My first experiences concerning child abuse stem from my years as a special education teacher. The students I served often had great difficulty communicating. They were vulnerable, making this story all the more troubling. 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-sadness for her past, uncertainty for her present, but also hope for her future. Spending time with Marie has broken and challenged my heart.
Words are powerful. Even more so accompanied by concrete images. Consider the word shelter. For many of us, this word reminds us of safety and home. But what if we add just one word…emergency. Emergency Shelter brings much different imagery. One final word moves us even further from protective pictures of safety and home… children’s.
Before my first visit to an Emergency Children’s Shelter, my imagination created images in preparation for the experience-a clean building, professional staff, play areas, a visiting room. In my mind, the scene played out as follows. A greeting from a smiling worker, thanking me for coming. An onsite visit in a comfortable, nicely decorated area. After all, this facility provided care for children who had experienced trauma and been removed from their home.
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 began to fade. 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 couldn’t be right, so I kept driving…dead end. Cautiously turning around, I knew in my heart that old house was the 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 did not seem to recognize me and appeared unsure. After seeing some photos from when she was in my class, one a selfie of us on the playground, she smiled and said, “You were my teacher!” Yes! She did remember. Uncertainties quickly turned to smiles, hugs, and laughter.
My visions of a visit at the home vanished as I spotted Marie’s backpack on the table. My young friend was ready to go! Now there were completely different reasons to be nervous. Where would we go? What would we do? The area was unfamiliar, but surely we could find shopping and food! A trip to Walmart produced a doll, nail polish, and a new book. We had lunch and painted nails while sitting in a booth at McDonald’s. 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. True 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. Sadness over past abuse and an uncertain future remains, but I trust God will guide my actions to help Marie experience His promise in Isaiah 25:4 to provide “…a shelter from the storm…”
My daughter Rachel, a college student studying to become a special education teacher, accompanied me on my second visit to the Emergency Children’s Shelter. Her calm excitement covered the day and gave me confidence, replacing the anxiousness of my first visit. Knowing where I was going, what to expect, and being accompanied by my sweet girl eased my mind.
Our day was well planned. After checking in at the shelter and signing out Marie, we were ready to go. First stop the zoo, then lunch, and finally shopping. With two teenage girls, shopping was a given! Rachel remembered Marie from visits to my classroom and I had shared pics of Rachel on my first visit. I’m not sure who was more excited about this outing!
I’ve witnessed Rachel interact with friends who happen to have disabilities on many occasions. Her ability to treat them as peers, spending time with them socially, and having regular conversations truly is a gift. She is also a passionate advocate for these special friends, always looking for ways to help them realize their potential. Her patience during often challenging communications is amazing. On more than one occasion I’ve felt like the student and her the teacher as she confidently reminded me to address individuals based on their age and not their disability.
This particular day proved to be no different. She embraced this precious girl with love and patience, looking for ways to give her independence and choice in our well planned day. Instances where I would have made choices or suggestions for Marie, Rachel recognized the importance of giving her 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 to most people. Thanks to Rachel’s insight, however, allowing our friend to make these decisions hopefully gave her a sense of control in a world where she has had little.
Although it was easier for me to visit the shelter this time, it was much harder for me to leave…
Rachel and I chatted the entire 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 emotions ever cloud your judgment or cause you to have a blurred sense of reality? Honestly, I am often guilty. My husband endearingly refers to me as a schemer and emotions typically play a role in my schemes. He is the logical one, and we balance each other well. Although we do not agree on everything, we do respect one another’s opinions. Sometimes it is best that we agree to disagree, as long as we keep listening.
After two visits with Marie, her social worker mentioned the possibility of us hosting her for an overnight or weekend visit. Of course! We would love to have her visit our home! Rachel and I had already completed the required background checks for our visits to the shelter. But one more person needed to do the same; my husband.
Several days passed, thoughts swirling in my head, how should I broach the subject? Not that he’s some mean ogre, quite the opposite in fact. He’s a wonderful husband and father, and so very funny! In my heart, however, I knew he would be the one to look at the situation with logic and questions, unlike me, as I was ready to dive in head first.
So…the time came when I decided to ask about the background check and visit. After all, I had prayed and waited five whole days! What could possibly go wrong? I was simply asking him to complete a form so Marie could visit our home. My husband knows me so well. His response was quick and logical. Tears began to flow and my ability to communicate faded. At this moment, listening was necessary and I’m not sure either of us was successful.
The response I heard went something like, “Honey, I knew this would happen. We cannot adopt this child. I am not getting a background check. I’m not sure these visits are a good idea.” I was devastated at the thought of this reality. Even though I hadn’t mentioned adoption he was right, the thought had crossed my mind.
A sleepless night and tear-filled day helped me begin to hear what he actually said. I wrote an essay on a heart-covered card asking him to give more thought to the background check and possible visit and carefully placed it on his pillow. He chuckled at the length of my note, and gave the most surprising response, “Honey, I never said I would not have a background check.” As it turned out he understood my need to visit Marie and have her visit our home. He was also willing to provide material things she might need. His main concern was the impact on our family and the probability that my heart would be broken no matter the outcome.
My current plan? Proceed with caution. Consider how my feelings, thoughts, and actions affect those around me, especially my family. Remember how much this man loves me and be thankful he recognizes my desire to love this child. And let this verse guide my steps. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34
Do you enjoy being alone? I must admit I do not. Although necessary at times, not a state I purposefully 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 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. Honestly, I don’t want to have these thoughts. But right now it is necessary, at least for a time.
Marie’s 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 of terrible things from Marie’s past, she chooses to focus on the present and future with hope. Most of our conversation stayed in that realm, thankful for current shelter, safety, and happiness. While showing her the room where Marie would sleep she cautioned, “Marie might be afraid if she’s left alone in a room with the door closed.”
My knowledge of the abuse Marie 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 has endured. Imagine not only having the scars from physical abuse, but also the fear which comes from intentional separation, and withholding the most basic human needs. We are talking about a child with intellectual disabilities, helpless to escape the cruelty imposed upon her.
I’m not sure how to process this information. And if that’s 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 great rewards. For example, hearing them call out “Mom” even as young adults-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 living room, it makes me smile. Am I a perfect mother? Hardly! But my children know they are loved. My heart aches when they’re hurting and soars when they’re content. A mother’s job is to love and protect. That need is present from the moment a baby enters this world. What happens when that love and protection are replaced by isolation and abuse? The results are devastating, creating lasting memories and trauma difficult 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’ve even used the words “mean mama voice” when talking about discipline. I may 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 a little more difficult, as it is often hard to understand what she’s trying to communicate. There are many issues she needs to work through and the 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 and when I asked what they talked about she said, “My 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. When asked what happened I heard her say, “Mi 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’m 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 to that question 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 difficult, the kind of memories I’d 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 remembering became necessary.
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 I needed to do to be prepared for this hearing. My testimony, if accepted by the judge, would provide a voice for Marie. I was naïve in my hope that there would be 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 I continued to review, this time for the trial. Sleepless nights, floods of unpleasant memories and tears filled the space leading up to the 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 Marie’s 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, and 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.” Proverbs 31:8
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 Emergency Children’s 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. She was staying a little closer to home, but it was still difficult to leave her in that tiny dorm room alone. One more year and it will be Ryan’s turn, my baby. I’m trying not to think about that just yet.
Today brings a different kind of letting go. Letting go of someone who was never mine, but who carved a lasting place in my heart. And while I am thankful for our time with her, it’s not an exaggeration to say some days it feels like my heart is being ripped out. 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, “What do you think your family could provide for this child that another family could not?” That stung but was exactly 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 exactly one year after that first visit, I receive word of a 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. I seek comfort in words from Ecclesiastes 3:1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens…”
The ending of this story has no more clarity than the beginning. 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 comments like “Why you so bossy?” directed toward my husband. “You almost married?” multiple times to my oldest children. “Why you so big?” to my 6’3 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 so easily 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.”
“Oh, honey, I will miss you too. Don’t ever forget-what are we?”
Yes, sweet girl…always.