I grew up afraid of social services. Social workers were something of a bogeyman in the homeschooling community, and my parents bought into it completely. In fact, in a recent conversation on the topic with my mother, she insisted that social workers today do in fact take children away from their parents for nothing more than homeschooling. That she still says this today says a lot about just how high fear of social workers was in our home when I was a child.
In fact, my parents walked us children step by step through what we should do if a social worker came to the door when they were not home. We were not to let a social worker in the door under any circumstances, and we were to call the Home School Legal Defense Association and get a lawyer on the line immediately. My mom had the phone number on the inside of a cupboard by the phone.
I’ve spoke to others raised in the same background as me who actually had drills that involved them hiding in the attic, or in a basement. While we didn’t do this, I well remember hearing conversations about the horrible things social workers do—strip-searching children to search for bruises or interviewing children without their parents present. The homeschooling literature I read was full of references to the evils of social services.
When I was a teen, I read a novel by Michael Farris titled Anonymous Tip. In it the main character’s daughter is taken away from her based on a false tip called in by a malicious ex. When the social workers realize that the tip was false, they fake evidence to keep the little girl away from her mother. One of the social workers was a Wiccan, and her boyfriend worked for the ACLU. The novel helped cement my fear and dread of social services.
I think to really get across what we’re talking about here I’m going to have to share a story of a terrifying event that took place when I was about fifteen. In fact, this moment may well be the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.
I was home alone with a few of my siblings while my mom and the others were at a friend’s house. I tried to call the weather phone number to get the forecast, but our phone was old and not all the buttons went through. I had dialed 911 without realizing it. As soon as the 911 operator came on, I hung up because it was a person rather than the weather recording I had expected. And then I realized too late that I had just hung up on the 911 operator.
I called my mother in an absolute panic. I was incredibly afraid. I knew that there was a strong likelihood that a police officer would come to our house to check if everything was alright, and there I was home alone with a few of my siblings. Looking back, my fear was entirely misplaced. My mother assured me that it would be fine, that I should simply tell the officer what had happened. I don’t think she realized the depth of my fear, or where it was coming from. The fear I was given of social services bled over into this experience.
As it happens, everything was fine. Two police cars did make their way up our driveway that morning, and a police officer got out and talked to me at the door. I told him what had happened—that I had dialed 911 on accident and hung up as soon as I realized I had the wrong number—and that was enough. But a police officer coming to the door to ask me questions and check the situation out while my parents were away was too similar to a social worker doing the same for me not to be terrified.
Fear—we’re talking real, visceral fear.
So far, this blog post could well be titled “How Not to Talk to Kids about Social Services.” My parents and the homeschooling community taught me to see social workers as the enemy and to fear social services in such a visceral way that it made my stomach hurt. This is how not to do it. Is social services perfect? No. But social services is set up to protect children from abuse and neglect, and it does a lot of good for a lot of kids. Social services should be seen as an ally, not an enemy, and teaching children to fear an agency set up to help protect them serves to prevent children who really need help from seeking it or speaking out—and result in a lot of unnecessarily frightened children.
Tomorrow I will write about how I talk about social services today with my own children. Is it necessarily to talk to children about social services? Maybe not, but given my background and the fact that my parents are a part of my children’s lives, I would rather give my children a positive foundation for understanding these things than leave them with a vacuum.
Note: A glitch earlier to day unpublished this post, erased half of it, deleted the comments, and published a post I had scheduled for Friday. As a result, the twelve or so comments originally left on this post have disappeared. In a bizarre move, they ended up migrating to the post that I’d originally scheduled for Friday. Future comments should appear without error.