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The Time Strangers Saw My Son and Threatened to Call Child Protective Services

I watch from about 10 feet away as you happily play on the beach access to the pool. It is your favorite place. Being 15, you don’t want your mom “breathing” down your neck, and so I stand in the water about 10 feet away, watching your siblings (4 and 7) splash around in the water wearing life jackets.

I have let the head lifeguard know about you and asked her to let all the rotating lifeguards know. You have Down syndrome and are nonverbal. You giggle happily at the foot of a lifeguard, who gives you a little smile.

I take you out many times, for water, bathroom breaks, to reapply sunscreen, rest in the shade and eat lunch. We have paid a lot of money to come here and we are going to enjoy it as much as possible. You resume your spot on the beach access. You love the slope and splashing in the water.

A boy in a pool.

Then I see it happening. Moms and grand moms all sitting under the shade tent in a large group. They start pointing and talking. They take pictures. One comes over to the lifeguard. The lifeguard seems confused. I hear talk of calling Child Protective Services (CPS) and “poor child” as parents try to talk to you and you just stare at them, probably trying to figure out why strangers are bothering you. I cringe inside. Usually, I have stepped in already. I try to reason that they are just concerned as I step a few feet toward them to address the lifeguard and crowd.

I am his mom. He is nonverbal. Everything is fine. I remind the lifeguard that I talked to the head lifeguard and they should have been advised about his situation. I ask the women to delete the pictures of my son from their phones. I think they are more than shocked. They were looking for another African American family. I’m white, my son is not. Many still murmur in accusatory tones. I resume my spot and they clearly see that I have been there the whole time. I’m more than hurt. I’m angry. And it probably shows.

A lady makes her way out of the group. She pats my son on the head. He hates that, but he just goes on playing. She comes down into the water and talks with me. At first I think she is going to apologize or something, but she blames you for being obviously “different,” and I feel hot with anger.

She states she is a special education teacher and that there is something definitely wrong with my son and that the parents were just trying to help. I’m so close to tears, but when I cry, I’m mad. I won’t give her the satisfaction of crying. I grow visibly hotter as I speak. I let her know that I, too, am a special education teacher and a parent. I ask her if she knows where her children are? Oh, she’s not right beside them? Why not? She once again makes the point that my son is different.

I make the point that he is able to sit there in beach access and play. I am literally 10 feet away watching him. I make the point that he has had more years of swimming lessons and is great in the pool, probably better than the kids she lets run loose in the place. She asks if I adopted him. I am angry and tell her that isn’t her business, he is well taken care of. Usually, I don’t mind sharing that he is adopted, but not today. They don’t deserve his amazing story. I remind her that while she is chatting to me, I’ve lost track of where his two little siblings are. Nobody has sounded an alarm. They are white, verbal and “normal.” She tries to say something as she walks off.

I am angry and hurt. The day has lost its fun and magic. I let my kids play and then we get out and go home early. I call a friend who is the recreation director and tell him what happened. He says he knows about the situation and knows I am a good parent, so he had refused to call CPS. I’m relieved, but still angry and hurt.

Do I chance taking him to the pool again? He mentions he will again talk to the lifeguards. They want to encourage parents with children who have special needs to come to the pools. He agrees that I did everything I should or could have done. He apologizes. I’m still angry and hurt. My son grins at me from across the table. He had a fun day. I smile back.

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