This one will take as long as it takes, but it’s important.
A few nights ago, my doorbell rang and I opened the door to find a few adults standing there, along with a little girl and a dog. “Do you know who this girl belongs to? I found her wandering by herself by the mailboxes,” one of my neighbors asked.
I looked at the girl. She was maybe two years old, with blond hair, and wore bright pink footie pajamas. She looked back at me, her face still, curious, unafraid. Next to her, one of the women had attached a leash to the collar of the golden retriever that was found with the girl. Voices layered over other voices, cell phones against ears as everyone called all the people they knew in the neighborhood, anyone who might know where the girl lived.
No one seemed to be looking for the girl, though. No one calling down the street after her.
Like dominoes, pieces of the situation lined up. It’s dark. This girl is tiny. At least it’s not very cold. But still, she’s little. It’s dark. Where are her parents?
I grabbed my own phone and arranged for my kids to go to their friends’ house so that I could help knock on doors. I called another friend, and asked her to call anyone she could think of. Someone called the police. By then, more people had gathered in the street in front of my house. A few stayed with the girl and the dog, and the rest of us spread out.
After 15 minutes or so, with two cul de sacs canvassed, I headed back to my house.
The police were there, and the girl’s mother had just left with the girl and the dog. She’s opening doors all the time now, the mother had said. Who of us doesn’t understand that? What parent hasn’t at one time or another been unsure of their child’s whereabouts? I could almost hear the collective dusting off of hands. Well, that’s that. I was tempted to do it myself.
By then, I knew this: At one house, the woman who answered the door told me that about an hour and a half before, her daughter told her, “Mommy, there’s a little girl just standing out in that driveway.” The woman thought nothing of it – in our neighborhood, kids play outside all the time. It only became relevant at that moment, when she realized that it might have been this little girl. Especially since there are no other girls on that cul de sac other than her own daughter. Maybe it was the lost girl, maybe it wasn’t.
Before I went inside my house, I related this information to one of the police officers, with the disclaimer I don’t know if this is important, but.
And then I called my friend L, who lives just up the street. She had been standing in front of her house, talking to another neighbor, when the girl’s mother came down the street saying “Thank you, thank you,” over and over. And then L’s neighbor started sharing stories about some weird things in that family. How the kids aren’t allowed to talk about what happens at home. That one of the older sisters was locked out of the house for a whole day. The mother getting upset when another woman talked to her daughter while she was standing there. That CPS had been out to the house before.
L told me what her neighbor related to her. And then I asked, “I should tell all of this to the police, shouldn’t I?”
I walked outside to the police cruiser that was still parked across from my house and told the officer what I had just heard (he was already in touch with CPS, fortunately), and who they should talk to for first person versions of the stories. It was all I could do not to cry, but I didn’t. It was important, I thought, to sound like a reasonable, sane person, giving a trustworthy accounting on behalf of that girl and her sisters. Yet for all my efforts to remain unemotional (and not entirely succeeding), I still felt like a nosy, overbearing neighbor. But you know what? I didn’t give a shit. I would be that person, the voice that got heard. Before they left, I spoke with the police three times. I don’t tell you that to make myself look good. It was just so necessary to me to speak up.
Some would say it’s not my business, and maybe a few days ago, it wasn’t. But now it is.
Because maybe those stories are true. Because I saw what I saw - a small girl, hardly past my knee, in the dark in her pajamas, even if there was nothing else wrong in her family. Because how can you not know that your child and your large dog aren’t in the house for at least 30 minutes, and maybe as long as an hour and a half?
Because I know how it feels to to be alone at the side of a road, not sure how to get home or if anyone is coming for you. Because I’ve been told what happens in our family, stays in our family.
Because I saw her face.
She’s not part of the numbers now, not a fraction of some statistic. She is one girl, one sweet, tiny little girl, in my neighborhood. And one of her older sisters, it turns out, is in my daughter’s class.
I’m trying hard not to lay the film of my own personal narrative over hers. I’m trying not to point a judgmental finger at people I don’t know, or to stir up mud in a clear stream. But I am an adult now. The decades have made me the same as the parents of my childhood classmates, the same as my relatives, who suspected something was wrong, who had evidence of abuse (in this case, it may be classified as neglect – I’m not sure), and didn’t follow through.
What I don’t know, what I’m not sure of now, is what to do from here? Anything? Nothing? So far all I’ve got is what I’ve done so far – making sure the police listened to me, which resulted in them interviewing at least two other people who did have first-hand accounts to report. And now that I know one of the girls is in my daughter’s class, I plan to invite her and the other elementary-aged sister to come over to play with my kids. I’m hoping the mother will allow it, but from what I’ve heard, I’m not so sure.
Obviously, the best possible reality is that nothing is off in that family. That this was an isolated incident of accidental neglect. That the other stories aren’t true.
The second best outcome is that if any of what I heard is true, that the family gets some help from family services. What if, whatever their struggles are, and however it’s manifesting in their parenting, they can receive some support and guidance? What if the future can change for those kids, and for the parents?
Is that just me, trying to grab hope from the thinnest of air?
This feeling of responsibility is heavy and awkward. In my opinion, there’s not a single person who was out there the other night and who might have heard those stories, who doesn’t have some kind of responsibility now to that girl and to her sisters. Knowledge creates responsibility. But what is there to do? Is what I did enough? I always thought I would know, if something like this stood right in front of me, what to do.
All I can think, when the face of that girl rises up on the current of my worries (which is all the time), is that thank god someone found her on Thursday night.
But I’m not sure, not sure at all, that she isn’t still lost. And I want so much to know if there’s something I can do about that.
*If you read my last post, which I had just published about an hour before this happened, I wrote about a little blond girl who just showed up in my head about a week ago. With a dog or a cat beside her. (I figured she was there for my novel, but after this? It gives me chills.)