I really shouldn't have been so surprised when I saw three police cars come rolling silently down my alley, lights flashing, one evening last spring. They stopped behind a house a few doors away from mine -- one that stands out from the others, the sagging back porch cluttered with trash and broken toys.

The little boy who lived there -- a 6-year-old -- was a sweet and outgoing kid. Sometimes he'd knock at our back door -- could my son come out and play? Usually the answer was no -- it was bedtime or bath time or snack time or I was just too darn tired to watch him along with my own small children. Sometimes he'd see them eating and ask for whatever they were having. I'd give him some food in a paper towel or baggie and send him on his way. I didn't want to get involved with a kid who wasn't my own.

Then I noticed him riding his beat-up little bike in the alley when I thought he should probably be in school. He'd ask for food, so I gave him an apple, which he said he preferred cut up. He called me Miz Mom. No, "Miz Eema," I told him. "My kids call me Eema." One day I drove home and noticed his eyes were puffy and swollen. What happened, I asked. He wouldn't answer.

Never mind that I had my own kids stressing me out; something about this kid pulled at me. Not knowing what else to do -- and not wanting a confrontation with his family, who argued loudly and in less-than-choice language -- I called his school and spoke with his guidance counselor. I sobbed as I told him about the boy's eyes. I may have read one too many mystery novels, but I refused to give the guidance counselor my name. He told me things he probably shouldn't have, about how the boy's mom was sick. So many people came and went from that house, I wasn't entirely sure who his mom was. I asked what I could do to help -- could I buy them some food, perhaps? Sure, said the counselor; let me know, and I'll take it to them. I thought about buying a rotisserie chicken, but I rarely manage to stock my own fridge without late-night trips to the store for milk. I never bought the chicken.

Last week, a friend, my husband and I were having a glass of wine in our kitchen while our son played across the alley. We noticed the boy and his two younger siblings, him wheeling a baby in a stroller. When my husband saw the 2-year-old outside wearing only a diaper -- no shoes -- he swooped her up and brought her inside. Before long, all four children were in our kitchen, sharing my son's dinner. We had seen the mom headed up the alley a while earlier and just assumed someone else was watching the kids. The boy knew otherwise, though: I'm watching three kids, he said. I asked if he had a microwave at home, and he nodded, but said they had no electricity. They used candles when it got dark.

I didn't want to interfere, and I didn't want to get involved. But I sure felt involved when those cop cars arrived, just two days after the children had visited my house. We went outside to see what was happening. In spite of her track record as a caretaker, I was inexplicably rooting for his mother, hoping something would prevent her kids from being taken away from her. I'd fed the boy and given him hugs, but I couldn't prevent the police officer from leading him to a police car with his younger sister. The cop said the kids needed a place with electricity and running water.

I called the school again, but the guidance counselor knew nothing. And I will call Child Protective Services. I'd like to go visit him, wherever he is. But why should they tell me anything? It's not enough to say, "I really liked this little boy, and I don't want his life to be ruined." I tried to avoid getting involved, and in that way I failed the boy. But I miss that sweet kid at my back door asking for some apple.