Dear Dr. Debbie,
My son has a friend who is not getting along with his single mother. According to the boy, his mom told him “not to come home again” because he came home late one night. So after a night in the park, he’s been with us for two nights. What’s my duty as a concerned neighbor? I don’t want to have the mother retaliate if the police get involved. He’s good company for my son, and so far, is a respectful and helpful houseguest.
Port in a Storm
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You should first let the mother know that her son is welcome to stay with you as long as he follows your house rules. When my children were in their teen years there were two occasions when a friend made a decision to “run away” to our house. Each had been to our home and on outings with us previously, and often had spent the night.
When my daughter’s friend found out her mother had read her diary, she was furious, but left a note to her mother telling her where she was going (and why). I got a call from the mom before I knew what was up. The other made his announcement to us after dinner, so I had him call his mother to let her know where he was and then got on the phone to extend a temporary welcome. Your son’s friend’s mother may be relieved to know her child has a safe harbor, and that she has a stand-in parent in you.
According to the Child Protective Services (CPS) office of Anne Arundel County, most of these cases are resolved within a few days. Tempers flare, threats are made, hasty actions are taken, and after a brief time away, the family gets back on track. If not, you can notify the police (anonymously if you prefer) that a child under the age of 18 has been abandoned. They will go to the mother to get her story then decide if CPS should get involved.
If the mother follows through with an appointment with CPS (usually available within five days), she will be advised of resources such as counseling and parenting classes to help her family stay together. Her health insurance may cover such services otherwise there are free and low-cost providers.
If warranted, she may think it best to put her son in foster care, though the waiting list for teens generally takes a long time. If she doesn’t follow through, and indeed abandons her child, the child will be placed in emergency foster care unless you offer to keep him yourself.
One possible arrangement, if all parties are willing, is for you to become a temporary foster parent. The mother need only write a note to the child’s school for you to have the authority to sign permission slips and absent notes. Check with his medical service providers to see if something similar would suffice for office visits. For the emergency room, a signed letter from the legal guardian (his mother) is required for you to act in her place. And since emergencies aren’t planned, this is something to take care of before you need it.
Hopefully this is just a minor storm and not the termination of a family unit. If and when your houseguest returns home, you will probably continue to keep an eye on things. But you’re not alone. For an emergency mental health situation — i.e. a parent-child screaming match or a chance there may be physical harm — call the county’s mobile crisis unit which has staff who will come to help settle things down. The 24-hour number for Anne Arundel County is 410-590-9453. Other counties have similar crisis response services. In a panic, just call 911 and the dispatcher will get help to the scene.
As with all stages of parenting, there is a village that can be called upon to wrap its protective arms around all our children.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com