The young father who sat on our leather sofa in our cozy office about 15 feet away from me on Saturday morning had done nothing to cause me concern. All he was doing was visiting his 4-year-old son, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year. The boy seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the gap in parenting time. I knew, of course, from both the Family Services referral form and my own “background check” that this young father had been in jail for at least a year in his past for the crime of Threatening, 2nd degree and he had been arrested many other times for possession of narcotics and controlled substances. His biggest crime that morning was that he was not paying enough attention to his little boy at departure time, but that was reasonable considering how emotional supervised visits can be in addition to little experience with parenting.
But as the little boy stacked up plastic fruit for his dad to “scan” with our toy cash register, I thought to myself, “what if he has a gun?”
The only reason that this thought popped into my head that morning was because of the horrible tragedy in Newtown. I had no reason to suspect this young man; even his rap sheet didn’t indicate any illegal firearms or threatening with a deadly weapon. But we don’t have a metal detector in our office. Our toughest enforcement is number 5 on our Conditions for Participation agreement: No guns or dangerous instruments will be brought into the visitation center.
Number 5. Not even number 1. Number 1 is that both parents will arrive on time and call in a timely manner to cancel a visit if necessary.
Saturday’s father was not our only parent with a criminal record. One of our parents had actually been jailed for threatening with a deadly weapon. About half of our parents have restraining or protective orders and have been accused by either their exes or the police of harassment, threatening behavior, assault. In fact, both Angelo and I have been verbally threatened by parents in our program; both visiting and custodial parents, both moms and dads. One of the parents who threatened me had other charges pending against him for assault as well as an equal number of convictions for that same crime.
But even as I sat quietly behind my desk, hoping that no outward evidence of the disturbing thought in my mind was showing up on my face, it did not occur to me that maybe we should have a gun. Despite the often-sketchy backgrounds of most of our parents, we are not a high risk program. The courts screen these families and if they think that they are a risk, they are not referred to us. Our policy is to complete intakes on both parents to determine the best way to proceed, which may include not doing a visit at all. We have security measures in place in our office–we’re not that idealistic–and we know what to do and how to do it when certain situations arise. Our job is to protect the children in our care and we will do that to the best of our abilities. But not with a weapon.
When monsters appear, there is little to do to stop them. They are not a part of our everyday life; to fight a monster, you have to become a monster. That is not a realistic solution. I’ve heard that people are suggesting that school personnel become armed. If I had a weapon in my office, I believe that it would be more dangerous to the children we promise to keep safe than it would serve to protect them. If someone came through my door intent on abduction or violence, there would be little I could do to stop it, no matter how hard I tried. We’ve done our best, with the help from the courts and the local police, to provide a safe place for children. And a safe place for children has no guns.