Wiltonian Carol Rowe never imagined that her family’s home and peace of mind would be violated as it was over February break.
Perhaps you heard what happened, as . Perhaps a friend gossiped about it to you when you ran into one another at the Wilton Y or Starbucks last week. Apparently, lots of people are chattering about what happened to the Rowes.
Carol reached out to me because she wanted the events of February 20 to be nudged out into the open, and into public discussion. It was upsetting enough that she wanted to bring it up in a forum the community might read, and prompt an honest look at some particular trends, behaviors and issues going on in town. She gave me permission to tell her version of what happened, and the narrative that follows is based on what Carol shared with me.
Friends and neighbors
For their weeklong trip to the Bahamas during school vacation, the Rowes had asked a neighborhood family to pet-sit while they were away. The family was one the Rowes had been friendly with for years, and whose children had regularly taken care of Nova, the Rowes’ yellow Lab, just about every time Carol and her family went away. As pet-sitters, two or three times a day the neighbors’ kids would let themselves into the Rowes’ house on Linden Tree Road to feed, walk and exercise Nova.
The kids wouldn’t stay at the Rowes’ house overnight; they’d simply come and go as needed to tend to the dog.
But this time, something outside the normal pet-sitting routine happened, which upended everything.
This time, the neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter was the one taking care of Nova. On Monday, Feb. 20, the first evening of her dog-sitting duties, she made an error in judgment: without permission from the Rowes or her parents, she invited a couple friends to spend the night at the Rowes’ house, intending for to be only pizza and a sleepover. It was a simple infraction, impulsive and juvenile, but in the grand scheme of things, not horrible. Except…
Except things did go horribly wrong. Somehow word got out to other Wilton teens. Hey, didja hear? There’s a bunch of us getting together at a house on Linden Tree Road. No adults. Texts started flying, word spread, and pretty soon there was a gathering of a few dozen teenagers, along with alcohol, music and everything else. Party at the Rowes!
Some other watchful neighbors spotted the cars, saw the lights, and heard the music. Knowing the Rowes were out of town, they got suspicious and alarmed, and as good neighbors who knew something wasn’t right, they called the police.
Quickly, the police arrived, and many of the Wilton teens did what Wilton teens do in this situation: they ran. They ran for the woods, spreading out into the darkness.
Not everyone got away. About 35 kids were stopped by the police, and their parents were called to come pick up their kids—kids who had just trespassed into the Rowes’ home for an underage drinking party.
The teen who was watching Nova knew right away what she had done was wrong, and she asked the officers if she could be the one to make the call to the Rowes in the Bahamas to tell them what happened.
Who faced the consequences—and who didn’t
The Rowes got that unexpected call in the Bahamas, on what was the first night of their vacation. They were disappointed in the girl they’d left in charge, but they also recognized that she’d at least done the first thing to take immediate responsibility.
They fully expected to hear from the other kids involved. They didn’t know everyone who was in their home that night and the police didn’t give them any names. But Carol did have some idea of some of the kids who were there. She recognized voices and heard a few names in the background during the first call that was made to her in the Bahamas.
“My sadness in all of this is those parents who came into my home saw my home, saw pictures of me and my children, and absolutely have never even reached out,” Carol said.
The police are prevented by law from sharing with the Rowes the names of the people who were in their home that night, uninvited; the only way to find out officially is to press charges. The Rowes have decided not to do so.
Carol said that she knows many of the parents who were in her home that night to collect their children know her. She says many people have approached her and sort of tested the waters to see what she knows. She’s frustrated that the parents aren’t doing what she says is the right thing—even the ones she encountered and knows were in her home but haven’t come forward to admit it or to apologize.
“It infuriates me. When they come up to me, I can’t tell if they’re coming to apologize, find out gossip, or their kid was here and they’re just trying to learn if I’m going to press charges. They leave it open-ended and that’s awful too.”
Why speak up?
Carol got in touch with me to tell her story—out of a sense that I’d likely share her feelings about what is at the heart of the events. Because as awful as the illegal entry, the drinking and partying, and the typical fleeing-teen behaviors were, what’s saddest of all is the sense of community that’s suddenly gone for them.
Speaking up in Wilton can often be tough, and I say that from first-hand experience after writing this column for more than a year. Wilton is a small town, and grudges get held, the messenger often metaphorically gets shot. Why did Carol want to tell her story?
“I grew up in this town. The town has changed. Twenty-five years ago, the town would have stepped up, especially for the other family involved, of the girl. All the kids who were premeditated, who were bringing in sleeping bags, music, card tables, beer—those families haven’t even owned it to the other family or to me. If it’s not going to start from top down, if the parents aren’t going to work with their kids to make it a great teaching experience, what are we saying to our kids? Twenty-five years ago, everybody owned it as a community and we worked through it. Today, everyone sits silent.”
She added, “Yes, everything has become so much more litigious. But every family in this town cares more for their reputation or that their children’s [college] application isn’t perfect. And that to me is something that’s changed completely. I recall days that we realized there are consequences, that people own it, that they have to look you directly in the face, and say, ‘I did this, and I’m sorry.’”
But isn’t it just youth—just ‘kids will be kids?’
“We were all once teenagers. Kids are stupid. To me, it is the parents that have to be responding to this. That was where I really thought ‘I’ll definitely get phone calls from parents.’ That was the part when I got home, and it was nothing—like ‘crickets.’ And I know they were in my living room retrieving their children. The ones that did have to step into a home, and see it for a home, see pictures of me and my children, that’s awful.”
Only one person stepped up to take responsibility. Only one set of parents had their child do the right thing. Whether people are scared that the Rowes will press charges, or that somehow this will look bad on a transcript or whatever, what happened to knowing the difference between right and wrong?
Surprisingly, the Rowes were completely sympathetic and understanding about the mistake their neighbors’ daughter made; they respected that she owned up to her error in judgment, and they appreciated the steps she has taken to make amends. She’s planned to perform community service and she wrote letters of apology to them and to their three daughters.
Carol has looked for some good in all of it. “I still love the family [who pet-sits]. Everything they’ve done, they’ve tried to make it right. The good thing is I have neighbors that responded tremendously through this. I have neighbors that called it in [to the police]. If this makes other people talk to their neighbors when they go away, that’s good too.”
But, according to Carol, no one else has stepped up to take responsibility and apologize. What’s more, the town gossip and chatter that’s she knows is happening among parents and teens is even filtering down to her younger children, putting her three girls in an uncomfortable place as well.
Nothing will happen to those kids that trespassed into the Rowes’ home that evening. According to Carol, the police can’t do anything unless the Rowes decide to press charges, and that’s not their intention at all. They don’t want vengeance or punishment—only respect and courtesy from fellow members of the community they’ve called home for years.
“It’s the parents. To sit in silence, or to cover it up, you’re sending a bigger message to your kids: that they can get away with things, that they shouldn’t have to do anything unless they’re caught. It says, ‘Make sure you run—and run fast!’”
Perhaps worse than having her safety and her home compromised, what will leave a more long-lasting scar is recognizing that there was a violation of trust and security in their own community, and that few fellow residents will take responsibility, and deal with things face-to-face.
What do we all take away from the Rowes’ story? As parents, what are the lessons we are teaching our kids about recognizing right from wrong, and how to deal with the consequences of our actions no matter what has occurred? How do we as a town deal with the issue of underage drinking and the role parents play and what kids think they can get away with?
My kids are younger than the teens at the center of this story, but it’s an age-old narrative that plays itself out generation after generation. What would you do in Carol Rowe’s shoes, or in the place of the parent of the dog-sitting teenager, or if you got a call from police to pick up your child at someone else’s home—perhaps someone you knew? What would your child do?
“If we could just do that with regard to all the issues going on in Wilton right now. If this speaks to just one family, if it starts discussions in families who aren’t even involved in this...” Carol wondered.