began, his tone suggesting that he had expected to see a much bigger problem than the one confronting him. Sure, there is a row of weeds along the rear fence line of our yard (which occupies a significant fraction of an acre), but it wasn’t the Amazonian jungle he had anticipated.
“I suppose the weeds along the fence line need to be cut down,” the officer observed, “but that’s really the responsibility of the property owner.” I assured him that I intended to attend to the weeds, whether or not that was my legal “responsibility,” simply in the interest of living in a presentable home. The officer took down my publicly available contact information, gave me a polite nod, and departed, leaving me to contemplate an unsettling question:
Why would a police officer visit me with a complaint about overgrown weeds that are not visible from any of the streets that run by our house? He couldn’t have seen them from the street. Clearly, he was responding to a complaint from someone who had recently been in our backyard.
That fact may prove to be the critical clue in identifying the person who also hot-lined our family to CPS to report that our children were “endangered” by the untidiness of our living space.
Less than a half hour after the first police visit ended, an unmarked police car arrived and decanted the CPS investigator and the largest officer on the roster of the Payette City Police force — a genial man-mountain with a tonsured head, van dyke beard, and a ready smile. Seeing him, I simply had to chuckle: Yes, of course they’d send him.
The plainclothes officer identified himself. I replied that I had met him a couple of years earlier when he, along with practically the entire population of Payette, helped us find then-five-year-old Jefferson when he went missing. (Jefferson was found sleeping peacefully in his fortress of solitude, a secret space he created behind the headboard of a hide-a-bed.)
“I told her” — the officer began, gesturing to the CPS investigator — “that I’ve been in your home, and it seemed perfectly OK to me. But we have to clear up this complaint.”
Since Korrin and the kids were safe, I had no objection. I invited them in and busied myself paying bills.
“Are Korrin and the children not here?” asked the CPS investigator. I told her, quite truthfully, that they had been invited to spend the afternoon at a friend’s house.
About two minutes later the CPS worker and policeman were done. They explained as they left that the matter was closed but that I should contact Health and Welfare in the event that we “need any services.”
“When we spoke this morning, you were very respectful,” the CPS worker commented. “You did hold out for your rights, which is appropriate, but you treated me well, and I appreciated that.” I smiled and said something to the effect that I try to treat people well.
This episode turned out much better than it could have.
What if I hadn’t been working at home, and Korrin — who suffers from a chronic condition that leaves her exhausted and bed-ridden most of the time — hadn’t been able to stave off the CPS before the house had been tidied up?
What if the CPS investigator had seen something — anything — “aberrant” in the behavior or appearance of our children, and decided that prudence required a more detailed examination?
What if we had been dealing with the kind of CPS investigator hard-wired to find evidence of abuse or neglect? Granted, we were blessed on this occasion to deal with someone who was sincere, polite, reasonable, and professional. That generally isn’t the case in situations of this kind.
What if some combination of circumstances had resulted in a judicial order to appear at a “show cause” hearing, a procedure that almost always leads to some kind of catastrophic government intervention?
Once again, none of those things — or dozens of others, many of them worse — happened. This time. To us. But all of those terrible things have happened to families just like ours, because someone, for reasons only that person will know, filed an anonymous complaint with the child “protection” bureaucracy.
It’s been said that one can’t be a credible sportswriter unless he’s actually played the games he covers, or a music critic without knowing how to play an instrument or carry a tune.
After more than two decades of writing about the disruption, or outright destruction, of families by the child welfare bureaucracy, I can finally consider myself qualified, albeit in a limited sense, to pronounce upon that subject. That’s a credential I could have done without.