Talking about the hard things

 

In September 2007, I walked into the doors of Childhelp as a Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Investigator not knowing what to expect. New to the field of Child Protective Services, coming from a background of non-profit management and auditing, I quietly tried to observe and take everything in. My task as a DCS worker was to observe a forensic interview of an adolescent boy perpetrated on by a family member.

Watching the interview, I remember thinking that the child looked embarrassed to talk and I hoped he would feel comfortable enough to disclose. When he did, I remember thinking, “Wow; I would love to have that job.” Talking to children, making them feel safe enough to talk, breaking down barriers, and letting these secrets they have been holding in be told.

I remember thinking, “I would love to work in this building that seemed so magical and relaxing to a child despite the trauma that brought them there.” Two years later, I received the opportunity to be the forensic interviewer for Childhelp and I took it. Since I began at Childhelp, I have interviewed over 800 children reported to be the victims of abuse and neglect they were subjected to by their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, other family members, and people that were supposed to be trusted family friends.

It was serendipity, I suppose, that I began working in this field. My family moved to Knoxville at the end of 2006 and I tried to find a job utilizing my masters in public administration. However, shy of the 24 hours in accounting needed to apply for state jobs with a small child and no familial support within a 9 hour radius, going back to school was not an option. Once upon a time I dreamed of working with children who were abused and neglected, so I decided to take my chances in the social service field. I took a job with Child Protective Services not really grasping what I was getting myself into, but it was a decision that I have never regretted. Our team (DCS, CAC staff and Law Enforcement) rely on each other to get through the horrible things that we hear and see, and then try to help. Recognition from peers, the District Attorney, Law Enforcement and DCS lets me know that I am skilled at what I do. But it’s the instances when I am thanked by a child for helping their family that I am really reminded why I continue to do this job.

My days are filled with phone calls from DCS and law enforcement setting up interviews for the week as well as talking to both agencies about current cases for the day. But all my cares, problems, and personal heartache disappear when I step into the interview room. What each child needs is my undivided attention, and they get it whole heartedly 100% of the time. The things I hear, people outside of this field do not want to believe happen. Everyone hears about cases that make the news, people killing and dismembering children, sex offenders abducting children, etc. When people hear these stories, their comments are always how unimaginable it is followed by “how could someone do that to a child.” The cases that make the news are a minute percent of what we hear, see and try to prevent from reoccurring on a daily basis.

I have talked to children who have witnessed their father’s murdering their mother. I have talked to children who have been told by their mother that they are all about to jump off a bridge and as their mother climbs onto the railing she says they are going to go live with their father in heaven. I’ve talked to children that can tell me step by step how to manufacture shake and bake methamphetamine to pay their mother’s rent. These things happen and are a part of my daily reality.

My interviews have been used in court to secure convictions and to obtain plea deals that lead to prison sentences totaling over 100 years so far. The advocacy center is a safe place for children to come and talk. Commonly, I talk to children that have been re-victimized by another perpetrator. When I ask if they remember coming here before, the thing that stands out to them is our play room. I know that our facility is providing the best environment and least traumatic way to talk when a child has disclosed horrific things and upon a return visit only take away that they had fun in the playroom and remember our tree.

With 800+ interviews, there are so many children that have had life experiences no one could imagine. One in particular stands out to me - a ten year old girl that was raped and impregnated by a family friend. At age eleven, she gave birth to her first child. Being a heavier set girl, the child’s mother did not realize her now 11-year-old daughter was pregnant. The family friend had told the girl if she told anyone that he would kill her, so she remained quiet until 7 months later when she could no longer keep her secret in. The friend called to say he was coming by for a visit and the child disclosed to her mother. Her mother immediately bought a pregnancy test and called the police. Imagine how that mother felt finding out that someone she trusted had done this to her child and not only that but now they have fathered a child with her not even teenage daughter! Once in jail awaiting trial, the perpetrator began talking to other inmates about taking a hit out on the girl and her family. The perpetrator tried to take out not one, but two hits out on the girl and her family. These two instances where he reached out to someone that he thought was a hitman, it was actually an undercover officer. The perpetrator did not stand trial and took a plea deal to serve 37 years.

So tomorrow as you sip your coffee and wonder how to make a payment on a bill, worry about your child’s bad grade in a class, or something along those lines, think of the children beat beyond black and blue. The children who haven’t reached out for help and the workers that are working around the clock to try to do what they can to keep these children safe. And maybe your day will seem a little brighter, your life a little less complex, and hopefully it will remind you how important it is to do what you can to make a positive difference in the life of a child.

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