I was assigned a case once: 6-year-old boy, developmentally delayed. Let’s call him Fred (it seems like no one is named Fred anymore).
Some pretty serious accusations of abuse landed him in emergency foster care. A Probable Cause Hearing kept him there and made me his Guardian ad Litem. One of the first things I need to do upon being assigned a case is some investigation: I get to know the child and everyone involved in the child’s life, including family, teachers, doctors, social workers and others.
Fred’s family included a grandmother and her dubious “boyfriend.” The boyfriend let me into their apartment; he was wearing dirty boxer shorts and no shirt, smoking a cigarette. I tried not to judge. They gave me a tour of the apartment and told me their side of the story. The grandmother cried as she told me about how much she loved Fred. She showed me his report card with pride, bragging about what a good boy he is. One of the DSS investigator’s claims was that the home was unfit for living–she’d described it to me in detail, and it sounded disgusting. When I was there, it smelled like bleach. Not surprising, really.
I went to Fred’s school to meet with his teacher. He was in special education–not inclusion, so his teacher was the same one he’d had for 2 years now. We went over his IEP and talked about his performance in school, his test results. And then she told me more. She told me how on multiple occassions, the bus driver who took Fred to and from school had to bring him back at the end of his after school route because there’d been no one home when he stopped at Fred’s. And when there was someone home, it was the sketchy boyfriend, with whom the bus driver didn’t want to leave him. She told me how Fred often came to school dirty, clearly unbathed, wearing the clothes he had worn the day before. He was always hungry but hesitant to eat. She described him as the “sweetest boy in the world,” always eager to please.
When I met Fred the first time, he sat across from me in a chair, swinging his legs back and forth and then tucking them up against his chest, resting his chin on his knees. Repeat. He didn’t say much. He answered me mostly in nods, shakes, gestures, and facial expressions.
The second time I met Fred, he ran up to me as if he’d known me his whole life, wrapped his arms around my midsection, and held on tight. I tried not to react. He was still basically silent.
The third time I met with Fred, he told me he wanted to go back to his old school. He never mentioned his old home.
Meanwhile, his grandmother called the office. I called her back. She cried nearly the whole time.
I went to meet her the next day. She basically cried the whole time.
The boyfriend was smoking one of those weird new electronic cigarettes–he made sure to point out it wasn’t real.
I asked the grandmother specific questions about the allegations of abuse–neglect, we can work with–but these abuse allegations were…well, nauseating. And in his forensics interview, which I observed, Fred explained in detail abuse that a child should not only never have to endure but also shouldn’t even be able to describe. He specifically told of instances in which he’d asked his grandmother for help in escaping the abuse he was suffering at the hands of the boyfriend. She claimed this was untrue. “He likes to tell stories,” she told me. She cried.
As we prepared for trial–both in criminal and family court in this case–we learned more and more about the abuse that Fred had to deal with on a daily basis. I watched the judge watch the tape of the forensics interview and wondered how he could manage not to cringe. I couldn’t watch that tape again. The DSS attorney stared down the boyfriend the entire time. The grandmother cried. The boyfriend stared at the monitor where that 8-year-old boy struggled uncomfortably to tell his story. He seem completely removed from the situation. The defense attorney claimed the boy didn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie. The rest of us knew by this point he did.
The judge in family court made sure Fred would never go back to that situation. The criminal court did its part. Fred is no longer 6. He is still in foster care. He struggles, but he’s safe. And he’s making A’s in his class. He wants to be in the band. He also wants a family to love him forever.
There’s a point I want to make here, and this is it: Fred’s case only came to the attention of DSS because a neighbor finally called to say something might be wrong. An investigator only went out there because a neighbor called. Fred was only removed because a neighbor called. His abuse was only discovered and ended because a neighbor took the time to notice and call.
I know I already mentioned this, but April in National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination.” –US Dept. of Health & Human Services
Know the signs. Because you could be Fred’s neighbor.
–>Disclaimer (in case you haven’t read it, yet)