An accidental injury triggers a legal odyssey.
By Ben Bull
Published March 24, 2008
I don't take my kids to Emerg anymore. Not since that business with Molly, and the bathtub.
About four years ago, when Molly, my youngest, was nearly two, she burned her feet in the tub. I was working in the basement of our east Hamilton home, my wife - busy doing the laundry. It was a typical, Hamilton day.
Molly was playing by my feet as I clicked and sighed through the e-mails, accumulated from the night before.
How does this happen? I remember wondering at the time. How is it that I can sign off at 6pm in the evening, log back on 14 hours later and find 50 emails clogging up my inbox? Doesn't anyone go to sleep?
As I tutted and muttered my way through I had the sudden urge to run myself a bath. This urge is nothing new for me. Whenever I am working at home I often feel the need to immerse myself in water, to bathe away the irritations of the day.
So I ran upstairs and turned on the water.
The hot water.
I was never in the habit of testing the temperature. We had long since turned down the water heater in the basement. This meant that, in order to get a nice hot bath all you had to do was run the hot. No cold was required.
But this time - it was different. As I settled back in front of my laptop I heard a scream. A Molly scream.
Now, Molly being 2 years old, precocious, mischievous - all the things you expect a 2 year old to be, she was often screaming. There was the whiney scream - who stole my chocolate? - the furious scream - I don't want to wear my coat! - and the bedtime scream - I'm so tired I don't know where I am...
But this scream, this was new. High pitched, fierce and... loud - very loud.
What was wrong with her?
I sprinted up the stairs, Susie right behind me, to find Molly, standing in the bath, immersed up to her ankles and paddling her feet up and down the way you do when the water's too hot.
I scooped her up and gave her a warm, tight hug.
"Shh, it's OK..."
"Look at her ankles," said my wife, pointing at her feet.
I did. They were red raw.
How could that be? I wondered.
We exchanged quizzical glances, as I stroked my daughter's hair and wafted away the steam from the tub.
And then I remembered - the day before! Molly and Jack in the basement...
I had found the door to the furnace room open.
"Who's been playing in here?" I'd barked, slamming the door shut. "You know you're not allowed in there."
There was no answer, of course. Just the well-rehearsed pretend-innocent, we didn't mean it, can we go now? expressions.
What I didn't deduce, but confirmed now as I ran downstairs and checked the water heater thermostat, was that they had either accidentally or deliberately turned the dial clockwise a whole half turn: It was Hot.
Mystery solved, the only thing left for us to do was comfort our wailing little waif. As we bathed her throbbing ankles in cool water and tried to bribe her into silence, the skin started to bubble and burst.
"I need to get her to the hospital," said my wife as we watched the first layer peel away. "She'll need dressings."
So off they went to St Joseph's for a coating of Flamozine and some sterile bandages, and maybe a painkiller or two.
"Won't be long," said my wife, hurrying out the door. "See you in a bit."
I returned to the basement and got back to work.
Click, click, tut, click - all these stupid emails, when will I get any work done?
Click, click, tut, click ...
After several hours I began to wonder what was going on down at Emerg.
I called the front desk and was told that my wife was waiting for the Doctor, "but she can't come to the phone."
"OK," I replied, thinking nothing of it, getting back to work.
I settled back behind my desk and carried on clicking.
And then I got the call.
"Mr. Bull?" it was the school secretary.
"You need to come to school right away."
My kids were attending St. John The Baptist, on London Street, at the time. We had three of them enrolled.
"What's the problem?" I asked. I had never been summoned like this before.
"Don't worry" replied the Secretary. "Nobody's been hurt, you just need to get here now."
I threw on my coat and sprinted out the door.
What could have happened? I wondered, as I froggered my way through the King Street traffic and burst through the main school door. This was turning into a most unusual day.
When I reached the Principal's office I found the door closed. Human shapes moved around in the frosted glass, the murmur of hushed conversation.
I searched for the secretary. She knew me from the odd playground chat, phoned apologies for my children's lateness, sickness and forgotten lunches. She knew me enough to care.
"Sit down," she said softly, shaking her head, a look of exasperation and apology written into her face. "They shouldn't be much longer."
When the door to the Principal's office, opened I found my kids in the company of a 20 something year old Catholic Children's Aid Social Worker. The woman held out a limp hand as my kids shuffled out of her shadow and clung onto my leg.
"What's going on here?"
"I needed to ask your children a few questions," she explained. "It's routine in these cases."
I suddenly realized what was going on. Molly's leg burns, Susie can't come to the phone, Children's Aid workers... we were under suspicion for child abuse!
My head started to spin.
I tried to quell my disbelief, my fear, my...anger.
"Your wife will be escorted from the hospital to the police station," explained the Social Worker, snapping her notepad shut, "where a video taped statement will be taken. After that they'll want to speak to you."
I turned to face the door.
I am not normally an angry person but right now, in the face of all this, somebody was about to get hurt.
Then, realizing that righteous anger was probably not the most constructive emotion at this time, I took my cue from the Social Worker. "You may take your children home now," she said, and left.
On the way home my head was spinning. I walked in a trance. I remember, vaguely, Emily, my eldest, taking my hand and guiding me across the road.
"What did she say to you?" I think I asked.
"She asked us if you or Mum ever gets cross and how you discipline us - stuff like that."
The anger again...
"What did you say?" I asked, gnawing at my fingernails by now. Was I nervous? No, I was terrified! What were they going to do to us next?
"We told her the truth," replied Emily, shepherding her brother and sister through the front door.
"Er...you mean the truth as you see it, or - the truth truth?"
"What did you tell her!?"
I flopped on the sofa, exhausted. The kids flopped beside me.
"We told her that you give us rules and that you sometimes raise your voice and that you never ever hit us," replied Jack.
"We told her that you are wonderful parents and that you give us lots of hugs and treats whenever we want them," chimed in Annie.
"No. But you should."
I started to breathe easier. Have to call these kiddies as character witnesses if I ever get into any trouble.
Then I began to think about what they might have said if I'd ever followed through on any of my well-worn parenting threats.
I pulled myself upright and huddled my kids together.
"Now listen. Your little sister has burned her feet," I explained, observing their confused, concerned expressions - they looked so forlorn, the poor little mites, what must they be thinking? "She's at the hospital getting some cream."
"How did it happen?" whimpered Annie, "Is she OK?"
"She'll be fine."
"Are they going to take you away?" asked Jack.
"Nobody's taking me away." If only I could be so sure...
The kids were clearly upset. Not just about their little sister, but about the unusual events of the day. Little Annie was close to tears, bless her - the bottom lip wobbling already. Jack was wild eyed and alert, always difficult to tell what was going on there. Emily, as always, was in control.
"It'll be OK, Daddy," she told me, giving my hand a squeeze. "You're the best Daddy in the world."
We sat there for a while exchanging hugs, glances and reassuring smiles.
And then I remembered.
They're coming to the house! Holy crap... We have to get it ready!
In an instant I had visions of open pill boxes littering the floor, smoke alarms with no batteries, empty beer bottles scattered all over the kitchen. As I ran round in a frenzy I realized - this was no vision!
That empty container on the living room carpet, what does that say? "Acetaminophen" What's that doing there!?
Why isn't the smoke alarm working? Did Susie use the batteries for the remote the other day? And why are those beer bottles not in the blue bin!
One tidy up and several cups of tea later and the afternoon resumed it interminable slow pace. I sat on the sofa and watched the clock, ticking my life away while the kids played at my feet. I'd never known a day to drag like this. I headed into the basement for a while, might as well do some work, but it was no use.
There was no getting any work done today.
Back upstairs: Tick tock, tick tock. Where was Susie?
At 7pm, more than eight hours after they'd left for the hospital, my wife and child returned.
They were escorted by a rather bedraggled, serious looking lady with an unsympathetic smile from the Catholic Children's Aid and a plain clothes police officer.
I checked Molly's ankles - "she OK?" - hugged my wife repeatedly, and ushered in the guests.
"Hello Mr. Bull," said the police officer. "May we sit down?"
As we sat around the dinner table recounting the events of the day, several things soon became apparent.
First, my version of the morning's events, when Molly went for her impromptu 100 degree paddle, matched my wife's exactly: of course!
"Your stories seem consistent," remarked the Social Worker matter-of-factly, the implication hanging in the air, "but we'll need to look around the house."
So they did. They headed into the basement, noting the dial, and up to the first floor bathroom with its low entry tub.
"The thermostat is on medium," observed the Social Worker, scribbling in her pad.
"Of course it is," I replied, gritting my teeth and smoothing my hands along the table. "Did you think I'd leave it on high?"
"I noticed the bath tub is very low," she continued, ignoring my remark. Who was this woman, Inspector Morse?
"Quite easy for a child to hop over."
After 20 minutes the ordeal was over. The police officer, a consummate professional who at least seemed to understand the concept that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that there is never any harm in treating people with a little respect, offered us an unnecessary apology.
"I'm satisfied that no crime had been committed," he explained, as he stood to leave. "Thank you for your time."
The Social Worker, alas, was still not done. As her companion made for the door she stayed at the table, leaned across it, and asked:
"Given all your assurances Mr. Bull, all the measures you have taken to keep you're kids safe - why do you think this happened?"
I wanted to scream, to shout, to punch. What right did this woman have, after all this upheaval, all this questioning, all this insufferable suspicion, to stick it to me one more time?
I muttered some reply and bored her eyes out with my glare.
As they headed out the door the officer explained that he was actually supposed to take me down to the station for a taped statement too, "but it's late and I'm satisfied that nothing untoward has occurred."
After they left I learned about my wife's ordeal. The Burns Unit Doctor had been unable to see my daughter for six hours. During that time my wife and child were confined to a room with the Social Worker and the officer.
They were not allowed to walk around unattended or use the phone. Nobody offered them anything to eat and, as she explained, "I was too afraid to go looking for food."
When the doctor arrived, my wife noted that she was "rude, and treated us very coldly."
"There was a coloured form attached to my chart," she recalled (it may have been pink, or blue - this was a while ago now). "I think it was a child abuse form."
The burn cream and bandage were taken care of in ten minutes.
After this my wife and daughter were escorted to the police station, where my wife gave a video taped interview about the incident.
"They were very nice," she explained, in typical, sunshiny fashion. "They were just doing their job."
And then they came home.
I wanted to complain about the incident. More than anything I felt so...violated. I was made to feel ashamed.
Those idiots took my kids out of school, without my permission, and asked them all those questions. the Emerg doctor, her attitude - who do these people think they are?
I have, of course, the utmost sympathy for Social Workers in our society. I can't think of a harder, more depressing line of work to endure. But there is something badly wrong with this process.
As I look back on the incident now, I realize that although it happened four years ago, this is the first time I have been able to write it down. I'm still full of rage.
After it happened I told everyone I knew.
"You'll never believe this..." I began.
But they did. And one by one their stories came out.
"I was a bad kid," explained one of my IT buddies over coffee one day. "I was always in and out of Emerg with a broken arm, a bruised rib or a black eye. I was almost taken into care several times." Chris explained how much his Mum suffered under the suspicious eye of the local Children's Aid.
"They were always round our house, checking up. My Mum was a nervous wreck."
My friend Anna's stories were much worse. Her friend, whose child had brittle bones disease, was a regular at Toronto's Sick Kids. One day, as she explained, a doctor came up to her friend and whispered that he was "going to get her if it's the last thing I do."
Today, as I read about Dr Charles Smith, I wonder what life must have been like for all those poor parents. As if dealing with a sick or lost child isn't enough, then having to endure all that suspicion.
It makes me wonder if we are becoming a Suspicious Society, a society where people are quick to cast doubt and assign blame whenever the circumstances permit.
I hope not. I don't want to live in a world like that. The experience of having my own individual rights cast so casually aside is not one I want to repeat.
Molly is fine these days. Well - mostly. The other day I sent her off to school with scratches all over her body.
"Where the hell did you get these?" I asked, tracing the red marks along her arms and chest.
"Tigger scratched me," she explained, pointing to the kitten.
I had no thought for her well-being.
"How will this look at school?" was all I wondered. "What will she tell her teacher?"
I took her in all the same. Kissed her on the forehead and waited for the call.
This time, at least, it never came.
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