who to trust
11 June 2002
I got an unusual phone call yesterday. We get Floor Time services from two vendors: school and a local clinic. Silver and Gamma come through the clinic. A supervisor called yesterday morning. She said it was a routine check-up call, to make sure our hours are being met. What hours is Damian getting? When does Gamma see Damian? Um, Tuesdays at one p.m., is there a problem? No, no, this is merely a formality, nothing to worry about, but are you sure she only sees him once a week? Not, say, twice? Okay, thanks for your time.

Odd, right? Especially since I had to volunteer Silver’s hours, the woman wasn’t interested. So this was not exactly the routine call portrayed. What was Gamma up to?

I found out when the woman called back to verify.

It seems Gamma has been doing some creative accounting. She’s been coming to see Damian on Tuesdays, only Tuesdays and nothing but Tuesdays, but she wrote down that she was coming Tuesdays and Fridays. Just for fun, she also threw in some supervisory sessions, added some random makeup sessions, and invented some more sessions out of thin air. Claimed she saw him some days from 9 to 11 am. Interesting, I think, given that he’s at school then. Said she saw him the very afternoons I recorded in my Damian log as "We spent the afternoon hanging around Santa Monica together, he and I." This was no casual "Oh yeah, I was there that day, pay me please" lie either, this was a systemic forge-the-mom’s-signature and invent-a-description-of-the-session set of documents. Breathtaking in its way. Audacious. Also incredibly stupid.

Leaving aside the obvious moral aspect of this fraud, did she really think she could get away with it? Did she want to get caught? Was it a cry for help from a lost soul? Was it a new immigrant’s wholesale co-opting of the American Dream or was it something darker, more psychologically perplexing?

She started working with Damian a year ago nearly to the day (June 15th, the day we moved into this house – we supervised the movers while she played with Damian on the back porch). She told us she was working six day weeks, clocking nearly sixty hours. Why? So she could afford the payments on her snazzy new Toyota SUV. She lived at home with her parents, she had few expenses and very nice clothes and, it seems now, this great yearning hunger under a cheery surface.

I’m not stunned. I’m not even dismayed. Mostly, I’m bemused. We don’t have to fire her, she fired herself. She didn’t bilk us of any money, she just shafted the Regional Center. The woefully under-funded Regional Center, this is not a victimless crime, but still. It doesn’t hurt me, not directly. I can sit back and watch. And think. And try to remember.

Were there signs? Oh yes. Practically from the start. She was great with Damian at first, creative and playful and insisting he stay engaged with her. He quickly grew to look forward to her visits. She was his first Floor Time therapist and we were delighted with what we saw. But gradually we weren’t so delighted. She came late, cut her sessions short, called in sick too often. And one day after her session, Damian’s toy doctor kit was missing. We asked in the nicest way possible ("Maybe by mistake…?"), she denied, life went on. We knew, though, and we did a toy inventory every week after she left.

Her Floor Time got stale after a couple of months. She resorted to occupational therapy, which was her background but which makes no sense in this context. Is stringing beads going to teach Damian creative thinking? Is pulling tiny objects out of silly putty going to help him engage in a fun, sustained back-and-forth? It’s lazy therapy, a sign of a therapist not enjoying her work.

We talked to her, taught her as best we could. She was fairly good. Then she was just okay. Then she was less than okay, but we thought she’d be hurt if we gave her the boot and after all, Damian knew and liked her. Then he didn’t like her so well; recently he’s become positively avoidant. And her absentee excuses became progressively more surreal: she called me on her cell phone one day last month: "Sorry I missed Damian’s party. I’m going to have to cancel today’s session too, I’m calling from the hospital." (No background noise. Hmm.) Seems she had a bladder infection. A bladder infection that lands you in the emergency room and then to the sick ward? (And, sure enough, this purported hospital time? Not in the clinic records. In fact, she billed them for working with him that day.)

Bemused. That really is the only word for what I’m feeling. She was a scam artist and we let her into our house every week for a year. She spent time with my son, she played with him and chatted with us. I wouldn’t say I ever felt sympatico with her, but she was a good person. Leaving aside the petty larceny that got out of control, that is. But there’s something about seeing this up close that leaves me wondering. In this case, we knew something was off kilter. But you don’t always. And you’re entrusting your kid to these people. How do you sort that out? Damian has an awful lot of people in his life, how do we know who to trust?

A few months ago, I was a mess. Emotional, exhausted. Wrought. Too much driving, too much kid wrangling. Too much – well, I wrote about it already. No need to rehash. It’s a tough job. Dan and I talked about getting help, hiring someone to pick Damian up from school just two days a week, bring him to OT or My Gym, bring him home. Give me a breather. Call it preventive medicine. To prevent me from driving into a telephone pole.

But where do we find someone to fit the bill? It has to be someone we can trust implicitly, someone who understands Damian’s issues and treats a child with respect and warmth. Tall order. Then one afternoon, the answer – seemingly – appeared with a smile, standing in the sand yard at his school. A former teaching assistant at school, she had been with Damian’s first class last spring. We liked her. She had free time, needed the money. Perfect fit, right? We talked about it, she and I, and agreed to go forward. Later, on the phone, I asked her how exactly it was that she left school so abruptly back in the fall. What happened? She was vague, said something about differing philosophies, and left it at that. So I asked a school administrator. Who said she couldn’t tell me. For legal reasons. She implied more without words, nothing concrete but I got the message. We should not hire this woman.

It was tough. I knew nothing bad about her. What had she done that was so bad it was shrouded by a legal cloak? Drugs? Violence, did she abuse a child? Or is it someone close to her a drug addict or abusive, someone who can show up unexpectedly? Nothing of the kind? All in my head, inferred from someone else’s closed mouthed frown and solemn expression?

The thing is, how can you take a chance when it’s your kid? How can you be comfortable letting him be alone in a car when there’s some question – any question – about his safety with this person who, after all, you don’t know very well at all?

I made an excuse and bowed out of the arrangement. I’ll never know for sure if I made the right decision. All I know is that I didn’t make the wrong one, and that’s far more important.

A few weeks later, one of the teaching assistants in Damian’s class suddenly vanished. No two weeks notice, no "We’re sorry he’s gone, we’ll miss him" note in Damian’s snack bag. Just gone. I guess the quicksand on Pico Boulevard got him, just sucked him down one sunny morning, one gulp and he was gone. That’s the only explanation that makes sense. Unless you subscribe to the one I heard at a kid’s birthday party the next weekend: Vincent was caught sexually molesting one of the students.

I did a double take: "Are you sure?"

"Oh yeah, I talked to the parents of the kid. The kid said that’s what happened."

Mmm. A, what? Four year old? Five year old? Presumably on the autistic spectrum or at the least speech delayed? And this kid happened to mention, "Oh, he was playing with my weenie?"

Not that it doesn’t happen. Believe me, I know it does, and the thought makes my stomach lurch. It could happen at Damian’s school. Or gym class. OT. Anywhere. Children are so vulnerable. But I also know that a child that young, even a neurotypical child, will not blithely tell such a tale. You have to coax it out of them carefully, not setting up any expectations, not letting them know what you want them to say. You can act it out in play, see what the "Vincent" character does to the "Me" character. You can try that. And maybe you can suspect, maybe you can confront, maybe you can eject that person from the premises without a trial. All of that, yes. But the story didn’t sound right. A kid told his parents, the parents told the school, the TA was gone? Especially this TA. Vincent was sweet, quiet, gentle. A little too passive, maybe. Not quite with the program. But a child molester? I thought I was a better judge of character than that.

But I walked away wondering. I couldn’t help it. If what that mom said was true, if he’d done this heinous, permanently scarring thing with one kid, could he have done it with others? And I started trying to remember. Had Vincent ever been alone with Damian? The potty room has a window, probably for this exact reason. Only a molester with a death wish would try anything there. And otherwise, he probably had no opportunities. Damian was most likely safe. But it shakes your confidence, something like this. Makes you want to keep your child close by at all times. Within reach. Earshot if not line of sight. Keep him home from school, never leave him at play dates, never let him go. Keep him safe from all the unknowns. Keep him hermetically sealed, away from any harm.

Away from harm is away from life, though. Away from harm is away from growth. Away from harm is harmful in and of itself, especially for a child like Damian, who needs more people in his life, not less, who needs to open up to the world, not to hunker down in our little bomb-and-nasty-people shelter.

And it turns out sometimes you can trust your own intuition about people. I told Damian’s teacher Linda what the moms were saying about Vincent. She told Nora, the education director. Who was absolutely appalled and couldn’t understand how such an outrageous rumor got started. She told me that Vincent was let go after repeated warnings because he was, yes, too passive. Yes, too out of it. Just as Dan and I had surmised. Vincent wasn’t picking up cues, wasn’t jumping in to stop situations from spiraling out of control, seemed helpless with the often unruly children around him. Sometimes things are just what they seem. Sometimes you can trust that the people in charge are doing the right things, making the right decisions. And you can trust, too, that most if not all people in your child’s life are not out to harm him.

Gamma called this morning. Called to apologize. She said she would probably lose her occupational therapy license, but she hoped not because she really loved working with kids. She said she’ll miss Damian. I know she means it. After her imaginary hospital stay, she came by at eight p.m. on a Wednesday night. Bringing birthday gifts: a kaleidoscope and a small Magnadoodle, the perfect size for the car. I think she has a good heart, just a massively screwed up ethical system.

We expose our son to so many people on a weekly basis. We have to hope they don’t abuse our trust. We have to have faith in our own judgement. That’s all we’ve got.

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