A Human Canvas-in the darkness of childhood abuse and neglect-Volume 13-THE BIRTHDAY GIFT
A Social Worker's Journal
Anyone who knows me knows that I love birthdays. I love that people get to have one day every year that they can call their own, to feel special, eat cake that was especially made for them, and open lots of presents. If they’re really lucky, they get a party, and sometimes, even a surprise party in their honor, with all the people they love most in their life. Wow! Yep…I just love birthdays! Well, mostly…
As the Program Manager of a therapeutic foster care agency, I work with several outlaying departments of social services. One day I got a call. I was being told of a young girl, who was thirteen, who had been given as a “gift” for someone else’s birthday. While I listened to the words at the other end of the line, tears ran down my face, and I felt like I had to throw up. My body started to shake and my heart began to pound very fast. I could feel it pound. I could hear it, even though the words I heard kept coming through the phone. Each word harder to grasp than the one before it.
I heard myself say out loud, “Yes, I have a home for her. When will the CPS (Child Protective Services) worker be bringing her to my office?” I got my answer, hung up the phone, and directed my staff to our office meeting place to discuss the new placement of a 13-year-old girl.
I asked them to listen to me first, and that they could ask questions after. My staff honored my request. This is what I shared with them, as I watched their mouths drop. Now, I could hear their hearts pound too.
Colleen had just turned thirteen only a few months before this happened to her. A brand new teenager, a great student, and a wonderful human being with a smile so bright, it lit up a room. A girl you would be happy to call your own, for many reasons. Above all, she was loyal. Loyal to her family. She took care of her younger siblings, cooked dinner every night, and cleaned the house on weekends. In my line of work, we call that “parentified”. When a child has been forced to take on a parent’s role in the household, providing care, maintaining household duties, and fulfilling other roles that an adult parent is expected to fill in a family unit.
Well, if that wasn’t enough, Colleen’s birth mother drank. She was an active alcoholic, and had been most of her life. She had been divorced from Colleen’s father for several years, and remarried. Her new husband of a few years was also an active alcoholic. They both smoked cigarettes, and neither of them worked. Colleen’s mother collected Social Security, and her stepfather received disability insurance benefits.
According to the recent CPS report, there had been numerous, previous visits made by CPS workers to the home related to domestic violence, but the situations always seemed to be redeemed with immediate mediation, and so the children were left in the home, until the next call was made. Until this time, when Colleen was taken from the home, after a call was made, by school staff.
One year after it all happened, Colleen finally told a school counselor that she trusted, and the NYS mandated call was made to the CPS Hotline, reporting that a child had been raped and sexually molested over the past year. Her rapist? Her stepfather.
Just after Colleen had turned thirteen, things began to change within the home. Her stepfather began making inappropriate gestures, and would grab at her while making repulsive comments about how her body had changed. Her mother would just laugh it off, thinking her husband was just joking, until one day, he made a request. Colleen’s mother, stepfather, and a handful of their “drinking buddies” had gotten together on a Saturday evening to celebrate Colleen’s stepfather’s birthday. As the night progressed, things began to get more and more out of control. Colleen’s stepfather looked at her mother and asked her where his birthday present was. She handed him another beer, but he slapped it out of her hand. He didn’t want that, he wanted Colleen. He told his wife, that he had never had a “virgin” and he wanted Colleen for his birthday. Colleen was called into the room by her then, drunk mother, and told to do what was asked of her by the birthday boy. At first, Colleen reported that she thought it was a joke, but in minutes, her stepfather dragged her in a nearby room, and forced himself on her. He raped his thirteen year old stepdaughter, while her mother sat in the next room and let it happen. She not only let it happened, she approved of it. What a rancid human being-Colleen’s mother was, is, and forever shall be, in my view of her. I’m no one’s judge and jury, but I am a protector, and she will always be a black soul to me, as long as she walks this earth.
As the days passed, Colleen was forced into having sex with her stepfather almost on a daily basis. Her grades in school dropped. She became more and more withdrawn. Her physical appearance became less than acceptable. Her hair was unkempt, and her clothes were dirty.
I still remember how her clothes smelled the day the CPS worker brought her to my agency office-cigarette smoke, and old food. They hung on her, and were wrinkled. This precious teen girl was wrapped in a nightmare, and her clothes were a telltale of what she had been living.
I remember looking into her eyes, and seeing a sweet, innocent girl, hiding behind her “stay away façade”. She had dark, blond hair and sad, blue eyes. I noticed a beautiful set of straight, white teeth behind lips that had lost their smile. She had a very soft voice, and an angelic aura about her. She appeared calm and relieved while she spoke with me. I told her about the foster home I would be placing her in, and she looked at me and said, “It has to be better than hell”. I somehow knew then, that she would survive.
There were several family court appearances, as well as criminal ones. Colleen had written a “victim statement” for the court, where she shared everything. She told of how things happened that dreadful night, and went on to say that for the past year she had been forced into having sex with not only her stepfather, but his friends, on a daily basis.
She talked of how she did what she had to, to keep her siblings safe, but that she just couldn’t take it anymore, and continue to do well in school. She had plans to become a nurse, and knew that in order for her to get the grades she needed to, and go on to college that she needed to be brave, and tell. Well, she did. She told and told and told.
After all her telling, her stepfather was found guilty, was sentenced, and immediately sent to prison for twenty-five years, for all the crimes he committed against Colleen.
Being who she is, Colleen forgave her mother, but moved in with her foster family, even after she turned eighteen. She had a new beginning, with a warm, caring, and understanding foster family who wanted to take care of her. With Colleen in her first year of community college, all they wanted from her was good grades. Colleen could handle that!
I’ve kept in touch with Colleen over the years. We will always be connected. She sees me as someone who assisted her in winning her war. A war she has survived. I see her as someone who taught me what it was like to be a prisoner of war, and to never give up until an escape is found. I have many more battles to fight for others like Colleen. Thanks to her, I know we can win.
Colleen, forgive us for failing you. Thank you for showing me how to survive.
His filthy mouth, his filthy hands,
his filthy acts, this filthy man.
He forced his child to do bad things.
His little girl, with just one curl.
She cries a lot,
She'd sing of stars and flowers too,
but now she cries and sings the blues.
No one hears her, not a one.
It's always dark, can't see the sun.
She tells his sin, yes, all of it.
She cannot stand, she has to sit.
Her tears poured out of tired eyes.
Her days ahead are brighter skies.
Two arms reached out to hold her tight.
She outstretched too, it'd all be right.
She dried her tears and raised her head.
This little girl, her MONSTER'S dead.