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The usual suspects.

Mr. and Ms. N had ruefully come to think of the hour just before dinner as the naughtiness hour. That was the time of day when Alexander, aged five and emotionally troubled, was most apt to pick fights with his sister Fanny, almost three. They were a little tired, a little hungry, and generally at loose ends, clamoring for attention while their mother and father did their best to get dinner on the table.

To night the children were such a nuisance underfoot that Ms. N sent them out of the kitchen to quarrel elsewhere while she mashed the potatoes and Mr. N made the gravy. Two minutes later there was a crash from upstairs, followed by a thud. Mr. and Ms. N took the stairs two at a time to Alexander's room. Fanny's right arm hung at an unnatural angle and she was bleeding freely from a cut above her right eye. The skin along the cheekbone had already begun to swell. Two drawers stood open like stairsteps in Alexander's chest of drawers, and the toys he kept on top had been swept to the floor.

"Did you do this?" Mr. N demanded.

Alexander nodded, terrified. "It wasn't my fault. She made me. She climbed up on my drawers and started messing with my stuff, so I went up after her and pushed her off. She's not even s'posed to be in here!"

On the way to the emergency room, under cover of Fanny's steady sobbing, Ms. N laid her hand on her husband's sleeve. "Do you remember what happened to the Thompsons last year when Katie broke her collarbone? When the doctors didn't believe them? There were social workers all over their house and they had to go to their lawyer to keep her out of foster care. It could happen to us, too. What are we going to tell the doctor about how Fanny got hurt? What if they took Alexander away from us?"

"I don't know. He really has gotten more violent. It's been building up over the last couple of months - and then he socked that kid at school last week. We've got no choice but to get him into therapy."

"If they let us. What if they report us?"

After much discussion, Mr. and Ms. N agreed to say that Fanny had gone alone into her brother's room and had hurt herself while trying to get a toy down from his chest of drawers. They had heard too many horror stories of burned-out case workers and bureaucratic bungling to risk upsetting their already troubled son even further through state intervention. They resolved to watch over Fanny more carefully and to find a good psychotherapist for Alexander immediately.

Unfortunately, Mr. and Ms. N are not accomplished liars. As Dr. E examines Fanny they tell their story too completely, as if they had rehearsed it. When Ms. N repeats for the third time that Alexander wasn't in his room at the time, Dr. E begins to suspect their account of what happened, and she also has some idea why they might be lying.

Are Mr. and Ms. N justified in their attempts to protect their family with a lie? Further, should Dr. E report her suspicious?
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Title Annotation:Case Studies; includes commentaries; a case of child abuse?
Author:Iserson, Kenneth V.; Schoeman, Ferdinand
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:When self-determination runs amok.
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