Good sense helps defuse suspicions of child abuse

This Just In...

April 06, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

WHEN I ASKED that Rhayne Evans spell her name - as you can see, a necessary and reasonable request - she flinched a little, laughed nervously and said, "I'm not going to end up on that list, am I?" She was referring to the state's Child Abuse Registry, which includes the names of about 100,000 people never criminally charged with abuse but the subject of complaints filed by suspicious neighbors, teachers, doctors and others.

Because this list is secret - accessible only to state and county social workers - I had no way of knowing the answer to that question. But given what is known - that some names stay on the registry for up to 25 years, that mere suspicion of child abuse can get you listed - Evans hesitated about attaching her name to today's column. It was understandable. Her concern - that she'd be associated with child abuse for years merely because someone in a Burger King had had a suspicion - floats in that crevice (or chasm, depending on your view) between the public's desire to protect children and its desire for personal privacy.

While I couldn't guarantee anything, I told Evans that I believed no reasonable person, upon reading this column, would tap her name into a computer at the state Department of Human Resources.

Her cute little girl, Abby, is not the victim of abuse. She was born nearly three years ago with a rare genetic skin disorder called lamellar ichthyosis. It's evident by dry skin and patches of dark, scaly areas on her body. It occurs in one of every 300,000 children. It has no cures, only treatments.

One day last month, Evans and a friend took their children to a Burger King in Cockeysville. They had lunch and let the children loose in the adjoining play area. They were there for about an hour.

Long into that hour, a young Baltimore County police officer stepped into the restaurant and, after making some observations, approached Evans. He quietly told her that another BK patron had reported seeing a little girl who was severely bruised.

"Fortunately," Evans says, "the officer was very nice and intelligent enough to realize that Abby was not bruised. ... He never approached my daughter, thereby saving her some trauma. He only watched her from a distance. He said, `I hope you understand: We have to investigate.'

"This wasn't the first time people said thoughtless, stupid things or gawked at Abby, only the first time they have gone so far as to contact the police."

While Evans was grateful for the police officer's sound judgment and professional conduct, she was miffed that someone in the Burger King - possibly a woman with whom she'd had brief and pleasant conversation - would call the police.

"I taught elementary school in Baltimore City for seven years and understand the importance of being aware of possible child abuse," Evans wrote me in an e-mail. "But I would never have presumed to call the police about someone I happened to see in a restaurant unless I was witness to actual abuse."

That's where our conversations got even more interesting.

I told Evans I would not have to witness assault to contact police. Maybe everyone has a different definition of child abuse. I think most humans instinctually know it when they see it.

If I saw it, I'd have to do something - get a license tag number maybe, or a description of the child and the suspected abuser. I felt compelled to do just that a few years ago in Baltimore County.

Outside a supermarket, I saw a stressed-out guy grab a small boy by the hood of his winter jacket, hoist him 2 feet off the ground and carry him across the parking lot. The little boy appeared to be trussed inside his own coat; he looked as if he was choking. I yelled at the guy, and he yelled something back. I got his tag number and reported the incident to police. I don't know whether anything was done. Maybe that stressed-out guy's name is on the Child Abuse Registry now. And maybe he thinks that's a terribly unfair thing. But you know what? It doesn't bother me one bit.

Rhayne Evans' case is way different.

Upon my visit to the Evans home in Carroll County, it was instantly obvious that there's something psoriasis-like about the skin on Abby's hands and forehead, nothing more. The creased, dry skin reminded me of that of a boyhood friend who must have had one of the 20 varieties of ichthyosis that dermatologists have identified over the years.

Still, someone in the Burger King must have seen it differently.

But I don't fault someone for making a report to police.

What's important is that the police officer did his job in a gentle and discreet manner and that he made a sound judgment. It's what we count on cops, social workers and judges to do every day as they make decisions about the welfare of children, and if we're lucky, they get it right most of the time.

"I wish I had thought to ask the officer's name, as he was very kind and professional," Evans says. "After I had collected myself and gotten over the shock that something like this could happen, I would have liked to have been able to thank him."

That's all Evans wanted from this column - to thank the police officer. I talked her into going a little further with it - to make more people aware of ichthyosis, for one thing, and to remind everyone about the impact of their 911 calls about suspected child abuse. Make sure you've made the best judgment you can make, then make the call. And even if you're not sure, make the call. If everything works the way it's supposed to - and I think it did at the Burger King in Cockeysville - innocents have nothing to fear.

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