Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Saddest Superhero

I had to make a report today.

If you work with children you know what that means, and the dread that rises with those words.

A student was sent to me with marks of physical abuse. The child was matter-of-fact. Cheerful, even. The offense, apparently, was lying to the guardian. The consequence was being hit an unknown number of times with a metal-studded belt. The child didn't know how many times because, I was told, it hurt too much to count. This morning the marks were still distinct, like an octopus had wound around the child with cruel suckers. It wasn't some creature from the deep, though. It was a person in a position of trust.

I'm fortunate. We only get a few of these situations each year and some of those are false alarms. Our students are for the most part blessed with healthy, loving, stable homes. I know there are far worse things to witness than the infractions I've seen. Each year every employee in our school district goes through Child Abuse and Neglect training. We dread it. We gripe about how long it takes. We complain about the dull videos and slide presentations. That is true. The deeper truth is we don't want to face the horrors that can be visited on the shining little beings we come to love. 

I spent the morning on the phone with the Department of Health and Human Services. There's a hotline to call, and a form to fill out. I waited on hold for 20 long minutes as other calls were taken before mine. I spent the time wondering just how many reports were being made in one morning. When my call finally was answered I learned that there are eight social workers in the call center, all of whom spend their entire working days listening to stories like mine, or worse. I can't imagine the fortitude of those people. It is, truly, a thankless job.

Making a report is a balancing act. I am by law required to report any suspicion of neglect or abuse or endangerment. It's not always an easy to decide. Having children of my own has made me more far more sympathetic to the difficulties of managing a family. So I wonder: is it really neglectful to leave your ten year old at school long after the bell rings if there are adults around, not actually supervising but still present? If I am completely honest, I must admit to knowing the towering rage that can rise from dealing with an argumentative, self-centered, disrespectful, exhausted, unreasonable child. I have felt the desire to slap my child silly, to yank her after me into a quiet room and force her to do what I want just.this.once without having to reason or cajole or manage. To just make it happen. So far I have swallowed that down and walked away, or found another path. But I understand -- in a horrible visceral way -- why some parents beat their children.

For all its simplicity it's not a light matter, reporting. The lives of parents, as well as children, can be completely disrupted. I've read stories of  adults wrongly accused who spent months fighting to get their children back while their entire social structure dissolved. I would hate to be responsible for that. I worry, too, that I am being culturally insensitive. I've heard people dismiss my discipline style as too touchy-feely granola. Even my own mother has implied that I am not stern enough with my kids. Am I safeguarding the well-being of a child, or imposing my middle-class, small-town, white, bourgeois values on other families?

I fret privately, weighing the distress caused by a call to DHHS against the life-long damage of abuse. I wish Superman or Wonder Woman would swoop in and make everything right. But they don't exist. Today's was an easy decision: there were clear marks and the student repeated the same story to two different adults. So, despite my sorrow, I donned the worn and tattered cape of a very human superhero and made the call.


  1. I hope that the child can be helped. So very sad. There are times when we need a good superhero.

  2. {{{{hugs}}}} This was a very honest, very touching write, Ilyanna. Being a mandatory reporter is not an easy thing. I appreciate your candor and the internal struggle you go through. When so many lives are at stake, the children and families deserve no less. I suspect that even though this decision was clearer than many, it probably was just as agonizing. Thinking of you.

  3. As is the case every time I visit your blog, I am taken by your writing--so fluid and smart and skillful.

    Beyond that, in terms of the content here, my heart is with you...and, of course, even more with the children of the world who are on the receiving end of adults' problems. To hurt anyone, but particularly a smaller creature, in a way that is methodical and deliberate, well, it wrenches my gut.

    Reporting sounds sticky and painful, but if it can help run interference between even one kid and pain, then it's worth it.