Why I Failed to Help a Neglected Kid

by Joanne Serling

Can the good neighbor save our kids? In theory, we imagine that of course we would act if we saw something wrong, that we would help a neglected child. But when you are that neighbor, it's much murkier; there are forces that keep you from going beyond the bounds of your yard.

I know.

Like everyone with a heart, I was horrified when I read about the 13 children who had been shackled inside house number 160 on Muir Woods Road in Perris, CA, and allegedly tortured by their parents. And like most people, I couldn’t help but wonder, why didn’t the neighbors notice something? And if they noticed something, why didn’t they act?

"In hindsight, we would have never thought this, but there were red flags," neighbor Kimberly Millligan told the BBC at the time. But of course, being a neighbor doesn’t guarantee your goodness, or your detective skills, and no matter how much you want to be a “good” neighbor, there are competing interests — including your own — that can quickly counteract your best intentions. I’ve confronted this truth first-hand, and am still grappling with what it means to be a good neighbor when a kid you know is struggling.

J arrived in June and soon became a full-time presence on our street, always making the rounds from house to house if the kids weren’t outdoors, always happy to accept a dinner invitation if he were hanging around.

When I first moved to the suburbs 15 years ago (after a dozen years as an anonymous renter in New York City), I had all kinds of ideas about the kind of neighbor I planned to be, most of which were based on my experience as a child of divorce in Upstate, N.Y. Relying on this rather narrow frame of reference, and a handful of fuzzy memories, my plan was to be a kind-hearted neighbor who would go out of her way for others (as many of my childhood neighbors had done for my family) and avoid the kind of judgement and petty gossip that had characterized others I’d come into contact with as a kid.

For many years, my ideas about neighborliness — and my moral goodness — held fast, but when a new family moved to our neighborhood, those ideals were sorely tested. The new family moved in without fanfare or introductions and their 12-year-old son J (about whom I’ve changed identifying details) appeared one day out of the blue, a tall, narrow blond boy who readily joined a street game of four square already in progress. After a hasty exchange of names, the other kids, who ranged in age from 6 to 10, accepted J’s presence. He was a boy. He liked to play. He was one of them. Except, he wasn’t, not really. Even that first day, I noticed that his t-shirt looked worn and slightly tattered and there was a wariness that clung to him that I immediately recognized. Not eager to pry, I asked few questions and merely nodded when he said he was “visiting,” but would be staying for a while.

J arrived in June and soon became a full-time presence on our street, making the rounds from house to house if the kids weren’t outdoors, always happy to accept a dinner invitation if he were hanging around. Another neighbor, one less reticent about asking questions than I was, learned that J’s aunt was ill, that it was her house in which the family was now living, a pale blue ranch-house in a neighborhood adjacent to our own. We agreed that it was a shame about the illness and were eager to make J’s life easier.

And yet, rather quickly, J’s presence became worrisome and slightly disturbing. He was a nice enough kid, but older than our grade schoolers. Didn’t he have any friends his own age? And where were his parents? Didn’t they wonder who was feeding him or where he was spending all his free time?

One night, nearly eight months after J's family arrived, some neighbors invited J to a potluck. Afterwards, it was dark and a neighborhood couple drove him home. When they arrived at J’s home, they were surprised to find the police in the boy’s driveway. J’s mother rushed to hug her son, loudly explaining that he’d been expected home before dark.

My friends were shocked, and worried, quickly explaining to the police that J had a cell phone and had indicated his mother knew where he was. They wanted to say that the boy often ate over, that the parents had never once complained, or even introduced themselves or thanked them, but the police weren’t interested in a social history of the neighborhood, scolding my friends for not communicating directly with the boy’s parents, the mother silent and angry at the end of her driveway.

After that night, we became more careful, and also warier. How could we continue to let J play with our children and eat at our houses if we did’t know his parents or what they wanted? His mother's decision to involve the police at 9 p.m. on a Friday without first calling her son on his cell phone rang of instability with a hint of vindictiveness. Had she really thought her son was in danger? And when she discovered the true cause of his absence, couldn’t she have thanked someone? All of us were confused about how to breach the gap that had opened up after the police incident, nervous that J’s parents might accuse us of something, even though clearly their son was lonely and in search of companionship.

Why didn’t I just go over to J’s house, ring the bell, introduce myself to his mother and father? Laziness, I suppose and, based on the looks of J’s house, fear and a reluctance to get involved in what I sensed was quickly becoming an untenable situation. The grass at the blue ranch house was now long and neglected, the driveway littered with black garbage bags. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure up a world of all-consuming problems — problems much bigger than money, but ultimately entwined with a certain kind of poverty — a world of drug abuse or mental instability, a world in which the parents might take and take from us, but not, in fact, improve their situation. I couldn’t tie my wagon to theirs; I couldn’t get pulled down into the morass that I suspected the family was slowly sinking into. And yet, I couldn’t do nothing either. I couldn’t imagine letting J, an innocent, just flounder.

It was my husband who came up with the bike idea. It was early summer, school was letting out shortly, and the neighborhood kids were fond of racing their bikes around the neighborhood, J often seen chasing after the kids without the benefit of his own two-wheeled vehicle. My husband offered to gift an old hybrid to J on the condition that his mother or father stop by and OK this,

For weeks, J asked us about the bike, seeming to forget about his parents’ role in the exchange, but we held firm. Finally, when had all but given up, his mother drove by one afternoon, rolled down her window and said, “Hey, thanks for the bike, you can give it to him, no problem,” and drove off with nary a thank you.

We were astounded, but told ourselves she might have been embarrassed and tried not to judge.

By the following fall, however, the situation with J began to deteriorate. One night, he rang a friend’s bell and asked to borrow 15 bucks for gas money, the awkwardness of his request exacerbated by the car waiting on the curb, the shadowy figure of an older relative visible in the driver’s seat. My neighbor was disturbed, but felt she couldn’t say no. She gave her nanny money to hand off to J and didn’t approach the car to find out what the bigger problem was. The rest of us were horrified by the request, and our friend’s apathy, insisting that she speak to the adult next time, not use her nanny as a screen.

I waited for the storm to hit and told myself I’d done enough — even though I knew that I hadn’t.

And yet, when I was approached in kind, I was equally solicitous and passive. It was late October. Hurricane Sandy was a day away from bearing down on the tristate area when J appeared at my kitchen door to ask whether we had any batteries or flashlights his family could borrow. J was shivering in a light coat despite the rapidly dropping temperature, his face covered with what appeared to be soot. I invited J in and asked delicately whether everything was OK. J explained that their heat and electricity had been cut off, but that they were using the fireplace, which is why he had ashes on his face. I ran to my hall closet and insisted J take one of my husband’s old winter coats and filled two grocery bags with food, flashlights and batteries. Then I waited for the storm to hit and told myself I’d done enough — even though I knew that I hadn’t.

Clearly J’s family was struggling — with money, with illness, with caring for their child in the way I thought he deserved to be cared for — and yet, I was reluctant to call social services, or even a school guidance counselor, convinced that the “system” was broken and fearful about getting more involved in J’s situation.

J’s family survived the storm, but the family’s circumstances seemed worsen. A generator could be heard as you passed the house, despite power having been returned to the neighborhood many months earlier. And to complicate matters, our kids decided that they no longer liked J. They said his long, tangled hair smelled bad. They said he was likely to scream at them if they broke a rule during a simple game.

By now, J was 14 and some of the other children were just 8 and these concerns were real and worrisome to us. And yet, how depressing that J didn’t have other friends. How sad that his parents weren’t looking out for him. Together, my neighbors and I weighed the pros and cons of trying to limit J’s presence in the neighborhood and ultimately decided it was cruel and unnecessary to say that J couldn’t play with our kids — at least when they were outside. We told our children to call us if J acted up and then watched from the window whenever he was nearby.

Over the course of that year, J started to get the hint and came to our neighborhood less.

The kids, however, had their own ideas about the situation (as kids usually do) and began to curtail their outdoor play lest they be forced to interact with J. If he rang the bell at my house, my then 10 and 12-year-old sons made me answer it and tell J that they were busy. On more than one occasion, I could see him leaving my driveway, heading toward a neighbor’s house where even younger children lived and where he was similarly turned away.

Slowly, over the course of that year, J started to get the hint and came to our neighborhood less. Some of the neighbors speculated that J had made friends his own age. I nodded in agreement and posited that it was quite possible J was pursuing new hobbies and interests now that he’d entered high school. Secretly, though, I thought it was none of these outcomes that made J stop coming around, but merely a more highly developed sense of intuition that let him know he wasn’t wanted, a fact which saddened and shamed me then, and sometimes still does.

I ran into J recently for the first time in many years, an encounter that was embarrassing and awkward for both of us. He’s a young adult now, aware, no doubt, of the hand-outs I gave to him, and the changed nature of my children’s regard for him. In J’s refusal to meet my eyes, I was once again left to ponder whether I had been a good neighbor or a bad one when it came to really helping him.

While J's neglect didn't rise to the level of the children in Perris, CA — shackles, malnutrition, middle-of-the-night marching — my uneven and guarded attempts to help him forced me to question my belief that I was the kind of person who would step in if a child was in danger. The fact that I didn’t do this, or not in the manner I once thought that I would, brings me to the real heart of the matter: How do we look out for the needs of our children — the ones who belong to us, and the ones who need watching over?

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.