You arrive at the family’s home and knock on the door. After several minutes, the door slowly opens and you look down to see a preschooler’s face. You ask her, “Is your mommy here?”
She answers, “She’s asleep.” You ask, “Is there another grown-up here with you?” and she shakes her head “no.” You look past her to see a toddler sitting on the couch.
What do you do?
(Wanna watch & listen instead of read? Click here for Dana’s video blog on this topic!)
Arriving at a family’s home always has the potential to be unpredictable, which was actually one of the things I liked the best about being an early interventionist. It can also be one of the hardest things about the job too. You never know what will happen when the door opens. In this case, deciding what to do next might not be too difficult. You can tell the preschooler to go wake her mommy up and tell her mommy that you’re here. Then, you keep your fingers crossed that she actually does it, and that her mommy will get up. The real problem happens when either of these strategies fail to bring the mother to the door.
You have a few options. You can call the mother’s name, hoping she hears you and will come to the door. You can step inside to check on her (which is easier to do if you know the family well). Going into an unfamiliar home without permission, though, can be problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is trespassing. You could also be compromising your own safety by going in. Instead, you can call the home phone (or the mother’s mobile phone) to try to reach her. Hopefully one of these strategies will work and you can move forward with the visit. If these strategies still don’t work, you are left with the hardest question of all: “What do I do now that I know that the children are unsupervised?”
What probably pops into your mind is the fact that you are a mandated reported of suspected child abuse or neglect. In this situation, certainly you would be concerned for the children’s welfare and probably unwilling to leave them alone. Here are a few ideas about what to do next:
Call other family contacts – If you have contact info for anyone else related to the family, such as a spouse, partner, grandparent, or neighbor, try to call that person. Let him/her know that you are at the home, cannot reach the parent and that the children are alone. Ask that person to try to reach the mother and call you back. Or, if that person can come to the home, wait there with the children.
Wait on the porch – Unless you suspect a true emergency (e.g., you can see the mother lying on the floor), don’t go into the home. Wait by the front door and ask the children to keep the door open so you can supervise them and see if the mother comes into the room.
Call your supervisor – If a situation like this continues for more than a few minutes, call your supervisor. He/she may have additional guidance and may come to the family’s home to problem-solve with you.
Call the police – This would be your last resort. You cannot leave the children unsupervised, and if after a while you can’t find a responsible adult, you may have no choice but to call for help. Making the decision to call the police is usually a very difficult one, but protecting the children is the most important. And, you don’t know, in this situation there could be a crisis happening with the mother that needs intervention.
What would you do if you were in this situation? How have you handled a similar situation in the past?
Share you insights in the comments below!
I think it is interesting that there are no comments on this post. When I first read it, I thought “I’ve totally fallen asleep when my kids were awake – doesn’t every parent do that at some point?”. I think this posed situation needs clarification – when parents are really tired and stressed and this happens once or twice, I think support is what the family needs. Maybe advice on how to talk with the kids about not opening the door unless a parents says it is OK. Maybe a plan to call or text before you arrive. Calling the police seems extreme. That said, I have had a few situations where this was fairly common, and I think at that point a frank discussion with the family and a referral to CPS makes sense.
Thanks for your insights, Laurie. You’re absolutely right – it’s really a pattern of behavior that is important when making the tough decisions. I really like your suggestion for the parent about teaching the child to not open the door. Great safety suggestion. I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave the home with the children basically unsupervised. It’s tricky, for sure, but since we are mandated reporters, we have to walk that line carefully. I agree that calling the police would be extreme, but if you can’t wake or find the parent and you have no other option, it might be an emergency measure. Certainly a very last resort. It’s also a tricky situation to write about because there are a ton of “what ifs” that would affect your decision in that moment. I’m so glad you jumped in and gave us more to think about!
I had a situation similiar to this last week. I feel good about trusting my instincts in how I handled it. When I arrived for a visit that was confirmed an hour prior (via a text message to a child’s mother), nobody answered the door. With each ring of the doorbell, I could hear the child cry out. I persisted for 5 minutes, but no answer. I texted and called the mom’s phone, but still no answer. I contemplated my next step as a call the service coordinator and/or police, because I was not certain about the status of the mother. After a few minutes, the mother called and had an excuse for why she could not keep our visit (that we had just confirmed!), stated she was not home and that her boyfriend was at home with the child. I wanted to make certain that the child was not home alone, so I requested that he answer the door so we could look at our calendars to reschedule (I truly wanted to make certain the child was not alone). The boyfriend came to the door and told me he was in the bathroom and didn’t hear the door. While this could certainly have been true, I felt like my first priority was making certain that the child was not left home alone. These situations are tricky because children are involved and sometimes the adults in a child’s life are not always as truthful as we’d like them to be. In the end, I left knowing the child was safe, we had follow up appointment schedule for the next day, and a sense that I did the right thing by waiting it out.
What a great example of a how to handle this type of situation, Kari! I think you handled it beautifully. I really appreciate how you persisted to make sure the child was safe. Trusting your instincts and persisting until you had the answer you needed were the keys here. Thanks so much for sharing what you did!