A Friend's Experience

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
I have agreed to to post this experience for a friend who didn't feel comfortable posting it on their own blog. Feel free to comment if you wish, but please do not mention the author by name, even if you surmise who it is, in order to protect the privacy of the principles.

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Today I ran into someone I hadn't seen for years, and instantly the guilt came barreling back.

When I was in high school and during the start of college I spent my summers babysitting three girls. They were adopted, after having been taking from a physically abusive home, where their mother had a succession of live-in boyfriends, few of whom treated the girls well,most of whom treated the girls as their mother did.

After their mother lost custody, they moved from foster home to foster home, until they were finally adopted by a couple we went to church with, who already had one daughter, five years younger than me.

The two youngest girls had the most problems. In retrospect, I'd say that the middle girl had learning disabilities as well as attention disorders. The youngest was just a bundle of hyperactive energy who had a knack for getting herself in trouble. The eldest had been mother to the other two for most of their lives, and was far more serious and grown-up than any child her age should have been.

They were also a joy to be around. Don't get me wrong, they were exhausting. The middle girl was starved for affection, and would cling to me at random times. And the youngest, well, she'd just run me into the ground with her unlimited energy and capacity for fulfilling Murphy's Law.

But most importantly, I loved these girls. Despite everything, they were very affectionate, even the oldest, once she came to trust me. And even when they were driving me crazy, they were still joyful and happy and trusted me implicitly.

I remember one late summer afternoon, the four of us were sitting together on the porch, watching a terrific storm roll in. The middle girl was scared of thunder and lightening, but she curled up next tome anyway, preferring to be with us, rather than alone in the house. The youngest curled up on the other side, because she could. Suddenly,the wind shifted, and we were being pelted with hail, and so ran squealing into the house, where we moved to a large window to watch the hail from inside.

Despite their wariness and even fear of the storm, the trusted me to keep them safe, and so were willing to take a chance if I told them they would be okay.

My second year in college I had one last stint caring for them. Their parents went away on a trip, so I stayed out the house with them, taking a week off from my food service job, and leaving only to go to classes (I must have skipped my night class, that week, because I always had night classes). It was then I first started to realize that something wasn't quite right.

There was nothing I could put my finger on, but at times it seemed as if they believed I was the only one who truly loved them and cared about them--who accepted them as they were for who they were.

Unfortunately, they were right.

I mentioned this to the parents when they returned home, couching in a manner that I was concerned because they felt that their older (and perfect) sister didn't love them at all, and I was worried about how this was affecting them.

After that, I was never asked to babysit again. Which is just as well,because my life took a turn that would not have made me a good model for young children anyway. But still I thought about them, and was always glad to see them when I went to church with my parents.

Years later, I began to put things together--there were always a lot of beer bottles in the sink every single morning--four two eight,which even then struck me as a lot for two people to drink every day.But they were grown-ups, so what did I know. Maybe, I thought, I'd drink a six-pack of beer every day when I was all grown up.

But it was the things the middle girl said that bothered me--even then. For instance, one summer her parents demanded that because she had done so badly the previous year in school, she must repeat ALL her classwork over the summer, thus spending her days shut in her room,while every other second grader in the area ran and played out side,or watched cartoons, or went to the pool, or did any of the things that second graders do.

Looking back now, I see this as terribly wrong. The girl obviously had one or more learning disabilities, may even had some brain damage from abuse she suffered previously, yet instead of sending her to a tutor or learning academy, she was forced to sit in her room and simply redo worksheets and homework, to her parent's satisfaction. But they were adults--with advanced degrees!--they must obviously know something I didn't I presumed. And so I said nothing. I was just a teenager. What did I know?

Over the following years I heard gossip and stories about how the girls were doing, and almost every story had the sentiment, "it's such a shame." I heard rumors that various teachers and neighbors had called Child Protective Services, however, because they were not being physically abused, CPS simply didn't have the manpower to look into the case.

And I began to wonder--should I have put things together when I was watching them years earlier? Would anyone have listened to me if I had reported my vague uneasiness about the situation in the house? Almost certainly not. Who would listen to a seventeen year old over a professor and a lawyer?

And so the girls grew up, and I realized that I--who had been one of the few people they inherently trusted--had been cut out of their lives. I do not believe there was anything I could have done at that time to make things better (I went through a terrible bout of depression soon after). Yet still, would their lives had been different if I had been able to do something?

Today I saw the oldest. She is getting her second degree--nursing. She had a degree in Social Work, but left because she felt the system wouldn't let her accomplish anything.

"I'm so sorry," I told her. "I feel like I should have known--should have done something for you."

"It's okay," she told me. "You were young. How would you have known?" I asked her how her sisters were, and she said they had lost touch.The middle had made multiple poor choices, including having several children and letting their adoptive parents adopt her babies. This,she told me, she simply could not accept. Her sister's children were treated just as badly as she and her sisters had been, but because the parents have power of a sort, no one seems interested in hearing a word against them.

And thus I know that two lives were ruined, but I also know that there truly was nothing I could have done about it.

I take solace in the fact that she has grown up, gotten a college degree, is raising two children, and despite everything, wants to join a second field where she can help people.

And she doesn't blame me.

7 comments:

Nathan said...

To the anonymous poster:

I hope you've internalized the knowledge that you were not at fault here. You should also realize that you were a victim in this situation as well. I don't know you or any of the other circumstances of your life, but I'd strongly suspect that the depression you mentioned had some of its origins in feeling helpless over these children's neglect.

I'm also glad to hear that at least one of those kids was able to come out of the whole thing healthy.

Jeri said...

Wow, how sobering!

There is such a wide gulf between "not physically injured" and "loved"... it's the stuff many family nightmares are made of.

I wonder if you could ask the author what happened to the third daughter, if that is known?

I agree, the author did all that was possible with the resources at hand. Unfortunately the world doesn't listen to teens... and the author had his/her own growing up to do.

Anne C. said...

Much sympathy, anonymous! It's stories like these that make me sad about the state of humanity.
You did what you could, which was to love the girls. Who knows, maybe your being there mitigated some of the damage that might have occurred, had you not been there. If you feel guilty for what you might have done, logically speaking, you must take credit for what you were able to contribute.

Cindi in CO said...

We all do the best we can with the knowledge we have at hand. I agree with anne c. - love goes a very long way sometimes, even if, especially if, it'a all you really have to give.

Tom said...

Janiece, it's good that you were able to do that. Thanks for us all.

Anonymous, and now the healing begins. Good luck to you.

Janiece Murphy said...

From the anonymous poster:

First, my thanks for your thoughts.

What happened to the girls has weighed on my mind for years, and I felt a huge sense of relief being able to tell the oldest that I felt bad for what had happened to her, and that wished it had never happened. I stopped feeling like maybe they believed I knew what was going on and condoned it.

Just being able to tell her that I was sorry for her experience took a weight that I'd been carrying for years off my shoulders.

Nathan,
My depression pre-dated my babysitting, though not by much. At the time, I don't know they were neglected--after all, I *was* a self-centered teenager--so I don't think I can blame my depression on that situation.

However, I can say that my growing realization of their situation as I grew up was one of the main reasons I stopped going to church. I couldn't bear to see these people proudly walking around as if they were doing the girls a favor, when in fact I knew the truth was the opposite. Just knowing that these abusers were in positions of authority in my church churned my stomach. (The final straw was when my brother's boy scout troop leader became another church "leader"--after he was released from prison for sexual assault on a teenage boy.) It lead me to wonder what other horible secrets everyone else had, as they stood up in front of the church, pretending to be good and pious individuals.

Or was that TMI? ;)

Jeri,
I do not know what happened to the youngest girl. Her sister didn't say much, only that the three had lost touch. As the youngest was pre-school aged when she was adopted, she was going to be the most changed by the experience. Which is really too bad, because she--despite always managing to get herself into trouble--had a joy and energy about her that was wonderful to be around.

I would assume that she did not get herself into the straits that the middle girl got into, but I also assume that the joy she carried when she was young was quickly drained out of her.

And I've come to think that, despite everything, I did help, just a little. When I saw the oldest, one of the things she asked me was if I had any children. When I said no, that I was not going to have any children, her face fell and she said, "that's too bad, I think you'd be a wonderful mother."

That made me feel like maybe I did in some way help. Even if it was only a drop in the bucket.

MWT said...

You showed the girls that real love exists in the world, which gave them hope and something to strive for. You are probably part of their fondest memories. That's a lot. It will help them throughout their lives.