Better safe than sorry has rather been my motto for most of my almost six decades in this world. It is definitely my steadfast position when it comes to one of the driving forces in my life, children's advocacy. I've been active in children's advocacy for about 25 years now. Whether I'm working on a case for a CASA file, interviewing a survivor, or researching and drafting pleadings for litigation arising from child abuse, I always go to my fallback position, better safe than sorry. Perhaps that is why in the "real" world, when someone who knows me has a question or concern on the topic of child abuse, they frequently come to me with it. Often, the person with the question is a friend or associate who also does work in the field but sometimes it is a friend who has seen or heard something that rings warning bells.
I will disclose up front, I suspect that theme stuck with me because when I was routinely being abused, I attempted in my timid, naive, seven-year-old shy little girl way to tell someone what was happening. The person I tried to confide in did not believe in better safe than sorry and the issue got blown off. As a consequence, I did not even attempt to tell anyone else and the abuse continued.
When my phone rang several nights ago and it was a close relative, I was delighted at the thought of a pleasant chat with someone I love. She immediately got to the point and I realized it would be one of "those" conversations.
"My friend, Lisa, has a little girl that I have talked about. Well, little Sharon said something that was odd. I don't know what to think and her Mom doesn't know what to do." "Okay, tell me about it."
Little Sharon's parents are in the middle of a divorce. Red flag there, because accusations can be tossed about that may or may not have credence and emotions are running high, but better safe than sorry so we'll keep an open mind.
Little Sharon has been visiting her paternal grandparents, because Mom is trying hard to continue to give her a semblance of normalcy. That's a good thing, usually, especially since Dad has been pretty much an absent parent while he deals with some issues of his own, including substance abuse. I admit, a part of me wondered if/why Dad was self-medicating, but I left that alone for the moment.
It was time for Little Sharon to go visit with her grandparents again. Lately, she hadn't seemed so eager to visit, but this time Sharon begged not to go. When Mom got curious, little Sharon got tearful and ultimately admitted that she was afraid to go. Mom was taken aback and pressed a bit to learn why, thinking there was some misunderstanding that she might clear up so Sharon could enjoy her visit. Finally, "I didn't brush my teeth right, so Grandpa got mad." Okay, right here, this can go a couple of different ways. People get frustrated and angry, that's not necessarily a cause for concern, in and of itself. It's what people do when they get angry that may cause the concern. It's probably safer to inquire further as to what followed. Sharon next told Mom that Grandpa threw her on the bed and hit her.
Mom called and tried to talk to Grandpa to ask what happened, but Grandpa was quite angry that she even asked, defensive right off the bat. He then complained that no matter how hard he tried, Sharon just would not brush her teeth the right way and he had to teach her a lesson. Angry and blustering, he wouldn't speak further and hung up.
Mom was very upset, concerned, and unsure what to do. She knew something had to be done but she was struggling with a wide range of emotions and potential responses. The more Sharon spoke, the more concerned Mom became, especially when Sharon told her that this type of thing had happened before.
Firmly a believer in "better safe than sorry," I said it needed to be investigated and promptly, before Sharon returned to that house. If it proved to be a misunderstanding, it could be worked out. If it proved to be factual, Sharon should not be put at risk. If Grandpa was struggling and needed help, it could be arranged. If it proved to be a lie, then Sharon needed help with whatever emotional difficulties she was having that would lead her to lie. No matter what, the truth needed to be revealed here. Since Mom had an attorney helping her with the divorce, I suggested she call that attorney when his office opened in the morning. He could help Mom report to the appropriate agency in that jurisdiction, start an investigation and get the facts.
Last night, my phone rang again. After Sharon's interview with a social worker, Mom was told that there was even more. Sharon confided that Grandpa had been touching her inappropriately and it appeared that he may have been molesting her for some time. As the investigation began, there were some heated exchanges and a potential threat was made. A subsequent search of the house by authorities also uncovered several firearms, which have been removed and protective orders are now in place. The investigation continues. It also turns out that Dad's siblings cut off all contact with their father when they became adults. Yes, that gives rise to other suspicion.
The good news is that Sharon is safe and, happily, was able to visit with her Dad. Dad has been in treatment for his substance issue and is making progress so this was a really good next step, especially at a time when Sharon especially needs two parents who love her, are present, and supportive. Little Sharon has a long road ahead of her as this moves through the system. Sharon is beginning with counseling soon to help her get through what is to come. Mom is thinking about some counseling for herself too. I hope she follows through with that.
So here I am, back to "better safe than sorry." When in doubt, when suspicious, punt to someone in a position to get to the facts. If your suspicions were wrong, be grateful. If your suspicions were correct, be grateful that vulnerable little person will get the help and protection that is needed and deserved.
A couple of links that may be of interest: Info on the signs of abuse, prevention programs, good stuff
A great place to volunteer
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Did you know:
More than 740,000 children and youth are treated in hospital emergency departments as a result of violence each year—that’s more than 84 every hour.
The total lifetime cost of child maltreatment is $124 billion each year.
More than 3 million reports of child maltreatment are received by state and local agencies each year—that’s nearly 6 reports every minute.