***ALL IDENTIFYING DETAILS CHANGED TO PROTECT CONFIDENTIALITY*****
Some of you already know that in my “real life” I'm a school counselor and therapist. Today there’s a picture of a bruise on my phone.
I took that picture hours earlier, holding my too-accurate iPhone up near my student’s face. The white blink of the flash made her recoil as if from another blow.
We have bruises this time. We didn’t last time.
I make the call the Child Welfare after she goes to the nurse for a belated and symbolic ice pack, neck drooping like a dehydrated flower, chewing a granola bar—my usual panacea. My finger is rock steady punching in the number I almost have memorized; but my voice trembles when I report Uncle yet again.
The intake worker is impressed by my professional language, fancy words I say in that shaky voice, words like “trauma” and “pervasive atmosphere of threats of violence” and “struck with a closed fist”—enough to tell me she’s moving the case from Monitoring Status to Open Investigation. What does that mean? I ask.
A new case worker. Someone will be investigating, the intake worker says. In the next few days. Is the child in imminent danger? If so, I should call police. They deal with those cases. (Ah, the dance between Child Welfare and Law Enforcement—such an awkward tango.)
She implies I should know and be able to determine these things. Imminent danger? What is that exactly? The child’s world is pretty damn imminent— a world peopled by threats, deprivations, screaming, long afternoons filled with chores. The uncle has gotten better at hitting in other ways since our eyes are always on him, finding subtler means until, like a drunk on a bender, he falls off the nonviolence wagon.
Imminent danger. I guess I don’t think Uncle is going to kill her today; or even kill her at all. But yes, it’s danger. And it’s always imminent.
I hang up and go through the rest of my steps, an automated checklist of the The System: notify my principal. Write up the faxed-in report. Email the photo to my principal so she can forward to police if she decides to call them. We’re still on the fence about that, and calling Child Welfare hasn’t really helped us decide.
Calling the police really pisses Uncle off, and still nothing happens when they go and don’t see enough blood; they call Child Welfare. Uncle goes to Anger Management class and he doesn’t hit for awhile… but now she has blisters on her hands from chores, and he says they can’t spare the gas to drive her to her beloved soccer practice.
But no, he’s not hitting. Technically. Temporarily.
I’m not blaming anybody but Uncle here. It’s an overwhelmed and underfunded system, I’m a little cog in it, and it was never intended to take the place of a healthy family. I don’t want her to go to foster care with those accompanying risks and traumas any more than she wants to.
I just want Uncle to stop hurting and psychologically torturing her. Can anyone make that happen? I’m coming to the inevitable conclusion that no one can. It makes the headache behind my eyes settle into acute.
I end up having to look at the photo.
Delicate shades of mauve and blue, a tiny blush of pink, the bloom of broken blood vessels is mottled as markings on the throat of an orchid. It’s strangely beautiful as an abstract pattern taken out of context—the surface of the skin velvety and firm, purpling beneath like the hint of corruption on an overripe peach.
Hours later after work, several aspirin and a shower beginning to help me recover, the photo ambushes me again when I turn on my phone. I feel my stomach clench—I meant to delete it, or something.
I can’t bring myself to delete it, even for my own comfort. It’s a relic of her suffering, something I want to carry, as if in doing so I can somehow lighten her load. I can put the photo somewhere else, though, so I don’t see it every time I turn on the damn phone. But burying it deeper under layers of smiling dogs, sunset vistas, and loop-shouldered family portraits, my usual photo choices—feels like a betrayal.
I know it’s a form of survivor guilt.
I know it doesn’t help her.
I know it, and I keep it anyway. But I do hide it deep.
She’ll come to school again tomorrow, and I’ll help her work her feelings out with some art and play therapy. We’ll end the session with a granola bar, a symbolic gift of sustenance that usually works to lift her spirits. (We therapist/writers see symbolism and metaphor everywhere.)
I wish I could send my protagonist Lei and and badass lovable Rottweiler Keiki out on a home visit. Maybe I'll write that into my next book. Thinking about Lei kicking Uncle's ass makes me feel a little better. Maybe the written word is stronger than the fist? So far, for me the jury's still out on that but writing about it helps me keep going to work armed with nothing but tissues and granola bars.
How have you handled it when you came across a kid being abused?