The day I became the thing I dreaded

“Just saw some guy yank. Girl out of a van, her hitting the ground and crying. I called 911, gave them plates and description. Cause hell no.”

I posted that in a private Facebook group of friends over a year ago as I sat in my car waiting for police to arrive. I was so shaken up by what I had just seen in front of me as I was putting my car in park that I couldn’t type straight. Right in front of me, in another vehicle, a man reached in, pulled a young lady out with enough force that she hit the ground. Her face contorted as she cried out.

I couldn’t not call. I couldn’t be the person who just stood by and did nothing. It’s not how I was raised, and it’s not how I’m raising my kids. So I dialed 911 as the man walked the young lady over to the sidewalk, where two older women were standing. The two women fussed over the younger one as she cried. The man paced.

The 911 operator asked if I could stay where I was, asked for my car’s description and license plate. The police arrived, and one officer came to talk to me for a moment, then went to talk to the family.

A few minutes later, the officer came back and said the words that made my heart sink.

“According to the father, the girl has…mental issues…and what you saw was her having behavioral issues.”

Over a year later those words still make me want to cry. Because in that moment, I had become the person I feared most when my own twelve year old special needs daughter is having a public meltdown. I was the interfering stranger calling the cops on a special needs family. My heart cringed at what I had done. Had I just made the lives of a family like mine worse?

But my gut was convinced that what I saw wasn’t just “behavioral issues”. My gut saw the girl’s face as she hit the ground and my gut screamed “Something’s not right here!” When the officer told me that the girl had “mental issues”, part of me thought “I knew she had something more!” Because after twelve years in the world of special needs, I’ve become really good at picking out one of our kind.

I did tell the officer that I had a daughter with special needs, that I did understand those kinds of situations, but what I saw still didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t see the teenaged girl acting out. I just saw the dad reaching into the van one moment, the girl hitting the ground the next, the dad hauling her up without any emotion as she cried. It wasn’t just the girl’s reactions that got my attention, it was the man’s cold reactions that didn’t sit right with me.

Maybe there were behaviors I didn’t see. Maybe I did catch a family on a bad day. But maybe I actually saw what I saw. As one friend said “If that’s how they act in public, how do they act at home?” Another friend stated that if anyone could rightly judge the situation, it would be me, because I did walk in their shoes. When I told my husband all that had happened, he said “If anyone saw me treating our daughter like that, they should call the cops on me, because I obviously need some help.” The officer thanked me for calling it in, and staying to give information. Everyone told me I did the right thing.

Yet I still feel guilty over it. I feel like I betrayed one of my own in a way. Special needs parents have such a hard time as it is, we don’t need strangers coming into our lives to make it harder. When my daughter starts tantruming in public, I become hyperaware of my reactions to her, because I am afraid one day, we’ll be the ones the cops are called to investigate. Actually, in my mind, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” someone calls the cops on us as my daughter throws a raging fit in public.

At the same time, I also know that the whole “God only gives special kids to special people” line isn’t always true. Sometimes, special kids get put into really crappy families. Sometimes, special kids are in horribly abusive situations.

If I had to do it all over again, would I call the police on that family? Yes. Yes I would. Because while it hurt my heart to do so, I trust my instincts and will follow them. I’d much rather apologize for being wrong than not do anything and it turns out there was abuse. If I had just encountered a bad moment in that family’s life and made it worse, I sincerely and whole-heartedly apologize. Because the roles could easily be reversed. We are that family too.