Lost

by Jennifer on February 8, 2009

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.

Except.

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.)

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

slouching mom February 8, 2009 at 6:41 pm

More information is ALWAYS better than less. All you did was make sure the information was in the hands of the police. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a lot right about that, whatever the outcome.

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AJsMommy February 8, 2009 at 6:49 pm

My heart goes out to you. What an amazing situation – surreal, and yet, very real. Perhaps a prayer for these girls, to protect them; for their mother, for guidence. And, most importantly, for you – a prayer for continued healing.

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Indigo February 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

You did all the things I would of. I’ve been that little girl, the one who had bruises laced down her legs, yet my mother who was a pencostal minister managed to smooth it over. The one who the neighbors thought something was off but it wasn’t any of their business.

I’ve also been the woman who got beat regularly, only to have a neighbor say I heard things getting broken (did they ever think it may of been me) but didn’t want to stick my nose into it. These days I keep the number of the local SOS shelter on slips of paper in my jacket, my bag…for no other reason than someone else might need it.

You don’t mistake those feelings you get in your gut, you recognize them for what they are. I believe you called it for what it was. I do hope those little girls get the help they need. (Hugs) Indigo

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WashWords February 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

wow. very powerful. I’m very glad to have found you (on blogher)

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V-Grrrl February 8, 2009 at 8:12 pm

It’s especially intense for you to witness and participate in this situation now because you were a victim all those years ago.

Those dark moments in your life have fostered compassion and activism instead of bitterness, and more neglect and abuse, the usual fruit of a dysfunctional childhood.

You’re doing all the right things–at home, in your neighborhood, on this blog.

My friend Di has a blog called “People become stories and stories become understanding.” This is why we write…

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Emily R February 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

It may take a year or two of watching, but you will be there when the moment is ripe.

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Stacie February 8, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I think you acted appropriately and responsibly. Yes, it was an extreme situation and neighbors tend to frenzy in order to protect the little sweet heart. But it sounds like you calmly collected the info and delivered it to the only people who can truly do anything with it. I would just keep my eyes open and my ears sharp for more info but other than that you are kind of restricted in what you can do. I think having the kids over to play is a good idea. It may put your mind at ease.

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the mama bird diaries February 8, 2009 at 9:17 pm

What an unsettling situation. I think you handled it really well. That little girl does sound lost.

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suburbancorrespondent February 8, 2009 at 9:46 pm

I’m getting chills right along with you.

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Janice February 8, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Wow, my heart is in my throat. I cannot even find the words. I’m glad those little girls are now on your radar.

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flutter February 8, 2009 at 10:46 pm

I still feel like she is for your novel. I do.

This just kicks my ass.

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JCK February 8, 2009 at 11:41 pm

I’m so glad you followed through with your instincts. It’s important. Whether she is THE little girl? I’m with Christine. I think the little girl that you envisioned is for your novel.

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Jennifer Harvey February 9, 2009 at 12:00 am

Yeah, she’s definitely sticking around for the book.

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Jenn @ Juggling Life February 9, 2009 at 12:03 am

You cannot be too nosy in these cases. My son had a friend/neighbor whose family situation was terrible–I kept calling and calling. It took about two years before the removed the boys, but I just knew I would never be able to live with myself if something happened and I hadn’t done all I could.

Keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground–you know what to look for; maybe you can help her where nobody helped you.

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Mrs. Chili February 9, 2009 at 6:04 am

A month or so ago, my Cranky Yankee grandfather looked at me and said, “I honestly don’t know how you do it. Raising kids right now is next to impossible.” Further discussion yielded that he was thinking of the fact that when he was a kid – and when he was raising his own sons – everyone took care of everyone else. Kids minded ALL the adults in their world, and everyone looked out for everyone else. Yes, everyone was in everyone else’s business, but fewer people – especially kids – fell through the proverbial cracks.

Keep making noise. Keep advocating for these girls. Regardless of what motivates you, you and I know very well that it is often the smallest people who need the voices of others to speak for them.

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texasholly @ June Cleaver Nirvana February 9, 2009 at 6:58 am

That little girl showed up on your doorstep for some reason. I hope, hope, hope it is not because she needs rescuing, but if it is I am glad she found you.

I think the hardest part of all this will be the waiting and imagining, but if your door is open to her and her sisters the word will spread in a way that may not be obvious today.

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tysdaddy February 9, 2009 at 7:29 am

Jennifer,

Several years ago, just after my youngest son turned three, he escaped out the back door while my wife was in the restroom. In his pajamas, me made it three blocks down the street to a church playground. That’s where the police found him, after twenty frantic minutes of searching.

He was immediately missed, and my wife began pounding the pavement, shouting his name through tears.

There are so many ways in which that little girl could have ended up on the street. But to not be missed . . .

Be there, my friend.

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Dharmamama February 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

You asked, “Is what I did enough?”

And – no. No it’s not enough, because there’s never enough to be enough, if the situation is what you fear it is. BUT – you did what you could, in that moment, and that is all anyone can do. Is what YOU did enough? Maybe not. But what WE can do is immeasurable – people, together. I think inviting them over is a GREAT idea, and keep inviting them, and watch out for them in the neighborhood.

You do what you can – now, in this moment. And you keep breathing, and keep doing what you can.

You are a true gift, in many ways.

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maggie, dammit February 9, 2009 at 8:48 am

MY GOD.

(And the thing about your dream is just spooky.)

See, this is why I believe in angels. In this case, you’re the angel. Keep going with your gut.

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Christina February 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

Even with my own kids, I would rather someone ask questions rather than assume. If there’s any hint of child abuse or neglect, better to report suspicions and try to help the family. I think you all did the right thing on that particular evening.

And how awesome that the dog was with her. He was probably doing his best to keep an eye on her and protect her.

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CaryRN February 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

I’ve been a kid who wished someone cared, who wished someone noticed what was happening to me. We have to be the voice for those without a voice. No matter the outcome, that girl will know that some people DO care, and there is no more important lesson for a kid in trouble to learn.

Thank goodness you spoke up when it was needed.

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Jen February 9, 2009 at 9:11 am

You did EXACTLY the right thing. The world needs more people like you, people who are willing to say “There’s something wrong here and I’m not willing to just stand by and watch it happen.”

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Amy February 9, 2009 at 9:15 am

Thank you for being a person that speaks out. My own experiences have turned me into a person that fights for others as well. It’s nice to know that good things can come from bad/hard/difficult/downright ugly situations.

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Candy February 9, 2009 at 9:20 am

I had the chills while I was reading that, not sure where it was all going to end up.

My own children are very close friends with the brother and sister in the house two doors down from ours. The family…is messed up, that’s all I can say. Started out as husband/wife, his daughter, her son, and their young son together. Then the husband left, and left behind his daughter. Then the wife started having men sleep over. She spent Christmas Eve 2 years ago in some man’s bed, while the three children were home alone (they were 15, 14, and 7 at the time, old enough to be alone, I guess. But not on Christmas.)

There was no actual abuse, but the neglect was hard to ignore. I didn’t know what to do either, but I started having them over as often as was possible. They spent Christmas Eve that year with our family. It’s heartbreaking. And there is no manual to tell us how to react and behave. I just try to show them as much love as is possible and let them know my home is their home.

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jessica February 9, 2009 at 9:33 am

Responsibility is knowledge and it pains me to think those people knew what was happening and yet said nothing.YOu did what you can do. I would have done the same and yes, I agree, inviting the kids over is a great idea.

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threeundertwo February 9, 2009 at 9:54 am

The key phrase is “knowledge is responsibility.” That said, you did exactly what needed to be done, but I think you should not berate yourself about whether there is more you should do. A playdate with the older sister is an excellent start.

I love/hate that phrase “it takes a village” because it’s become so hackneyed, but this sad and scary episode points out how much our children need all the adults in their neighborhoods and their lives to care.

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Heather February 9, 2009 at 10:37 am

I have worked for the local school district which made me a mandatory reporter. I think everyone should be a mandatory reporter. CPS can tell better than I if there is something really going on, but I don’t want abuse/neglect/whatever to continue if I could have done something about it. Your gut is most likely right. You recognized something in that little girl. They knocked on your door for a reason.

I’d forgotten about your dream too. Wow, chills.

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Green Girl February 9, 2009 at 10:51 am

You SO did the right thing. I think we all have a strong radar that we don’t WANT to attend to because it is so scary.

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Daryl February 9, 2009 at 11:29 am

I didnt have the childhood you did and I still would have done the exact same thing as you … if the mother knows this tot is opening doors then she needs to lock them … and she needs to be far more alert if she isnt going to … I think I would follow up with CPS just because .. I am tired of reading newspaper articles about dead/abused children that CPS claim ‘fall through the cracks’ someone damn well better start closing those cracks

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Coco February 9, 2009 at 12:02 pm

I often think some people in the world are simply more sensitive to life’s little vibrations than others. I think you are one of them.

I’m glad you talked to the police and insisted.

I’m glad for this little girl that somebody noticed. I hope, of course, that nothing is wrong and it was a terrible accident. But if your radar is right, and experience has taught me that sensitive people are normally dead on, then I hope this case is followed through and not simply swept aside.

Oh? As for the girl who showed up in your head? My personal thought is it’s part of your radar, but if she works into your novel, she will take on the life you need her to.

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Elisa February 9, 2009 at 12:57 pm

My goodness, I understand why you’d feel like the nosy neighbor, I do too if I am ever relating things I didn’t witness in person, but I think it’s good that you did. Because in this case, there are children involved, and it IS weird not to notice your little one gone for so long. I would have done as you have.

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Chris February 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm

As I was reading this, I thought about your prior post. I had chills too. It’s unsettling when the reality of these situations makes us aware how complex our possible actions/reactions are. Keep using your bionic hearing and vision on this one.

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Mrs. G. February 9, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Wow, this was chilling. I hope she’s safe and sound.

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anymommy February 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I wish no one ever had to decide what to do in these situations, a dim, childish wish, I know. But, if this little one needs more help and more intervention, I’m so glad she has you on her side.

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apathy lounge February 9, 2009 at 5:36 pm

You were DEAD ON in telling the police everything you knew. The biggest mistakes are made when the police DON’T have enough information. Not when they have everything they need.

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david mcmahon February 9, 2009 at 6:47 pm

What a powerful experience and what a powerful post too.

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Hilary February 9, 2009 at 8:06 pm

I agree with Daryl. There are far too many cracks and we’re the only glue that can help seal them. I have no doubt your instincts were bang on. You did the right thing. You’ll continue to do so. Thanks for your caring.

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fancy feet February 9, 2009 at 10:07 pm

You so did the right thing. I don’t know if it’s possible to be too nosy in this situation and it wasn’t about being nosy anyway. It was about following your heart and doing the right thing. Your experiences and past give you the knowledge and instinct for this. Thank you for sharing this.

And how remarkable…with the dream you had. I don’t think it’s coincidental at all.

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San Diego Momma February 10, 2009 at 7:55 am

I’m happy there are people like you.

I once saw a little boy in a stroller outside the grocery store with his “dad.” The man drank out of a paper bag and the little boy cried and screamed and the man ignored him. When I asked if the boy were OK, the man shrugged me off and when I hung around, watching, he got mad, and I eventually went away.

Maybe it was nothing, but maybe it was something, and I always regret not saying something to somebody about it when it could have been investigated.

You absolutely did the right thing.

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jenrantsraves February 10, 2009 at 8:43 am

I am a big believer in signs, and whether or not it is “coincidence” that you got an image of a little girl right before this happens I don’t know. I will say this. I was in a situation in which I should have said more, should have done more, and 10 years later, I still think about that little boy. Do what you feel you have to do. I think the idea to invite the girl over to play who is in your daughters class is a good one. That should tell you a lot.

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Velma February 10, 2009 at 11:10 am

Tough situation to be in. My cousin’s 2 year old daughter let herself out the week they moved into a new house and the neighbors called the police when they heard her crying outside. It was scary and mortifying and heart-clenching, but at least the neighbors have come to know their family and that the incident was an aberration. I think the idea of inviting the classmate over is a great way to get to know the situation better if you are concerned.

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Andi February 10, 2009 at 1:25 pm

This gave me chills.

I think you are awesome for gathering the courage to speak up. It may have just been what those little girls needed.

God bless you.

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Lennie February 10, 2009 at 3:51 pm

There is so much I could say but it would just be too much. You did do the right thing and I believe you are continuing to do the right thing. Those children need an advocate and now it’s possible they have an entire neighbourhood as such…or at least some members of it. As for “signs”, I have never reallly been a believer in them, being basically a cynical skeptic. UNTIL we lost our beloved Terra, that is. There have been some odd moments in the past several weeks, some of which can be explained away and some of which are completely beyond logical explanation, even for someone like me. I have changed my tune on this now, big-time.

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Madge February 10, 2009 at 4:03 pm

most people just ignore their gut when it tells them to do something, so much easier to do nothing. you did the right thing. i heart you for that, and for all you’ve been through.

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saz February 11, 2009 at 8:24 am

I just lost my comment in the ether, know not why! But the gist of my comment is that your writing is wonderful and so very evocative. I have done the similar thing myslef with gut wrenching pains to guid eme and tell me it was right. An adult can one hopes defend oneslef a child has no voice. I commend you for doing the right thing. a well deserved POTD form David, he is heaven sent in bringing us such wonderful talented bloggers. Which we would normally miss out on…

well done

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Poutalicious February 11, 2009 at 7:26 pm

All I can say is “It takes a Village” By Hillary Clinton. We all have to take responsibility for the sake of children.

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Louise February 11, 2009 at 8:31 pm

It IS your responsibility now. Now that you know, you can watch, and invite.

Maybe it WAS nothing, but there is nothing lost from your involvement. If there is truly nothing wrong, maybe they will become your best friends. If there IS something wrong, every interaction with you and your family may be one of the shreds of normality they get. That may be the what the children will remember when they are older as the bright spots in their dark lives. You understand that. It can be you.

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Ree February 11, 2009 at 8:48 pm

I’ve always believed that the hardest things to do are the things that are most right. You may have saved a family.

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Cath February 20, 2009 at 7:23 am

You did the right thing and for now there is no more you can do.
I still think she is for your novel…

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Amy @ The Bitchin' Wives Club March 19, 2009 at 7:21 am

I think that people need to do what feels right. And in this situation, clearly there was more to the story that just a little girl who wandered out of the house. That family involved everyone in the neighborhood with their issues when you all had to help her little one find her way back home. Good for you for deciding to stick your neck out and making sure that the police had all the relevant information. I hope that some help goes their way and the kids end up with a happier situation in the end.

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