Stories Told

Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

I think every kid should know how to ride a bike. Kids today probably disagree, as I see few kids on bikes anymore. They must all be inside playing video games. I taught my sons nevertheless.

Neither was excited about it, but at least my older son tolerated it. My younger son resisted. After I took his training wheels off, he fought me every time we went out to practice. He told me he wouldn’t do it. He cried. He refused to get on the bike. Each time, I cajoled and wheedled until he gave in.

The divorce was final but still fresh. My stress had been off the charts and my fuse was still short. Each time I took my younger son out on his bike, I pulled together all of the patience I had.

He crashed a lot. Then I realized that he was deliberately crashing, hoping that it would shake me off, make me give up. One particular day he had crashed at least three times in five minutes and was visibly agitated. My patience had run out and I had grown angry.

I made him go again, but this time I kept my hand on the back of his seat. My plan was to steady him when he tried to crash. He shortly did just that and I grabbed the seat to keep him upright. Not only did it not work, but it made matters worse — he went right over the handlebars and landed hard on the street.

He was stunned, and he had skinned himself in a couple places. He cried a little. But after a few minutes he seemed okay.

I certainly didn’t mean to send him flying, and I felt bad about it. But I’ll admit it: much more, I was angry with him for not cooperating.

I had visions of my sons riding for the sheer joy of it, as I had when I was their age. My bicycle took me everywhere and was my constant companion. I wanted them to experience the same! I wanted them to have a great childhood, even though it was no longer in an intact family.

But after my sons learned to ride, my older son rode once in a great while and my younger son never rode again. It just wasn’t for them. If I had it all to do over again, I would have still bought them bikes and tried to teach them, but when especially the younger son started fighting me on it, I would have let it go.

If I had that day to do over again, after the second or third time my son deliberately crashed I would have sat on the curb with him and said, “Seems like today’s not the best day or this. Why don’t we call it for today. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.” It would have given us both a break, and would have let me regain my calm.

A week later, or maybe it was two, I heard from Child Protective Services. I’m pretty sure they sent me a letter. If so, I’m sure it’s in my divorce file box. It’s been twelve years; some details have faded from memory. But I remember crystal clear that there was an allegation that I had abused my son, and they wanted to come talk with me about it.

There had recently been a headline-grabbing case of a child murdered by his father (I think it was), after CPS investigated abuse claims but decided to leave the child in the home. It generated outrage all over the city, and CPS responded by hiring a horde of additional investigators and cracking down hard.

I panicked. The end of my marriage and my divorce were so brutal that I needed serious professional help to cope. My mental health had been the focus of my divorce trial. It was partly why the judge awarded me no custody, not physical, not legal. At least he granted me the usual amount of parenting time. Losing custody hurt like hell, but I was grateful not to lose my sons entirely. When CPS came to call, I was still under psychiatric care. I had visions of losing my parenting time and seeing my sons no more.

There was no way I wanted to face CPS alone, so I called my pastor, Ed. He readily agreed to be there when the investigator arrived.

I don’t know why I remember that she pulled into my driveway in an old and worn-out car, a gray sedan. I also remember that she looked too young, probably 21 or 22. Ed and I met her at the door and she asked if we could sit and talk for a few minutes. I led them to the dining table.

She got right down to business. “So I understand after talking with your ex-wife that you’re mentally ill, and that you take medications to manage your symptoms. Are you compliant with your medication?”

I didn’t have time to be stunned by the question. Ed, a big bear of a man, immediately leaned way forward and said loudly and angrily, “Pardon me! Are you a mental health professional? Do you have a medical degree? Because unless you do, you will end this line of questioning right now as you’re not qualified to ask it. You are responding to hearsay from his ex-wife.”

My anxiety spiked. I felt hot; I had probably turned red. I was thinking, “Holy crap, Ed, what are you doing? I need your support and here you are antagonizing the investigator!”

Ed had intimidated the hell out of her. Her eyes widened to the size of half dollars and she immediately changed her tactic. “Ok then. I’m here because we have a report that you pushed your son off his bicycle. Why don’t you tell me what happened that day.”

I recounted my story as I told it above, including expressing my regret for not stopping when I started to get angry. Seeming satisfied with my answer, she then asked me questions about our day-to-day lives in the home. She also looked in my refrigerator and cabinets to make sure I had enough food, which was humiliating. And then she said she needed to speak with my sons privately.

I had sent them to their rooms when the investigator arrived, but we found them sitting within earshot in the living room. They’d heard everything, and their faces were ashen. They fixed their gazes at the floor as the investigator asked them to follow her to the back bedroom so she could talk with them.

She spent all of ten minutes with them behind that closed door. When they emerged, she said, “Mr. Grey, there are three possible outcomes of a CPS abuse investigation. We can find that there is evidence of abuse, or that there is no evidence of abuse, or that there is evidence that there was no abuse. I find that there is evidence of no abuse. You should hear nothing more from us about this matter.

“I’d also like to offer our assistance. It seems like you are working hard to be a good dad, and CPS can support you in that. We could come by from time to time and offer coaching. It’s completely voluntary.”

I was overcome with relief to be exonerated. And the truth was, I could have used someone to talk with who could give me good advice. I was doing the best I could to be a good dad to my sons, but I was building a home life all on my own while holding down full time work and still processing considerable anger from the end of my marriage. And I experienced my ex as very unkind toward me, which only made parenting harder. After all these years I can see that my ex was still processing her own considerable anger. We’d both equally destroyed our marriage; the betrayals had run deep. But all of my instincts insisted that help should not come from CPS — it would be better to keep the government out of my home. I declined.

After the investigator left, Ed said to my sons, “Come into the dining room and sit down around the table. I want to talk with you.”

Even though my own grief, pain, and anger were still strong, I had compassion for my sons. They were trying to cope with the breakup of their family, too. Even though their mom and I hardly interacted in front of them, I’m sure they were aware of the ongoing difficulty between us. It had to be so hard for them to figure out how to be in relationship with both of us. I knew they were going to their mom’s from my house and telling their mom everything that happened. I’m sure they were trying to find favor with her by telling her things she might find upsetting. I often got angry emails from her about things they told her.

I don’t remember Ed’s exact words to my sons, but here’s his message to them: Boys, I know you love your dad, and you love your mom. Your dad is trying to love you as hard as he can. You’re trying to figure out how to love your dad and love your mom now that they’re apart. But you’ve got to stop going home and telling your mom everything that happens here. It can have very bad effects. You came very close today to never seeing your dad again.

I remember my sons sitting up very straight, their faces grave, when Ed said that last sentence.

I thought Ed went too far. I wasn’t crazy about the idea that what happened in my home had to be a secret. But I didn’t know how to respond and I remained silent.

The gift of hindsight shows me now that Ed’s words changed everything for me and my sons, creating a shift for the better in our relationships. Both sons, especially my younger one, became much more receptive to me. We were able to keep building our relationships from there.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe telling it will help me release my sad feelings about it.

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29 thoughts on “Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

  1. I cannot imagine how awful this experience could have been. There was no shortage of rancor between my parents after their divorce but nothing that ever brought the authorities into things. But for Ed, things could have gone badly. It seems that the situation forced a reset in your family dynamic that was very necessary.

    • Ed was there for me in the clutch more than once during this time. I don’t think I appreciated him enough then. He’s moved to Mississippi since then and I’ve lost touch with him.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Jim, what a story! I know you’ve made references to how bad your divorce was, but the idea that your x would try to make hay out of this situation is really illustrative of how terrible it must have been!

    Not to make light of any of this, but the part of this story I find amazing is that your kid was so reticent about riding a bike. Having grown up in two large cities with comprehensive mass transportation systems, by the time we were old enough to beg our parents for a bike, or rub enough coins together for child bus fair, we were no where near home! Everyone had a bike, everyone begged for a bike, when everyone got a bike, we were miles away, sometimes riding over 30 miles a day, going to the Lake Michigan beach and back, or over to the “hippy” district or one of the university areas! Bicycles were freedom!

    • This is the first time I’ve pulled back the curtain on what happened then.

      I was much like you, riding all over South Bend to do the things I wanted to do. But old-suburban Indianapolis, where I lived, and Fishers, where their mom lived, are not bike friendly at all. And the kids today go everywhere they care to through their keyboards and screens.

  3. DougD says:

    Wow, that’s a brutal story. We used to joke occasionally about “Good thing CPS wasn’t around for that” but never imagined it actually happening. That was a very near thing for you, but I guess you just focus on the fact that the experience had a net positive effect.

    After some misadventure with teaching my son to ride a bicycle, I later brought my daughter to our Church’s parking lot. Large, freshly paved and nothing to hit, it was perfect. Erin wobbled away with no training wheels, rode a big circle around the lot and crashed into the side of our minivan!

  4. I loved and still love bike riding. Back in the 60’s I had a paper route. The cost of the subscription was voluntary and at the end of the month I was the one who went door to door to collect. Good service was insured.

    • I delivered papers too, back in the early 80s, on two different routes (not at the same time). The second route, I rode my bike to do the deliveries. Worked out great.

  5. Roger Meade says:

    What a story! I’m very glad you were smart or lucky enough to call your pastor and get him involved. Anyone having to deal with someone who can put them in a bind should have a knowledgeable person with them. In your case Ed was exactly who you needed. I spent about 8 years as a local union representative. Many times I was able to keep guys out of trouble, or lessen the trouble they were in, by keeping them from digging themselves in deeper. There are usually mitigating circumstances, but they are often not aware of them or unable to make them part of the record.

    • It was strong instinct that I should not go this alone that made me call Ed. I chose him because I knew he was a fighter. He would be an excellent protector. If I had questioned the CPS investigator’s qualifications as Ed did, I’m sure it would not have gone well for me.

  6. That must have been an awful experience Jim. So glad that you had good support to help you through when you needed it, and that it worked out ok.

    I remeber teaching my eldest to ride his bike. On the day I removed the stabilisers I took him to a local field where, if he fell, it wouldn’t be too hard a surface to land on. I was prepared for lots of wobbling and falling, so was absolutely astounded when, upon letting go of him he proceded to just ride away and do a big loop of the field! Turned out he’s been going on his friend’s bike at his house for ages and had just not bothered telling us that he could ride by himself. I can only imagine the look of surprise on my face when he pedalled off! :)

    • Well that was sneaky of your son! I took to riding a bike like a fish takes to water. It remains the one and only physical thing I’ve ever done that I didn’t struggle to learn.

  7. Charlie Audritsh says:

    Wow Jim. Every time you make one of these revelations I am very surprised because they seem so ‘out of character’ for the very wise person with such a strong moral compass that I know you to be. This one was so stunning I dug up my old password just to comment. I really cannot imagine what this was like… we’ve all made mistakes parenting but this really does illustrate how bad your divorce was. Wow. Fwiw, these things were the crucible that made you the man you are today.

    • Thank you very much, my friend. I’m not perfect. One of my least appealing attributes is my short fuse. I’m only now coming to grips with the fact that this is a part of how I’m made. But yes, I went through the crusher in my divorce and its aftermath. I think we worked together when this incident happened, or perhaps you started shortly after. I had to keep coming in to work and put on a pleasant face. This isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in the breakroom.

  8. Thank you for sharing this story. I’m sure it must have been difficult. I’m honestly shocked that CPS would offer support to anyone, as they seem to only be funded to make things better by punishing people and not to take the extra step to offer help and counseling. I’m glad that you already had great support through your church.

    • Thanks Russ. I was surprised that CPS offered support. I didn’t think that was part of their offering. I’m still curious to know what that would have looked like, but I remain resolved that I was right to decline.

  9. What a story. And your pastor Ed was right. Kids need to have “secrets” with either parent that they do not tell the other.
    It is a hard lesson to learn that things one says can be used for ill effect but it is a lesson all children need to learn at some point….how much to trust other people. It just so sad when its a parent.

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