Care and Feeding

Should I Call CPS About the Kids My Friend Cares For?

She told me she’s seen bruises but is afraid to report the situation.

A woman looks distressed as she stares at her phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

HELP! I have a friend, named “Rose”—Rose and I attended college together, but about a year and a half ago she took some time off and was hired as an “au pair” (a live-in nanny) for a rich family. We recently met up, and after a few drinks, she started spilling her guts about this family. A lot of the stuff she told me is run-of-the-mill money-can’t-buy-happiness rich people drama, but she told me she thinks the kids are getting abused. She has weekends off, and she told me she’s started finding bruises on the children on Mondays. Most distressingly, one of the kids was burned with a cigarette.

Here are the problems: (1) She’s never seen any physical abuse, which doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but (2) there is no oversight to her employment. She didn’t get hired by an agency or anything, she got this job through family friends, so it’s not like there is anybody to report this stuff to. (3) She’s not the only person employed by this family. They have lots of hired hands, so she’s not even sure, if the children are being abused, if it’s a family member abusing them. And (4) she signed an NDA.

Listen—I have not signed an NDA, and I have met these children. On two separate occasions I’ve helped her shepherd them on outings, so I cannot just ignore this. She begged me not to go to the cops or CPS—she doesn’t want to lose her job, possibly ruin the professional reputation of her employer, and face a lawsuit for running her mouth to me. But I can’t sleep at night. Do I have an obligation to tell somebody? Is this overreacting? Are there some guidelines I should know before calling CPS?

—Please Help

Dear PH,

This was serious enough that I reached out to a friend who works at child protective services to get some context. Though regulations and procedures differ in every jurisdiction, she pointed out that the reporting party is never disclosed. Sometimes it is obvious based on the situation, but in this case it would not be. Multiple caregivers, employees, doctors, maybe even extracurricular lesson types all have access to these children. Just as any of them could have perpetrated abuse, any of them could have made a report.

It is also hard, she told me, to determine what is going on without knowing the age of the children. An infant with bruising is much different from a 9-year-old with bruising. The cigarette burn is, of course, concerning, but it is also entirely possible that this is not the sign of abuse but of an unfortunate accident. Are there any adults in the house who smoke? The mind of course jumps to the salacious image of an adult putting a cigarette out on a child, but I know of an adult that has a scar on his chest from running past his mother while she gestured with a cigarette. It’s far-fetched but not impossible.

For the CPS agent this scenario would raise more questions than answers, and it’s entirely possible that given the information you have now they wouldn’t even investigate. Are the kids verbal? Can your friend ask them what’s happened? Has she seen other signs of abuse in her time with the family? Is it possible for your friend to check in with other caretakers, families, neighbors, coaches, or friends? Remember that CPS lacks resources and as such is meant to be a last resort.

Given the fact that there is an NDA in place, it’s possible that these are public figures, which also matters here. On the one hand a family’s wealth may protect them from many of the negative consequences that can come with a simple CPS visit to a low-income family. But on the other, a CPS visit to someone who can be written about in the paper is very different than it could be for someone who would not be. My friend says this would also be in the back of her mind were she to field this call. Not that they deserve special treatment, but that a hasty, incomplete report could have far more wide-ranging and irreversible consequences for a public figure.

All that said, if you or your friend want to clear your consciences, there’s no harm in placing a call, provided that you know that CPS may not even investigate. What would probably be most helpful to those kids is for your friend to keep her eyes open and gather more information before jumping to the worst-case scenario. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Is there a polite way to ask grandparents not to buy gifts for our daughter almost every time they see her? We live in a small two-bedroom condo where we are already struggling for space. This past weekend we received another outfit and a large teddy bear from my husband’s parents. She is their first grandchild, so I’m sure they want to spoil her. But at some point, we will need to donate some of it since we just don’t have room. I’m struggling to be grateful, but it seems so wasteful to buy so much stuff when that money could go into a college fund. Additionally, she is the fifth niece on my side of the family, and I received enough hand-me-downs to keep her clothed until her second birthday. Help!

—Drowning in Gifts

Dear DiG,

Yes, there is a polite way to ask, and it’s to politely ask. “We love that you want to buy so many gifts for little Beyoncé,” you might say, “but things are getting a little jammed up in our tiny condo. We would appreciate it if you could keep that in mind when shopping for her.” Now they’ve been given fair warning, and afterward you are free to dump whatever you want at the local Goodwill as you see fit. If they have a problem with that, screw ‘em.

The college plan is an absolutely reasonable ask, but good luck getting grandparents to replace giant teddy bears with portfolio statements. They are giving gifts not so that the kid can be set up, but so that they can be seen as beneficent creatures in the eyes of your daughter. I’m afraid their 529 contribution doesn’t pack the same bang for the buck in the eyes of a child.

That said, if you haven’t already set up some kind of investment account earmarked for education, you should. And do not be shy about directly and clearly hitting all the family members up for recurring contributions. If they wanna go HAM on the gifts, might as well try to make something useful come out if it!

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old daughter is terrified of our new house. She is scared there is a rat or possum under her bed; she runs crying down the corridors if we are not in the same room as her; she can’t fall asleep at night and wakes up before dawn in a panic. She shares a room with her 2-year-old sister, so this means that we are all up at the crack of dawn feeling very grumpy. This morning, in a new development, she started getting jumpy because she saw something moving out the window of her playroom (which she otherwise loves).

She never had these fears before. Our new house is slightly bigger than our last house and it’s in the same neighborhood, the main difference is that it is two stories. Her sister is too young to have the same fears, but she feeds off her big sister’s energy, so everyone is acting completely crazy. Nothing I’ve said to her makes her feel any better, and I’m at a loss how to make her feel safe and comfortable in her new home.

—New House Smell

Dear NHS,

This gets right at the core struggle of parenting, which is the inability to guarantee that our children feel forever safe. We simply lack that level of control, and there’s no way to force our way into it. It is perfectly normal for a 4-year-old to have fears about a new house. My daughter experienced all manner of anxieties well into the upper grades of elementary school, and even my son, who was largely immune from nighttime terrors, went through brief phases in which he was afraid of raccoons, aliens, and for some reason, an imminent return of Cro-Magnon man.

In my own childhood, for complicated reasons, I was made to face these things alone, and so my parenting impulse was to tell my own kids to get over it. Facing fear is a part of life, I reasoned, and they need to suck it up because it’s tough all over. Looking back, I regret that. While it’s true that facing fear is a part of life, neither parental me nor kid me had any idea that there were other ways to face fears besides walking down dark long hallways entirely alone. I did not know that one way we face fears is by joining with our loved ones and sharing honestly how we are afraid. I did not know that we could ask for and get help from people around us. No one showed me that growing up, and so it took a while before it dawned on me to show my kids that. And what a valuable thing it is to learn!

Your daughter needs help adjusting to a new situation. Of course, it is inconvenient and maybe even unpleasant to provide that help. It sucks to be up all night. It sucks to have your child be afraid and to not be able to wave it away. But that discomfort is one of the costs of parenting. Your long-term goal, of course, is to teach her how to face the world so that you can gain back your freedom. But at this age, that has everything to do with showing her that she is safe and cared for and is on solid footing at all times. So let your parenting here be guided by that.

If she wants to sleep with you, let her sleep with you, while working with her on the goal of getting ready to make small steps toward independence. Add night lights and turn on hallway lights as needed. When she wants you to be in the playroom with her, let her know that you can’t right now, so she can either wait, or go in by herself. Set periodic times to check in on her and let her know that you’re right there. With my daughter we even took practice trips up and down a particular staircase that freaked her out. Be there for her when you can, be honest about when you can’t. Work with her to make small progress and celebrate when she does. You will see tremendous progress, I think. Good luck.

—Carvell

Editor’s note: Due to my error, last week’s column included a paragraph Carvell had cut following a clarifying email exchange with the letter writer. Once I was alerted to my error, I updated the post, removing that paragraph. —Dan Kois, Care and Feeding editor