THE BOTTOM DROPS OUT

She opened her mail the first Saturday in November, and the bottom dropped out of her world.

Jo had worked hard to shore up the foundation of her life. She had followed all the orders, read all the books, done all the right things. She had fought for her family and, against all odds, she had won.

And now, without warning, this free-fall into despair, into the black hole that had nearly consumed her before.

On the first Friday in November 1989, she had gotten a call from the Denver Department of Social Services, informing her that her then-four-year-old daughter, Susie, had been placed in protective custody and giving her no more information beyond a number to call Monday morning. And by Monday, Susie, who'd never spent a night without her parents a whisper away, would have been out of the home almost three days.

And now, exactly six years later, she was hearing from Social Services again. And again, she was given a number to call Monday morning. The department had received an accusation of sexual abuse.

The letter even named the suspect: her six-year-old son, Peter.
It did not name his crime.
But then, the Department of Social Services is not particularly forthcoming with details--especially when they are requested by the accused. Jo, however, was already quite familiar with the incident that had inspired the allegation. Peter had "pantsed" a classmate. She had spent considerable time that week discussing it with officials at Peter's school--an enlightened, involved group that gives you high hopes for Denver Public Schools.

After Peter pulled down another boy's pants during gym class, his teacher had called Jo, and the school had suspended the culprit for half a day--which he spent sitting outside the principal's office. (Asked why he'd done it, Peter told the principal it was "a poor choice.") Peter's punishment at home was more rigorous: His parents gave him a stern talking-to and then took away his toys and TV privileges for a week. And that, his parents thought, was the end of that. (Or at least of that episode. This couple knows that parenting is an endless proposition, especially with kids like Peter, who's been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. He has a sweetness that makes you want to hold him tight and an energetic squirminess that makes it impossible. Like a half-dozen other children in his DPS class, he is on Ritalin--which means his pediatrician and parents keep a close eye on him.)

When the letter from Social Services arrived that Saturday morning, another parent might have laughed it off as a mistake, a peculiar punchline to a childish prank. After all, if pantsing were a crime, Colorado wouldn't be able to build enough prisons to hold all the perpetrators made to pay for their long-forgotten juvenile hijinks.

But another parent would not be seeing the situation through Jo's eyes...or her experience.

When Jo finally got her daughter back from Social Services six years ago, it was only after her husband, Frank, agreed to move out of the house while the department investigated allegations that he had touched Susie's vagina. Allegations made by Susie herself to her mother during an early-morning snuggling story included a long list of "looly"-touchers: boys at school, frogs and princesses. Jo, a survivor of incest and a former teacher at Susie's preschool, called the school and mentioned the conversation to another teacher. Were the kids playing bathroom games? she wondered.

But the games were just beginning. Many social workers, several therapists, tens of thousands of dollars, three lawyers and fourteen months later, Frank was finally back in their home, all charges dropped.

The family has worked to overcome the emptiness of those fourteen months, to cover over that black pit of despair. As their friend, I watched that struggle, and I have written about it (although this time I have changed their names because their kids are now old enough to read). Since Susie was taken away six years ago, the child-welfare system has seen some changes. From the rigid "children don't lie" posture of that period--a stark contrast to the days when society ignored accusations of child abuse altogether--the pendulum has slowly swung in the direction of sanity. (There are exceptions, of course: On one end, the current hysteria in Wenatchee, Washington, where in the last year 28 adults have been charged with sexually abusing children; on the other, the 1993 murder of eight-year-old Robert Spencer, sent to visit his father in Colorado despite clear indications he might not survive the stay.) Today, leaving a baby on a bus is a storyline on Friends, not the subject of a movie of the week. Children are being listened to, but so is common sense.

And then came the letter.
The following Monday, Jo called the social worker who'd signed it. He seemed surprised that she was aware of the incident that was the basis of the accusation (filed, it turned out, by the pantsed child's parents, social workers themselves). He told her that once Social Services is notified of an accusation of child sexual abuse, the department is bound to investigate--even when the alleged abuse is a case of first-grade pantsing and the perpetrator has already been disciplined by the school. And he made an appointment for Jo and Peter to come to the department's Family Crisis Center two days later.

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