Angela walked into my senior high school English class with her arm in a cast. “Angela,” I called to her. “What happened? Did you fall?” She mumbled something without looking at me and went to her seat. It seemed odd, as the kids usually wanted me to sign their casts.
At the end of the class, she dawdled. When the other students had left, Angela slowly came to the front of the class, where I was gathering my things together.
“Do you want to know what happened?” she asked me hesitantly.
“Of course,” I answered.
“My stepfather ran me down in the driveway. The car hit me and I fell and broke my arm. My mother heard me scream and came out. My stepfather drove off. I told her what happened. She didn’t believe me and told me not to tell anyone at the hospital.”
I was shocked, as I was totally unprepared for what she told me. This was 1973 and in my school, teachers were not given classes or workshops on how to deal with abuse. In fact, we didn’t talk about it at all. I had no idea what to do.
After talking with Angela for a time, I went to the English office to see my department chair. Mr. M. was seated behind his desk and I told him Angela’s story, sure that he would give her the help she needed.
“Is she causing any problems in class?” he asked me.
Puzzled, I shook my head. What did that have anything to do with the situation?
“Well, then,” Mr. M. folded his hands on his desk. “She’s almost graduated. She can wait until then and move out. There’s nothing we can do.”
I stood in his office, feeling more shocked than angry. “How can we help her?” I pressed.
“This is your first year of teaching, my dear,” he told me. “There are some things we just can’t help.” I was dismissed.
I saw Angela the next morning on her way to her locker. She looked at me with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “Angela, do you have any adult friends or family you can talk to?” I asked. Her eyes darkened and she shook her head. I knew Angela was Catholic. “Is there a priest or a nun who can help you?” She paused and slowly nodded her head.
“You have a few months until graduation,” I continued. “Maybe that person can help you leave the house or talk to your mother.”
Angela never spoke to me about the incident again.
What I really wanted to tell her was that I would take her home and protect her. But I was just a few years older than she was and I knew that this was not realistic. I never forgot the incident and wondered why schools didn’t help these vulnerable students.
Two and a half decades later, I was a school administrator. Times had changed. Now we were mandated to help students who reported abuse. Every year, I brought workshops to school to help the entire staff understand more about abuse and about the social services agencies that could help. But I was in a Jewish day school and didn’t think I would actually have to apply any of this knowledge.
I was wrong. The first time I reported abuse to the city’s child protection services, I was nervous. The student had arrived at school with burns on his arm that were infected. His immigrant mother, who was bewildered by all the changes in her life, had allowed a big and strong man to move in with them. She didn’t want to believe what was happening.
Afterwards, I called one of the leaders of a workshop on abuse. She told me to “just be prepared.” For what, I wondered. I had already done the hard thing.
“The school day is over, and where do you think the student went? Home,” she said.
I hadn’t thought about that. Had he encountered more abuse? Had reporting the incident made it worse? What was going to happen?
I found out the next day when the student didn’t come in. His mother had called the school and withdrawn her son.
“And don’t expect any thanks from the family,” the workshop leader had warned me. I was sure that wasn’t true, as I figured the family would be grateful for getting help in ending the abuse.
Several months later, I bumped into the student’s mother. She turned and started to walk away. I touched her shoulder. She glared at me. “I just want to know how your son is doing,” I said. “I care about him.”
All I learned was that the boyfriend had moved out and her son was in a public school. The conversation ended there.
Over the years, I learned a great deal about reporting abuse and what happens with the responsible government agencies. Many are overwhelmed. Social workers usually have too many cases to follow. They focus on the most serious, the life-threatening ones. But what happens to the father who “mistakenly” pushes his son down the stairs in a moment of anger? What happens to the divorced mom who regularly hits her son, and now he hits her back? What about the angry parent who locks her 12-year-old out of the house all night once in a while?
The answer is “not much.” A warning would be given, a file created. Most students returned to school or changed schools and remained with the abusive parents.
Abuse occurs in all communities and at all socio-economic levels. Abuse is emotionally, and often physically, damaging. Some examples are shocking. I thought that mandating teachers, medical workers, police and others to report abuse would help stop it. I was wrong again.
Eventually, I took a more proactive approach in my role as a mandated reporter of abuse. When calling in a report, I would offer some solutions to the authorities, like mandating counselling for parents, regular meetings with school staff and keeping a close watch on the child and offering support. I told teachers that a particular student could come to speak with me at any time during the school day. The student knew this and began to trust me. I even left an important meeting once to help this child, and later wondered how the donor I was meeting with would react. It turned out that the person I was meeting applauded the fact that I had put the child first.
Government agencies were relieved, as this lightened their load. I would regularly update them on what was happening with the families. And the families knew that I was in regular contact with social services agencies and that if the abuse continued, it could lead to their children being taken out of their homes. Most parents loved their children and simply did not know how to parent in any other way, so we offered techniques that would work for them. The process was slow and families needed encouragement along the way. Many did begin to change, and although few came back to tell me, the visible improvement in the students was enough to show success.
One father did return.
Jonathan was living with his divorced mother, who had begun to be violent with him several years earlier. On the last day before he graduated middle school, he told his teacher. In our subsequent conversation, Jonathan told me that he wanted to live with his father. He said he would rather sleep on the floor of his father’s small apartment than stay with his mother. After I reported the abuse, I called the dad in. He protested, saying that he lived in a one-bedroom apartment, worked all day and didn’t have the money to support his son.
Many obstacles were in his way, there was no doubt, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome.
I told him that “Jonathan said he would rather sleep on the floor in your apartment than continue to live with this abuse.” We looked at each other for a long time. I told him that I had reported the abuse to the authorities. “The abuse may continue,” I said, “or your son may be put in foster care. However, there is another solution.”
A few days later, the father called me. “My wife let Jonathan live with me. I am sleeping on the living room couch and let him have the bedroom. We’ll see how it goes.”
Two years later, Jonathan’s father stopped in one day after school. He had come to thank me. “It wasn’t so easy,” he began. “I took a second job and Jonathan worked after school. We began to make enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment.”
Jonathan was a strong student. That year, he had been chosen to represent his high school at a conference in Europe. The father was very proud of his son – and so he should have been. I was proud of the father, as well, and told him so. “I only did what any dad would have done,” he responded.
Abuse is a cycle that begins in childhood. The victims often become abusive parents when they grow up. Abuse is a recording in the brain, a file in our emotional folder of saved behaviours. Many communities hide abuse and abusers. While we have made strides in the right direction, more needs to be done.
Great strength is required to break the cycle. Those of us who know what is happening need to report abuse. But this is not where our duty ends. We need to support families, even in small ways, to listen, to help them try something new and more positive, so that children won’t grow up not knowing the sensation of happiness.