My first experiences with child abuse stem from my years as a special education teacher. I served students who had difficulty communicating. The following reflections relate to one particular student who holds a special place in my heart. Due to the need for privacy, I will refer to her as Marie. Not a day passes without thoughts of Marie. Feelings of sadness for her past, uncertainty for her present, but also hope for her future. Her story has both broken and challenged my heart.
Words are powerful. Even more so the images that accompany them. Consider the word shelter. For many of us, this word reminds us of safety and home. Adding emergency brings much different imagery. One final word moves us even further from protective pictures of safe and home… children.
Before my first visit to the shelter, my imagination created images in preparation for the experience of a clean building, professional staff, play areas, a visiting room. The scene played out as follows. A greeting from a smiling worker. An onsite visit in a comfortable seating area. After all, this facility provided care for children who had experienced trauma.
When map quest directed me to turn down a gravel road blocked by an iron gate, my previous notions of what the day would bring faded. A quick phone call put me back on track, giving two guiding landmarks. Passing the second landmark, I noticed an older, run-down, unassuming house. This could not be the right place. Private Property and Video Surveillance signs posted in the driveway prompted feelings of nervousness and uncertainty.
Taking a deep breath, I walked to the door, spoke to the cat on the porch, and rang the bell. A calm, quiet proprietor answered. Precious Marie stood nervously at the back of the house. Initially, she was unsure and did not seem to recognize me. After seeing photos from when she was in my class, one a selfie of us on the playground, she smiled. You were my teacher! Yes! She did remember. Uncertainties quickly turned to smiles, hugs, and laughter.
My visions of a visit to the home vanished as I spotted her backpack on the table. My young friend was ready to go! Now there were completely different reasons to be nervous. Where would we go? The area was unfamiliar to me, but we could find shopping and food! A trip to Walmart produced a doll, nail polish, and a new outfit. We had lunch and painted nails while sitting at a local fast-food restaurant. Looking at old pictures and taking silly selfies helped us to get reacquainted. Returning to the shelter, I reassured her that I would visit again soon.
As I drove home, my earlier thoughts of shelter shifted from place to person. Safety and security in my life came from the people placed along my path. Now I had the opportunity to provide this for Marie. I know she is not my child, but this new focus gives me courage for future visits.
My daughter Rachel attends college, studying to become a special education teacher. She accompanied me on my second visit. Her presence provided calm and confidence.
Our day was well planned. After checking in at the shelter and signing out our young friend, we were ready to go. First stop the zoo, then lunch, and finally shopping. I am not sure who was more excited about this outing!
I have witnessed Rachel interact with friends who happen to have disabilities on many occasions. She treats them as peers, spends time with them socially, and has typical conversations. She is also a passionate advocate for these special friends, always looking for ways to help them realize their potential.
This particular day proved no different. She embraced this precious girl with love and patience, looking for ways to give her independence and choices. In instances where I would have made suggestions for Marie, Rachel recognized the importance of Marie having control over as many things as she could handle. Following the zoo map, choosing what animal to see next, ordering pizza, and picking out sunglasses might seem insignificant.
Although it was easier for me to visit the shelter this time, it was much harder for me to leave…
Rachel and I chatted on the drive home, recounting all the experiences of the day. What a beautiful day! We talked about the future, what it will hold for Marie and what role we might play. When I began to feel overwhelmed with questions about what lies ahead, Rachel calmly reviewed the events of these pasts few months. She reminded me of the circumstance that brought us to this day; receiving a subpoena to testify at a child neglect reliability hearing.
One step at a time, words of wisdom from my daughter as we headed home. And a reminder when friends and family say Rachel takes after me, the truth is I want to be more like her when I grow up…
Do you enjoy being alone? I must admit I do not. Although necessary at times, it is not a state I would often choose. Others in my family seem to relish alone times, focusing on their particular interests. Now consider the word isolation-it provokes a sense of being forced to be alone, having no control over our circumstances-an unpleasant solitude.
What if you were intentionally left alone without the warmth of human companionship? Feelings of abandonment seeping in slowly. Dwelling on these thoughts makes me sad and angry.
A social worker visited our home for an assessment to determine if she would be allowed to visit…proceeding with caution. Her love and care for this sweet girl were evident. Although she knows terrible things from the past, she chooses to hope for the future. Most of our conversation stayed in that realm, thankful for current shelter, safety, and happiness. Until she mentioned a fear of being alone in a room with the door closed.
My knowledge of the abuse suffered involved physical harm, and those incidences were over four years ago. I had not allowed myself to think about what happened in the years following. But now I heard this word-isolation-bringing a completely different understanding of what she had endured. Imagine having the scars from being physically harmed, but also from intentional separation. Withholding the most basic human needs. We are talking about a child with intellectual disabilities, helpless to escape the cruelty imposed upon her.
I am not sure how to process this information. If that is my reaction, imagine the difficulty for Marie. There is no comparison, and at this moment, no sufficient answers.
When I consider my own children, the thought of them suffering or experiencing any kind of trauma is unbearable. I want to be the best parent I can be. Parenting is hard, bringing many responsibilities and challenges. But it also produces rewards. For example, hearing them call me mom is music to my ears.
One of the most thoughtful gifts I received from my husband was a sound wave print of my children saying, Mom. Hanging on the wall in our home makes me smile. Am I a perfect mother? Of course not! But my children know they are loved. My heart aches when they’re hurting and soars when they’re content. The job of a mother is to love and protect. That need is present from the moment a baby enters this world. What happens when love and protection are replaced by isolation and abuse? The results are devastating, creating lasting memories and trauma hard to overcome.
My mom is mean is not a phrase you hear every day. Yes, I know kids sometimes exaggerate and say things that are not true. Is it possible my own children thought I was mean at some point? Oh yes. I have even used the words mean-mama voice when talking about discipline. I will think twice about using those words again.
Tonight I was talking on the phone with Marie. She has temporarily moved from the shelter she called home to a behavioral assistance facility. Rachel and I have been visiting her twice a week, and she calls us almost every night. Our visits consist of coloring, games, reading her stories, looking at pictures, and laughter. Phone calls are difficult. It is often hard to understand her. And the whole process is made more difficult by her disability.
Some moments, however, are crystal clear-tonight was one of those times.
Marie told me her counselor came today. She said they talked about her mom. I was caught off guard at first, not sure what she would say. And then the words came, my mom is mean. She went on to recall how her mom would hit her at their house. Hearing a child say their parent hurt them…I know she said more, but her words started to blur. The truth is, I already knew her words were not an exaggeration. I saw the bruises when she was younger, asked her what happened. I heard her say, my mama. I filed the abuse reports. Then the family moved, and the abuse continued. The abuse continued for four more years.
How was I supposed to respond? The only thing I could say was, I am so sorry-moms are not supposed to act that way. My heart hurts. Words are not enough. We will continue to visit, encourage her to talk about the hard things, and hopefully show her what it means to love.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I Corinthians 13:7
Where does this story begin? Each time I think about the answer, I find myself unable to choose just one point in time. The decision to become a special education teacher, the first time I met Marie, filing the first DHS report. These events culminate with this one story which has changed my life forever.
Many of my memories associated with Marie are sad, the kind of memories I would rather bury. Before receiving the subpoena to testify at the reliability hearing, I had blocked specific events. Four years had passed since she was my student. And though I would never forget her, some things were just too hard to remember. Until the day it became necessary to remember.
My heart sank at first sight of the word subpoena in my school mailbox. There was no question who the notice concerned. I followed the instructions on the letter and soon received an email filled with documents. Uncontrollable tears came as I read my own words from the reports I had filed. And with them, the images I had worked so hard to bury.
I read, re-read, reviewed, made notes, whatever was needed to prepare for this hearing. My testimony, if accepted by the judge, would provide a voice for Marie. I was naïve in my hope for a settlement after the initial hearing. That was not the case. A trial date was set, and I would need to testify once again.
And so my reviewing continued, this time for the trial. Sleepless nights, floods of unpleasant memories, and tears filled the space leading up to that day. We have all watched courtroom scenes, real and fictional on television. None of those could prepare me for the reality of testifying. Being sworn in, sitting next to a judge, the jury on one side and the mother on the other. A surreal experience.
My testimony provided details of events that happened years earlier. Speaking with clarity and emotion, I remained strong in the face of a cross-examination which attempted to discredit everything I said. Some images will never be erased from my memory. I made sure everyone in the courtroom understood that truth as I testified through my tears. A tremendous weight accompanied this responsibility to speak for this one who could not speak for herself.
Relief, after the trial ended, was short-lived and replaced by concern for Marie. Where was she? Was she ok? I knew I had to see her if at all possible. Would she remember me?
My first visit to that shelter was just the beginning. My family spent the following year investing in this precious girl. Phone calls, visits, birthdays, and holidays helped make sure she knew someone loved her. Circumstances have recently changed with a foster home placement, and now I must let go. I miss her.
Why is letting go so hard? I remember the day we dropped off our son Robert at college. I cried the entire drive there and back. Two years later, it was Rachel’s turn. It was still difficult to leave her in that tiny dorm room alone. One more year until Ryan graduates, my baby. Trying not to think about that just yet.
Today brings a different kind of letting go. I had to let go of someone who was never my child but had found a lasting place in my heart. Part of me wanted to be her mom.
Accepting that our family is not the final answer for Marie has been difficult. Recently someone said to me, do you think your family could provide something another family could not. That stung, but it was what I needed to hear. Suddenly the words letting go began invading my thoughts. And then it hit me-maybe our purpose had simply been to provide love and friendship during a year of confusion, fear, and uncertainty. And that was ok.
How appropriate that one year after that first visit, I receive word of foster home placement. Today some of my tears are selfish because I will miss her, but most are grateful-grateful for caring foster parents and a fresh start for our precious friend.
The ending of this story is not clear. As I patiently wait to hear how my sweet friend is doing in her new home, there is much reflection. Our time spent with her this past year challenged us and brought us closer together as a family. We love her, and I believe she loves us, even if we were not meant to be her family.
Marie made us laugh with her questions. Why are you so bossy? Directed toward my husband. You almost married? Multiple times to my oldest children. Why you so big? to my six-foot-three youngest son. She brought tears to our eyes when she thanked us for singing happy birthday to her, telling each of us how pretty we sang. And left us forever humbled by the way she trusted us…
In our last conversation, Marie mentioned the idea of moving to a foster home. Her social worker had been preparing her for this possibility. I asked her if she felt ok about that. She smiled nervously and said yes. There was a long pause and then her precious words, but I miss you.
Honey, I will miss you, too. Always remember, what are we?
Yes, sweet girl…always.