Kevin is a reluctant first-grader. Although he is fine in the classroom, most days begin with Kevin clinging for dear life to the car door. And crying.
"He cried every morning and every afternoon," his mother said. "He cried all weekend and every time anyone mentioned the word 'school.' "
His mother had tried every tack to get past this phase, one she was certain was caused by a new baby in the house. She kept him home from school one day, and they did fun things with just each other. She talked to him about his fears of school and tried to charm him. He cried just as loudly before school the next day.
She let him stay at home another day, but told him he would be in his room -- absolutely no fun, no special attention.
"He didn't care. He liked it better than school," said his mother.
So Kevin's mother distilled her talks with doctors, friends and psychologists into one final plan. She would simply ignore his tears and his tantrums and cheerfully go about the school-morning routine. Business as usual.
On the morning when Kevin clung shrieking to his bedpost, screaming that no one was going to make him go to school, his dad took his face in his very large hand -- palm under Kevin's chin, fingers and thumb on each cheek -- turned Kevin's face toward him and told him simply: "You are going to school."
Kevin went to school. But he went to the health room looking for a free pass home and told the nurse that his dad had tried to "choke" him.
That single word set in motion an investigation of the family for child abuse from which they have been exonerated, but from which they have not recovered.
The next day, unknown to Kevin's mother, he and his older sister were removed from class by county social service workers and asked if their parents hit them. If they used their hands or an instrument. If they used open hands or fists. Kevin's feisty sister was furious.
"I felt like telling them it was none of their business, but I thought I would get in trouble," she told her mother.
"So I just told them that I couldn't even remember the last time my dad spanked me and that Kevin had been a real pain in the butt lately, but nobody hit him, either."
On the car ride home, as her angry daughter recounted the questions asked by people the child did not know or recognize, BTC Kevin's mother felt stunned. At first she was angry -- her children had been interrogated and traumatized. And then she realized she and her husband were being investigated for child abuse.
"I couldn't get a word out of Kevin. He just looked traumatized and said he didn't remember. I laughed it off so I wouldn't upset them."
A social services worker met with Kevin's parents, and the investigation was dropped immediately. But the report will be on file at the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services for nine months in the event of another incident.
Edward R. Bloom, head of the county social services department, would not comment on the specifics of this case. But he explained that a principal faced with an allegation of abuse is required to act.
Kevin's mother knows that. But she also knows that she has paid the price for society's new vigilance in protecting its children.
She feels vulnerable these days. This is something her family can't get over. Strangers snatched her children out of their classroom and asked them invasive questions about what goes on their home. "Does your daddy use an instrument to hit you, or his fist?"
"My daughter said it first," said Kevin's mother. "She asked me if there was something wrong with our family.
"We met with the principal, and he said he was sorry our family had to go through this, but he was not going to apologize. When a child makes a statement like that, they have to act immediately."
Kevin's mother feels like everyone is watching her now. The teachers, the staff. Everyone is looking for some sign that she abuses her kids. "I feel so disgraced. I don't know who knows. I don't know how to prove myself innocent.
"We wanted to explain. We were just parents trying to discipline our children. But then we felt angry. What did we have to explain? It was such a horrible position. To prove that you don't abuse your children."
Tuesday: The reporting of child abuse: When do you act?