Is It OK to Surprise Someone With a Negative Reference?
My boyfriend and I live in his vacation home in summer. We’ve become friendly with several neighbors. One couple has huge fights every few weeks with screaming and swearing you can hear down the block, triggered, possibly, by her drinking. I don’t know them well. I’ll call them Bob and Karen.
They recently took in the woman’s granddaughter — her son’s child. The son is in prison, and his child was placed with a friend and then in a foster home. Bob and Karen have had the child for about a year. We’ve had the kid over to visit a few times. The fighting did not stop; in fact, one day the whole block could hear Karen yelling at the child and slamming doors.
To my complete surprise, my boyfriend and I were asked to be their personal reference so that this couple can adopt the child. Clearly, this is not a good situation, but is it better to have the child ripped from yet another home and placed yet again?
Of all the neighbors, we probably know them the least, so why are they asking us? My partner says it’s probably because year-rounders would refuse. We can say no, but I don’t want to make enemies. We can say yes and simply tell the truth of what we know or have observed, which isn’t a lot. I am so torn about this; contributing to either outcome for this child is a tough decision. Name Withheld
You’ve gotten into difficulty here by thinking that it’s up to you to decide what’s best for the child. That simply can’t be right. You don’t know nearly enough to make that decision. Our child-welfare-and-adoption system is notoriously imperfect, but it is run by trained people who are required to assemble all the relevant information before a decision is made. No doubt Karen and Bob have chosen you because they think you will tell a story that helps their case. But your only obligation is to be truthful. That will mean providing your best judgment about something you don’t say much about, namely whether the child is being well cared for. You might think you shouldn’t agree to provide a reference unless you think it will help your neighbors get what they want. That’s a mistake. You can agree to provide one if it will do what they ought to want, which is to help the authorities make the right decision. That’s what you owe them, and at least as important, that’s what you owe the child.
I am a physician often approached to write letters for people. These letters generally fall into two classes: 1. Asking for work accommodations based on illness, or 2. Requests to be exempted from some requirement, like participating in jury duty. Recently I was asked to provide a letter for an elderly woman with a medical illness that would enable her to apply for citizenship without taking the exam, which she would be unable to pass because of her illness. She has been in the U.S., legally according to her family, for less than 10 years, has never held a job and has never paid taxes. They want her to have citizenship because it will allow her to receive more in benefits. (I am not sure this is true, but I am not a lawyer or even that interested. I have no interest in seeing a person without a valid status be deported either.) My concern is that she is requesting an exemption in order to collect benefits toward which she has contributed absolutely nothing. In a world of scarce resources, this makes me uncomfortable. On one hand, she is one person, whose costs will not be particularly burdensome to the state in which she lives, which is large. On the other hand, she is asking not to play by the rules. However, the illness is real, and I am not being asked to falsify anything; she truly has the illness, and it truly prevents her from taking the exam. However, I’m not 100 percent comfortable doing this for her. Finally, she is not even my patient. She came to see me only to get the letter because only a doctor in my specialty can certify that she has the illness in question. What’s your thinking? Name Withheld
Of all these testimonies about testimony, your case is the most straightforward. Your job in this process is to certify what, in your professional judgment, is true about her medical condition. Your only objection to doing so is that the truth here could entitle her, under the law, to benefits she wouldn’t otherwise get. You think this is wrong because she didn’t pay into the system that’s going to help her. Note, first, that this has nothing to do with her being an immigrant. There are native-born Americans who never pay into the system. But also note the assumptions you’re making about giving and taking. Our social welfare system is, in effect, a system of social insurance. It’s designed so that people get out what they need, not what they put in. There’d certainly be no point in the system if we were allowed to take out only what we put in. We could just stash money away for a rainy day. Once people join our society, we should surely want them to flourish like everyone else. Even if you think I’m wrong about this, though, the right thing to do is to focus on changing the laws, not preventing someone from doing what, at present, she may be lawfully entitled to do.