After the incident, I told a friend I wanted to kill myself. She told a guidance counselor, who held a meeting with me…and my mother. The guidance counselor asked me in front of my mother if something was wrong. I did the only thing I thought would help me survive. I lied.
My cycle of abuse would not end until I was 17 years old when I ran away from home to live with a maternal grandmother who had always known about my mother’s mental illness, if not the extraordinary lengths of her abusiveness. Abuse that included throwing knives, bludgeoning my sister’s skull with a pair of rollerblades, and routinely striking us so savagely that it led to bruises, scratches, black eyes, bloody noses and split lips. After worst incidents, like the time that left me limping after she beat me with a telephone receiver, my mother ensured that we missed school so no one would see “the signs.”
I do not blame my mother. Only an obviously mentally ill person abuses her child. All too frequently we wait until a child is beaten to a bloody pulp or dies before we begin to ask questions. Teachers and police officers are mandated reporters of child abuse. Family members and neighbors are not.
When I was 21, I kidnapped two of my three sisters. They were fourteen and eighteen. Because one was underage, it led to a three-year custody battle the media never heard about. My lawyers were afraid if we publicized the case, people would think I was in it for my mother’s welfare checks. I believe we implicitly cooperated in a cycle of violence that is usually mirrored by vows of silence.
Throughout the court case, the burden was on me and my sisters to prove my mother’s abuse and negligence. The words of three young girls, two who were adults, were not enough. The testimonies of the friends they told and the teachers who suspected abuse were not enough. None of it was enough to ensure that my then seven-year-old youngest sister was at any time removed from the home.
The Administration of Children’s Services not only ruled against us, the head caseworker told my sister, “Sometimes a family is like burnt toast. You just have to scrape off the bad parts. There are children in Africa who are actually beaten so you should not think your situation so bad. Your mother is your mother no matter what.” Even after exhibiting mentally ill behavior during meetings with the court-appointed physiatrist, ACS did not side with us. I won the court case despite this because a judge ruled that “extraordinary circumstances” dictated my sister remain in my custody and at 17, they would not force her to do otherwise.
But who is routinely checking in on my youngest sister? The same agency that took my mother’s side? The same teachers who overlooked “the signs”? The family members who will participate in a lie? The same neighbors who will wonder about the crazy woman who lives next door but never intervene?
I live in fear of a day when I will open up the newspaper and find that it is my little sister who has been beaten to death. But instead, I open it and find that a little sister I’ve never met has been murdered. I hear that she has four siblings. Are we shocked that at least one has also seen the wrong side of a mop handle?
As long as we enable the abusers and take power away from the victims, child abuse will continue. As long as we sit by and watch silently while that “crazy woman” in line at Target slaps her kids in front of us, child abuse will continue. And the only ones to blame will be us. All of the adults who let it happen again and again.