Now you see the violence inherent in the system

Showing up four or five days a week at the dog park at the same time, you get to know the other regulars. There were four or five of us that gossiped all the time: Samantha and Allie, a couple in their 20s with a toy poodle mix that never missed a beat playing with dogs ten times its size. Cris, a dreadlocked white lady in her mid-40s with grown children and two shy husky-mix dogs. Bish, the 50ish bearded carpenter who rolled his own cigarettes and wouldn’t hesitate to get down and alpha-roll any dog that got snarly with another. His blue-nose pit Isha was the sweetest thing you’d ever meet, but of course it was a pit, so everyone assumed the worst about her, and about him.

And there was Jay, who couldn’t have been over 12 – he wasn’t yet a teenager, anyway. Just a boy. Most of the people who came to the park were white adults bringing their dogs, and here was this black kid with a BMX bike and no dog. Where were his parents? We didn’t ask. We assumed, if we thought about it at all, that he lived nearby, probably in the public housing towers around the way. But riding a bike around in a park and playing with dogs is a pretty wholesome activity, and if his folks didn’t mind, it wasn’t our business. “Shit,” Allie would say, “My mother was always on me to go outside and play at that age.” Besides, he matched the energy of the dogs, and we were glad to have someone to keep them active and tire them out.

It never occurred to us to ask why he didn’t ever bring his own dog, or why he didn’t seem to have any friends his own age. We assumed he didn’t have a dog, and was lonely, probably didn’t fit in at school. Kids that age can be so cruel, you know. We assumed a lot of things.

He claimed to have two dogs at home, but never brought them, and their descriptions changed from one telling to the next. We didn’t challenge him on those kinds of transparent lies, because he was sweet-natured and enthusiastic and we could tell – this at least we weren’t assuming, this we were observing – that he just wanted to insinuate himself into the group. Everyone wants to feel a sense of community, but at that age, the need for belonging is irresistibly keen. At his age kids will do almost anything to be a part of something bigger. Making up stories about dogs is nothing.
Besides, he was nice with the dogs. He showed empathy for them. If he’d teased or poked or provoked them, we’d have worried. But he was a sweet kid with a big smile. He tried not to swear around us and we tried not to swear around him. He had empathy for the animals and for the other people.

Sometimes a white lady we didn’t know would show up and scold him, and he’d run off. She never talked to us. He claimed that he had no idea who she was or why she was following him. We figured she was his mother, adoptive or otherwise, and that he was just in a weirdly dysfunctional family. He said she wasn’t his mother, and Cris told him “well, if she’s not your mom, she shouldn’t be treating you that way.” Because why, after all, would an unrelated woman come out and scold a lone child for unspecified misbehavior?

Then one day she drove up to the park took his bicycle and put it in the back of her Jeep. Cris and Allie went over to ask her what the hell was going on, and she said she was his social worker. By then we weren’t sure who to believe: Was this stalking and bike theft, or a disobedient child? The social worker didn’t seem very sympathetic, and we didn’t see that the kid had done anything wrong. And he did claim she was just a strange lady following him around.

Jay, it seems, had been running away from a foster home, repeatedly. To us, it didn’t look like running away: It looked like unsupervised play. But the lady was his social worker, and when three police cars and an ambulance showed up, they were able to confirm her story.

Jay began to cry, buried his face in Cris’s stomach, told her he didn’t want to go. She and a couple of the other park regulars calmed him down, and eventually he agreed to get into the ambulance. The social worker said he’d be “Section-twelved.” We had to look that up after they left: It means sent for psychiatric evaluation in a locked facility for up to 72 hours.

Obviously, I have no idea what the rest of the situation is. Maybe he’d been setting fires before heading out to the park and playing nicely with the dogs. Maybe he’d been skipping school. But from my perspective, it looked like the sort of thing that just comes down to race and class. A white middle-class boy in his situation, as far as I can tell, would be brought home, told to do his homework, and kept from watching TV for a week. Grounded, maybe.

Well, now Jay has learned some important life lessons: Never trust a social worker. Never trust a cop. Never trust an EMT. Never trust a nice white lady. Always be ready to run.

And all the white middle-aged people at the dog park learned something we should have known already: That our society regards an unsupervised black child as a threat to public safety. We’ve seen once again how race, class, and the apparatus of government grind the humanity out of humans.
I hope we see Jay again. And I hope he’s still got that wide-open smile. I don’t know how much longer he’ll have it.

10 thoughts on “Now you see the violence inherent in the system”

  1. Too bad dog-dog socialization isn’t the only thing we have to worry about.
    As I was reading this beautifully written, and disturbing piece, I was bracing myself for an even worse ending. I hope Jay ends up OK. If he loves dogs and treats them well, he can’t be all bad.

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  2. Well written, Very sad. You wrote about generalizations people make and how they are usually not valid. Sadly, one I know is true is that kids who run away and cry about having to go home are usually not making things up. I also hope Jay is OK and that you see him again – any positive influence in his life is worthwhile!

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  3. What a beautifully written, very sad account. There could be no more appropriate person there than Cris, a beautiful woman with a huge heart.

    This is a very sad situation and I am compelled to comment. I have had to hospitalize my teenage, white middle class son for psychiatric reasons. Cambridge police have been nothing but excellent in all my dealings with them involving my hard to handle son (many dealings). They have a youth task force that is fantastic. The social worker in this situation sounds awful. I am sure she is from DCF or DMH, some state run agency. From my own experience, DMH will do anything to save money, their workers are sub-par and in order to get services it is a beyond frustrating long process. I have been counseled over and over to use two different of their emergency response services. One never picked up a 24 hour hotline. The other told me they couldn’t come to my house because I had private insurance, not mass health. It is a sad and frustrating system. The injustices go on… A residential facility with trash in the halls, not sanitizing beds (let alone wiping them down!) between clients, feeding kids fried chicken and processed foods… Not providing recommended services… It goes on. The highlight here is the local Cambridge police have been, in my opinion, outstanding. It is the state run agencies where it all falls apart.

    I am always sad to hear of a kid having troubles. If its any consolation, if this child ended up in Cambridge adolescent psychiatric unit, they are excellent. Hopefully they will connect him to a better social worker.

    Thanks for your story.

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    1. I’ve seen comments from a number of social workers since writing this post and they pointed out a number of things I hadn’t realized at first. Most importantly, while cops showing up seemed like an excessive display of force, it’s SOP for police to be present when a child is being hospitalized: They need to have professional “mandated reporter” witnesses on-hand.

      Was the social worker polite to me and to my friends at the park? No, but then again, being nice to random meddling strangers isn’t her job. She’s out at 7 PM, after what’s undoubtedly a long day, tracking down a 10-year-old who keeps running off. If I were her, I’d be exasperated at the kid and annoyed at the random dog-park people who think we know better than her. She’s trained, I’m sure, and she knows what she’s doing.

      If he ever comes back to the park — hopefully with supervision — I’ll see what I can do to help. In the mean time, I’m working with an organization that provides tutoring assistance to disadvantaged kids (specifically, helping high-school students “on the bubble” of college access get their applications in order and get into college).

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  4. Ron asked me to xpost this comment from an lj entry where he linked to this post.

    That’s really sad.

    But on a side note, this: Bish, the 50ish bearded carpenter who rolled his own cigarettes and wouldn’t hesitate to get down and alpha-roll any dog that got snarly with another is a great way to CAUSE aggression in dogs. Alpha-rolling is based on very outdated training techniques based on outdated, faulty observations of wolf pack structure. It’s needlessly aggressive and causes anxiety.

    And punishing a dog for growling? Growling and snarling are how dogs communicate they’re feeling uncomfortable and they’d like the other party to stop what they’re doing. Growling and snarling can also be absolutely natural and friendly play vocalizations. If you punish dogs for their natural communications then you end up with a dog who doesn’t warn and just lashes out with violence. That’s how you take a dog who has perfectly normal dog communication and turn it into an unpredictable, aggressive animal. Frankly, if that guy EVER tried that shit with my dog he’d have a whole lot of really pissed off lady right up in his face. I also own a pit bull, fwiw, & they absolutely do not benefit from that sort of aggression in their training either.

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  5. @Splatterhouse – I should probably rephase that. At a park there is occasionally a fight between two dogs. Bish would always jump in to separate and calm them. Not an alpha-roll, more of just keeping them facing in opposite directions and distracting them with hugs. It takes guts and empathy to jump in between two fighting dogs and then hug one of the toothy thing until it chills out. He does it.

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  6. Hugging is an action considered threatening by many dogs; many tolerate it but very few enjoy it. Their body language is not the same as ours, and it’s pretty clear that this guy has no real understanding of it. What he’s doing is dangerous and it’s going to blow up in his face one day, leading to injury on his part or the dogs’.

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