This is a scene played out every day in public libraries all across North America.
I'm at the information desk, and I see a boy, by himself, a chubby little toddler, toddle fast in one direction, then back in the other direction. He can't be much over 12 months old. When I see him cross the floor for the third time, I get up and go to chat with him. "Who are you here with, sweetie? Is your mom here? Where's your mom?"
As I talk, his face starts to pucker, his eyes well up with tears.
"Come with me, let's look for Mommy. I know she's here, let's go find her."
He won't hold my hand, but he walks unsteadily beside me. We go around to different moms, dads, and kids. I'm hoping he'll soon recognize his family and run straight to them. By this time he is full-on crying.
A woman reading with school-age kids asks them to wait and joins me. He wouldn't take my hand, but she lifts him confidently onto her hip. Maybe she looks more like his mom than I do -- younger, brown, hijab -- or maybe it's a motion he's familiar with. She says, "Come on kiddo, let's go find your mum."
We walk together into a busy activity area, and I announce, "Is everyone's child accounted for? Do you have all your children?" Twice. A woman waves and points to someone else -- a woman sitting by herself, texting. I am standing six inches away from her. I say loudly, "Excuse me." She looks up, uncomprehendingly, then sees her sobbing child, and jumps up, takes him from the other woman.
She says, "They were playing on the computer. His sister and brother were supposed to watch him."
I give her The Talk. You must stay close to your children. Your other children are too young to have that responsibility. You are responsible for all your children while you're here. He was very frightened. You must pay attention. I'm saying these things because I have to, but it feels useless. Maybe the sight of her son's face will make a difference.
We see it every day. We all have stories. The child who crawled out of the library into the mall. The child who was found on the public square outside City Hall. The children who are dropped off in the morning and instructed to say their mom is in the washroom. Not just moms, of course. Dads, too, and all manner of caregivers. Neglect, sometimes to the point of abandonment.
For me, it's the worst part of the job.