Seeking Advice on Dealing with Whack-Job Neighbors

The peace of our modest little neighborhood was rudely shattered about six months ago when the house next door to us was sold. The house was bought by a couple with four kids - three boys and a girl. (We’re still trying to sort out the exact relationships, but at least some of the kids aren’t the husband’s, and the couple may in fact not be married at all. We’re trying not to pry into it.)

The two older boys and the youngest, a girl, are very quiet and normal. In fact, if the bumper sticker on Mom’s car is to be believed, the oldest (about 19) is an Eagle Scout. The middle boy is also evidently in Scouting and seems to be pursuing a merit badge in recycling. He has standing permission from me to rifle through our trash for whatever he wants (possibly soon to be revoked). Also, the male head of household is a very quiet, Milquetoast type who is rarely around.

The youngest son (age 9) unfortunately is autistic, and the central problem is that the mother has absolutely zero capacity to deal with him. The kid (I’ll call him Jeffrey, because that’s his name) is actually pretty functional, and quite polite if you talk to him, but he has a tendency to wander around the neighborhood, climb into peoples’ cars, stuff like that. We lock our cars and garage now.

Jeffrey will on occasion (perhaps once a day or once every other day) have an episode in which he does not control himself. He does things like take his sister’s bike out and beat it against the sidewalk, or refuse to come inside when called. We try to keep an eye on him so he doesn’t get into trouble.

In the early morning, more often than not, Jeffrey gets out of control. I don’t know what he does, because this takes place inside their house, but his mother SCREAMS OBSCENITIES AT HIM for maybe half an hour. This makes Jeffrey shriek like a little girl. Now, our houses are small and closely spaced, and we like to keep the windows open to enjoy the fine Southern California weather, so when Jeffrey and his mom get into it, it can be heard for roughly a two-house radius in all directions. I have also seen the man of the house physically drag a screaming Jeffrey inside when he has refused to come on his own.

Our good friend, Mrs. X, who lives on the other side of Jeffrey, has been very concerned for several months. She has been thinking of calling the authorities. She hears more of the fighting than we do because of the orientation of the houses. I’ve discouraged Mrs. X from calling anyone, because as far as I can tell, mom does not actually hit or abuse Jeffrey, she’s just a monster to him. I know all the business about emotional abuse, and she probably is emotionally abusing him by any reasonable definition, but calling the authorities seems like it could only make things worse. I have encouraged Mrs. X to view it as a “no-win situation” and try to wait things out. Generally, I have civil relations with Jeffrey’s mom (in fact, I think she came on to me once shudder), except for a couple of times when I’ve yelled, “Quiet!” during one of their rows.

Yesterday we came back from a week’s vacation, and Mrs. X reported the following: Relations have continued to deteriorate between Jeffrey and his mom. Two days in a row, mom locked Jeffrey outside when he got into one of his moods. The whole neighborhood saw it, and someone (not Mrs. X) finally called the cops. The cops showed up, made their reports and whatnot, and when Mrs. X came home, Jeffrey’s mom stormed out onto the front lawn and threatened Mrs. X with physical violence in the clearest and coarsest possible terms. Apparently Mrs. X has had some words with Jeffrey’s mom, so when the cops showed up she assumed Mrs. X called them.

Then, another neighbor (possibly but not definitely Mrs. X) called Child Protective Services because of the fights and the locking out. Jeffrey’s mom had the two younger kids go around to all the houses in the vicinity to tell them that everything Mrs. X says is a lie (nice try - everyone can hear everything that goes on between Jeffrey and his mom).

That’s where things stand now. Mrs. X is considering seeking a restraining order on Jeffrey’s mom. Personally, I would have preferred not to get involved, but now that the authorities have been notified, it’s the whole neighborhood versus Jeffrey’s mom.

What can we do to improve this situation? I seek no harm or revenge against Jeffrey’s mom. I think she’s a loathsome human being, and I’d pay a couple of grand if she would move away, but we are neighbors, and the important thing is really Jeffrey’s welfare and neighborhood tranquility. What would you do…what would you do?

One interesting thing we discovered recently is that the family is Mormon. I know that the Mormon church is very big on family. What if we called someone of authority in their “stake” to let them know what’s been going on? Is it conceivable that the church could help them out?

I don’t think I’d go over Jeffery’s mom’s head initially. If things are still civil between you and her, ask her if she has asked her minister for advice. That’s what I’d do, with what little I know of the family.

I would cooperate with the authotrities and tell them all I know about the situation. Actually, I would have done so long ago. And I certainly wouldn’t have discouraged neighbors from warning the police and/or child protection. I don’t understand why you did that.

This sentence is such a cliche that I’m surprised someone would actually use it.

If you let that mother intimidate you into doing nothing you are as guilty as her if something happens to that child.

Well, count me in among the folks who don’t quite understand why you would tell people not to call for help for the child—and that is what calling the authorities is. Yes, I know that in the short term, it may make things escalate, but enough calls and something will be done. Sure you’d prefer not to be involved. Wouldn’t it be nice if no one had to get involved because there was nothing bad going on—but that’s not the case here at all.

Here is what you can do, if you truly wish to help. Do a search or inquiry into what services are available for special needs children in your county. Make a list of all the agencies. You don’t have to go so far as to call and find out their referral requirements, although if you have extra time, that would be a nice touch. Give a copy of the list to Jeffrey’s mother. If you are concerned about maintaining civil relations with her, put it like this, “I can see how much you have on your plate right now. I don’t know how I’d deal with all that! So, I thought it might help if someone helped you locate some resources, since you are new to this area and all. Here’s a list. Let me know how it turns out.”

In the meantime, do what others have said and cooperate with the authorities. Tell them that you located some resources for parents of children with special needs and subtly mention that boy, it would be great if someone could mandate her participation in such a program.

The hugest misconception about calling a Social Service agency is that it means kids are going to be ripped from their homes and placed in foster care. In my experience (working as a family therapist for 5 1/2 years, which meant collaborating with the Dept of Social Services), kids were removed long after it seemed necessary to remove them. What Social Services can do, though, is find the parents such much-needed resources. Parent education, behavior programs, even respite workers who will come stay with Jeffrey while his parents get some time to themselves.

He didn’t do that because he probably understands the hell on earth that raising an autistic child can be at times. Calling the police/authorities over persistant shouting matches between mother and autistic child is just heavy-handed, selfish bullshit. The woman is clearly way out of her depth in parenting Jeffrey, and needs someone to show a bit of empathy and adopt the low-key approach advocated by lorene. If something can be found for Jeffrey that takes him off her hands for a few days each month that can make an enormous difference. The stress of never being able to go out socially because no one can be asked to look after your child is debilitating. Some breathing space will work wonders here.

It sucks that the disruption caused by an autistic child is stressing everyone out in the community. However, if you truly are a community then you (collectively) should simmer down from this state of antipathy towards the mother and try to show some support. This is not meant in any way as a slight on you, hyperelastic, you should be applauded for even thinking about how you can help.

Wait, the mother is repeatedly verbally abusing her autistic child and you are saying that is “heavy-handed, selfish bullshit” to call the authorities? If she is this far out of her depth she needs serious help and the best way is to get the authorities involved they know what community resources are available. . Advocating a low key approach will not win you any favors with this woman, she isn’t looking for help or she wouldn’t be sending her other kids to lie aobut the situation, she is just trying to cover up her abusive behavior. This is not a one time occurance it is an on going abusive situation and it sounds to me like Jeffery is in imminent danger of harm. Trained professionals need to be called in to evaluate the situation and intervene if necessary. If it isn’t criminal to witness child abuse and not report it, it ought to be.

Maybe you can ask the minister of her church to ask her and her husband if they would be willing to have a community meeting to discuss the situation. If you guys can have a structured meeting with a mediator present, maybe you can resolve whatever issues exist. I wouldn’t call the cops or child protective services, but I you are in a better position to know what has to be done. Good luck.

Make no mistake, I entirely agree that this woman needs to be made to understand that she is not coping and it is in everyone’s best interest to put her in touch with professional bodies that can help with parenting an autistic boy like Jeffrey. However, there is a world of difference in coldly reporting her to the authorities, throwing words like child abuse around in the process, and taking a more measured approach where you try to tackle her one on one.

Maybe you know this already, but autistic children test your character to breaking point and then some, such that people do crazy things like locking their kids outside the house. If you’re at this point you need the help of your community, and as you say the available community resources. What is definitively not needed is people lining up to vilify your character as a parent and phoning the child police. That will just deepen the seige mentatilty that clearly has already taken hold of this woman’s family (sending the older kids around the neighbourhood on a diplomacy mission for example).

Please call Child Protective Services or whatever the agency is in your state without delay. In many states they have a hotline where you don’t even have to leave your name, just describe the circumstances briefly and let them investigate. In the front of your phone book there should be a list of state agencies.

The mantra for such agenecies is to do “what is in the best interests of the child” and that should come first.

It is far better to err on the side of helping the child than to ignore it and later wish you had helped if something awful happens.

This child needs help that her parents are not giving her. Don’t hesitate any longer!

First of all, Mormons don’t have ministers. They have bishops, but they’re usually just ordinary guys and I don’t know that they have any counselor training (my Spanish teacher in high school was a bishop). Any LDS Dopers have any idea who would be a good person to contact in their church, if the OP decided to go in that direction?

Secondly, definitely call CPS. There are a lot of horror stories regarding CPS, but it’s not like they’ll definitely take away the kids or anything like that. A friend of mine had CPS called on her (I don’t want to go into the details of why) and she never lost custody of her kids at any time. Her caseworker was a really great help for her and although she was initially very upset, in the end she felt it was for the best. This is exactly what CPS is for - you’re seeing a child who is not being properly cared for. Why are you convincing people not to call the authorities?

My two cents worth? Cooperate as much as possible with CPS. This situation right now isn’t working for anyone, child and mother especially. Raising an autistic child can be stressful as hell. Jeffrey’s mother is overwhelmed and sinking fast.

One of my oldest friends is a CPS worker. Much of the popular lore about flat-out impossible case loads is true, but most of 'em really do try, hard, to help families in crisis work things out. Their primary goal is not to yank the child away. It’s to help the parent(s) be good parents.

Jeffrey and his mom need help. The mom may not appreciate it right now–or ever-- but IMO she threw away her vote when she locked the kid out of the house.

You’ve heard the screaming abuse and seen the kid wandering around, hyperelastic. You’re already involved. Turning your back and playing ‘see no evil, etc.’ is a choice. Don’t fool yourself about that. Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. You don’t have to solve your neighbors’ problems. Just back up Mrs. X. in her attempt to get the poor damn wretched family some help.

I have worked with autistic children. They are challenging, but so are regular kids. Screaming obscenities for half an hour is child abuse. Locking a 9 year old child with cognitive disabilities out of the house is also child abuse. It certainly isn’t going to help Jeffrey become more socially well-adapted or happier. Action should definitely be taken ASAP.

Services are available in the community, but it’s not the neighbors’ responsibility to hook Mom up with them. That’s why you call CPS. That’s their job. Rarely do kids get taken away by CPS, even when I personally think they should be. Rather, they connect families in crisis with much-needed services such as counseling, aides, and help for the child in school. Why demonize CPS when they are clearly needed in this situation?

Ultimately, the child is the victim here, not the mother. I know she’s suffering too and her task is a difficult one, but she’s the adult and it’s her responsibility to do what’s best for this kid… and her husband’s, who obviously isn’t stepping up either.

**adhemar ** is exactly correct, the mother needs the ‘help of her community’ and this is how the community can provide assistance. Leave it to the professionals, because look at how it turned out when the neighbors tried to handle it.

As a teacher and mandated reporter, I’ve had a front row seat to cases such as the OP describes. Most parents scream and yell and you’re sure you’ve made a big mistake in reporting the problem. Then they figure out that CPS isn’t going to take their kid away and they’re actually going to get help (parenting classes are a popular choice around here) and that’s the point where everybody is working together to be as happy as possible. Or they’re complete assholes who won’t learn and they shouldn’t have a kid around to abuse (and often perpetuate the cycle).

Mom’s hurt feelings are *not * more important than a child being abused.

While I am no longer a member, I would suggest contacting the Relief Society President and/or their assigned Home Teachers. You will probably have to go through the Bishop’s office to get these contacts. The LDS church also has LDSSS - Latter Day Saints Social Services - which can be of help as well. This family needs help and support.

Please, as a violated, verbally, emotionally, and physically abused kid-grown-up, call someone, and stand up for this child.

An update. Jeffrey’s mother came over a few days ago asking us if her dogs were bothering us. (I didn’t mention this in the OP, but she has three loud dogs. I don’t like them, but it never rose to a level that would make me speak to her about it. However, Mrs. X, who of course hates Jeffrey’s mom, has complained to her about them.) The purpose of the visit was to put on a show of neighborly concern so we would be on Jeffrey’s mom’s side in her lonely struggle against the rest of the neighborhood.

I quickly turned the conversation to the noise and profanity. I told her that I didn’t want to hear any more profanity, and also suggested, in a very gentle and non-judgmental way, that she seek some professional help in dealing with Jeffrey. These suggestions bounced off her like Irina Karavaeva off a trampoline. She remained convinced that the problem was Mrs. X, not her own behavior, and she left pretty upset.

Fast-forward to yesterday. I wake up to see a cop car in the street. Turns out there was some Jeffrey-related yelling that shook Mrs. X’s entire family out of their beds at 7 a.m. She called the cops. They came, talked to Jeffrey’s mom, and left. Then the eggs and yard waste started flying over Mrs X.'s wall. She called the cops again. Again they came, took a statement, and left. Things quieted down for a couple of hours. In the afternoon, I went out to my patio and heard Jeffrey’s mom telling Mr. X (yes, Mr. X) to “bring it on” and “just throw the first punch, that’s all I need.” Now, I like Mr. X’s attitude. He laughed in her face and told her, “Shut up, you’re crazy”. Then JM started working her dogs in to a frenzy, actually barking at them and saying, “bark louder”. This affects me. So I poked my head over the wall and told her that I did not appreciate her trying to make the dogs louder. She said that it was her yard, and would do as she pleased. Later I found out that JM’s man went over to the Xes and apologized, saying that JM has had problems like this in the past and that he suggested anger management counseling but to no avail.

Later, we’re trying to eat dinner, and I hear the barking again. Now she’s got some kind of squeeze toy that makes noise, and she’s baiting the dogs with it to get them to bark. I went and got my digital camera, put it in MPEG mode, and set it on the top of the wall. I asked JM to please not egg on the dogs like that, and she ostentatiously ignored me, at one point putting her hands over her ears in an obvious way. I got it all on video. Using your dogs to create a nuisance is a misdemeanor. So I called the cops, who came out a third time.

Bottom line, the neighborhood is going to work with the city abatement team and animal control to exert pressure on JM to either shape up or get the hell out. The problem isn’t Jeffrey - it’s his pain-in-the-ass mother. Child services is also involved, from the previous dustup. I fully support whoever called them. If she loses her kids, it’ll be to their eternal benefit.

So, the Mr. Nice Guy approach I described in the OP is no longer operative. Now I’m asking for creative ways to make things unpleasant for JM without getting in trouble.

Document each time she curses Jeffery out, makes the dogs bark, harasses the neighborhood etc. Write down dates, times, and precise details. Present this journal to the CPS, judge, prosecutor, city abatement team and animal control.

Zabali, thanks for the suggestions, but we’re already doing all that. What I’m interested in now is things that are generally known as “sinking to her level”. The only limitations are that I don’t want to physically injure anybody, get caught, or upset the aboveboard, legitimate channels we’re already pursuing. Let’s get creative here, folks!

My only advice would be “Don’t poke a caged bear.” then. IOW, don’t. She’s already a sort of time bomb, and tempting as it may be to “get some of your own back” by giving her a dose of aggravation equivalent to what she’s given you, it’s not wise. I’d say you know this already though. Her own husband has admitted she has “anger control issues”, don’t push your luck.

Maybe a group of neighbors can get together with Jeffrey’s dad and do some sort of intervention with her? With a CPS worker, possibly?

It seems like the rest of the family is okay, if one of the kids is an Eagle Scout, and maybe the mother is overwhelmed. Of course, the mother could also be a psycho and upset that one of her children is not “normal.”