A Human Canvas-in the darkness of childhood abuse and neglect-Volume 2-"The Dollhouse Watcher"
A Social Worker's Journal
Having been the program manager of a therapeutic foster care program, for over a decade, I was many things to many people. As crises arose I supported the families, the workers, and most of all the children (clients) in care. I was expected to hear all things, see all things, and much to my humbling heart, know all things. Then, one day, I realized that in some sense, I did. See and hear all things that is, at least in my world.
I had always seen myself as the agency investigator. The one who learned about things, and was asked to help solve case specifics. Not to jump to immediate conclusions, not to take first reports as gospel, nor to take sides before I got all the facts. I've always prided myself on fairness. I need all the facts from all involved before I feel confident in my decision-making. I guess that's how the analogy of being the "Dollhouse Watcher" came to be.
Whenever I had to explain my role in any case, I would use the dollhouse scenario as my leverage. I would describe how what I did equated to how a dollhouse is viewed. The "watcher" sits back and views what is going on in each room in the house, and then reports back to the members of the household what each other is doing in their space.
The skill became an art. And, so, I referred to myself as the "Dollhouse Watcher" and could easily explain to families and clients how I did what I did, what my job was, and the role I played in helping their family unit.
Over time, older clients would explain to younger ones, how I knew things and how what I learned from watching, could help them. It worked. They understood and through that understanding, they helped me, help them. Sometimes I wish I could have looked into real houses and worked magic, but, I do feel fortunate that I played the role of the "Dollhouse Watcher" for as long as I did, and was able to help one child, one family, at a time.
I have kept a diary of sorts, if you will. A social worker's journal of children who entered the foster care system on my watch, and who in essence, became my heroes. I will share their stories (their names changed for protection), so that awareness of this kind of abuse and neglect comes to the forefront of American life and is stopped cold in its tracks. If even one child at a time is helped, then we are on our way to creating a better quality of life for our youngest victims. Please read, please be aware, please react. For you may be called upon to save the life of a child one day.
I remember seeing her for the first time. Hailey was a cute, roly-poly, brown-haired, brown-eyed, eight year old, who wore crooked, taped-in-the-middle eyeglasses. Her clothes were rather tight on her and they didn't match. She had a chocolate stained chin and a smile that seemed forced on her face. She had a light in her eyes that seemed shadowed. She appeared friendly but guarded.
Her caseworker introduced her to me, and she immediately began to tell me how much she liked my hair and proceeded to throw her arms around me, telling me she loved me. It made sense even though it didn't seem right. I had been told that Hailey was diagnosed as having Enuresis (bladder control weakness), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Attachment Disorder, and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), and that she was taking a variety of psychotropic medications for these conditions. It was also explained that she attended special education classes, liked to play with baby dolls, and had been a victim of physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse by, and allowed by, her birth mother. Her father was unknown. This little girl of eight years, was carrying a lot of baggage by the time she showed up on my agency's doorstep.
Hailey was my first "case" as a caseworker, and when I looked at her, recollecting the specifics of her case, my mind just couldn't, or wouldn't, wrap around what I had learned about her. How could a mother do that to her own child? A million questions ran through my mind, but no answers followed. And now, before me, stood this child. This victim. This little girl taken from her mother and sisters that she loved, and it was my job to introduce her to her new foster family and pretend to make it all better. I've never quit a job before. This time almost made it my first. But then Hailey ruined my plan to resign and escape, when she slipped her unsure, smaller hand into my adult one, and smiled at me.
There's the lesson-I was supposed to be her strength, but she became mine. I saw her as my angel that day, but I had needed to be hers. And so, I stayed. I stayed and watched as Hailey disrupted in foster home after foster home. In between her placements she managed to have some semblances of normal life. She went camping in the summer, decorated Christmas trees in the winter, kept a diary of her artwork, made friends in school, and made people laugh with her sweet charming way. But with it, also, came the tantrums, the property damage, the hitting, screaming, biting, and the anger. At times it poured from her eyes. Tears may have helped her to begin to heal, but the anger that poured out only made her more fearful. The more she feared, the more she pushed people away with her heart and her fists.
Counseling and therapy were only band-aids for the real healing that Hailey needed. Just when she started to trust her therapist, she would move to another foster home, and start the whole process over. She couldn' make gains. Then, she started remembering things. Foster parents had reported a pattern of Hailey not wanting to take baths. Over time it was discovered that she had reported having memories that her mom had once tried to drown her at bath time. She had remembered not being able to breathe, and fighting for air. She remembered kicking and hitting her mother to free her until she did, but Hailey refused baths after that. Of course she did. Now we could understand. So at last we were digging deep enough to find out the "whys", but now we had to deal with the "hows" of helping her to heal. She would make small gains, while in care, but something would always trigger another episode and SNAP-she'd go off again, usually taking her eyeglasses with her. (That's why her eyeglasses were always taped. She'd snap them in two when she had a fit of anger and it became an ongoing problem, so she just kept wearing the taped ones.)
She got used to people asking her about them, but she never shared the deep down pain that made her break them. The pain that she herself didn't want to "see". Hailey was so young. She never had a chance to figure it out. She just kept on reacting to the pain. Over and over again. Just like her new foster home placements-over and over again. She wouldn't allow herself to belong. Every time it got close, she snapped. They weren't her mom, her sisters, her family. No matter how much her old life hurt, it was hers, and she missed it. She missed them. She loved them-her family.
Hailey had her court-ordered, supervised visits with her birth mother. She celebrated birthdays, and holidays, under the auspices of the county and the watchful eye of her caseworker. But that was all she'd ever have in this childhood. She would never be allowed to spend her childhood at home, with her family, again. She would remain in care until she was eighteen. She would be safe, if nothing else.
I remember the day I had to drive Hailey to a residential program. There were no more foster homes for Hailey. No more chances to have a family. No family that could take the place of hers, so she decided she deserved to be alone. Her fate? Her decision? No-not really. Hailey's behavior had decided for her. Her pain had made sure she'd suffer even more. No family for Hailey. Not hers or anyone else's either.
A little girl alone-abused, neglected, abandoned-again. Where do those feelings go, anyway? They can be made to become bearable with a lifetime of therapy and/or psychotropic drugs, or substance and alcohol use can make them "go away" for a little while, or they can create the next chapter of abuse, neglect, and abandonment for Hailey's child. It doesn't go away. It disguises itself, or becomes a scar that's there to remind. It can also be tucked away like a bomb. Ticking, ticking, ticking, until one day there's an explosion.
I remember driving away that day. We hugged and cried and a little bit of both of us died. Hailey knowing it would be a long time, if ever, before she couldn't feel the loss, and myself, for having to leave her alone. She needed the help that I couldn't give her.
I never forgot Hailey. Her memory stays with me always. That cute, roly-poly, brown-haired, brown-eyed, eight year old, who wore crooked, taped-in-the-middle eyeglasses, and who was one of my greatest teachers-my own special angel.
Hailey, forgive us, for failing you.
Roly, poly, brown-eyed girl,
age of eight, her life's a whirl.
all torn with lies.
Her mom's a drunk.
She has to face,
her life, is junk.
Hugs and kisses,
just a dream.
This little child
emits no beams.
Her voice fell silent long ago.
Her bruised sore body,
keeps taking blows.
She cries for help
that never comes.
She folds and dies,
each day's so glum.
life's a drag.
She'll start anew
from a body bag.
Kim Diaz 2012