My sons, 7 and 9 years old, have made lots of friends at school since we moved here a little over a year ago. My older son befriended a classmate who was held back a year so he’s 10 years old. We’ll call the boy “C” for our purposes here. C has had trouble at school not only with grades but also with some misbehavior such as taking things of very minor value, like a shiny rock or a Pokémon card, from another child’s bag. The items were returned and he served in-school suspension for this. C gets picked on by other kids sometimes and does his share of dishing it out too. He is often at the park across the street from his house where lots of preteens and teens hang out after school so he tends to act a lot older than his age would indicate. He has a younger brother who is 6. We’ll call him “N”. N has some developmental issues both physically and mentally.
Both C and N have spent a lot of time at our house to play. They can be a bit of a handful and I admit there were times when they knocked on the door and I thought “Oh gosh, not today. I don’t know if I can handle these guys right now.” As I got to know them and their mother, I started feeling like these boys could use some positive experiences in their lives. Thus, I talked myself out of my negativity and focused on being positive about them being around a lot since it was clear that they had lacked for many positive experiences.
Their parents split up when they were very young. The mom has dealt with addiction issues and mental health issues throughout her life. I don’t know much about the dad other than the fact that he is married to another woman and they have very young children. C and N visit with him regularly and always report that they enjoy their time there. The boys currently live with their mother and her parents. Her parents work and seem nice enough in my casual meetings with them. They live in a duplex that is cluttered from stem to stern to the point that in order to get around the house, you have to use very specific pathways. In short, they are hoarders. Garbage litters their house and the mom of the boys has one room, her bedroom, that is not that way. She has to share it with her two sons. She can’t do anything about the rest of the house because she is living there out of the generosity of her parents and they will not let her throw anything away, saying “If you don’t like it, you can move.”
The mom has kept herself free of drugs for a long time and while she has switched jobs somewhat frequently, she has continually been working. She’s had one steady job for about 10 months now with a commercial cleaning service. Right before she got her current job, she met a guy and they started dating. When she had to work, he would watch the boys. Once school started in the fall, if she was not going to be home when the bus got there, he would watch the boys until she got home. I met him a few times and immediately got a very bad vibe from him. I started noticing that he spoke harshly to her and her sons. C started getting grounded for a few days here and there for “disrespecting” his mom’s boyfriend. I talked to C in a very non-confrontational, casual way to see if my bad feeling about this guy was right and if he was hurting them.
C basically said that the boyfriend was strict but that everything was fine. I wasn’t really convinced so I sat my sons down and without trying to seed specific ideas in their heads, explained that sometimes if people are being hurt, they are afraid to tell. I explained that children in particular are sometimes afraid to tell an adult that they are being hurt for various reasons. I asked them to keep their ears open and if they thought any of their friends or classmates, really any child they know, were being hurt to try to give them support and listen to what they had to say. I asked that they encourage a friend in such a situation to tell an adult that they could trust like a parent, a teacher, etc. I also told them that if that happened they needed to tell me right away so that I could try to help them too.
A few weeks later, my 9 year old told me that C had confided in him that his mom’s boyfriend hit him and N a lot when his mom wasn’t around but never did it in front of the mom. He went on to explain their whole conversation and it became clear to me that the mom had instructed the boyfriend that he had discipline powers over the boys but that those powers did not include physical punishment and from what he told me, what was going on when she wasn’t there went far beyond that. My son said he asked C to get his mom alone when the boyfriend was not there and explain what had been happening. He told C that if his mom didn’t believe him, he could talk to me to see if I could help him.
I was filled with anxiety because I was afraid of how this would end up but also hopeful that C’s mom would believe him. He didn’t come over that day after school so I texted his mom to invite her to bring the boys over the next day, it was a weekend, thinking that perhaps I could give them a space to talk. She said she would like me to have the boys over because she needed to have a talk with her boyfriend. When the boys came over, C told me that he had told his mom about what the boyfriend had been doing and that she believed him. She told him she would break up with the boyfriend and was sad that he had hurt them. When it was time for them to go home that day, their grandfather came to pick them up.
A few days later, C came over after school and told me that when his mom confronted her boyfriend about hitting them and broke up with him, the boyfriend beat her up, “but not too bad.”
Needless to say, I felt terrible. I comforted him and asked after his mom to see how she was doing, if she had the support of her parents, etc. Long conversation short, he assured me that she was safe and his grandparents were being supportive. He said I had to keep what had happened to her a secret because his mom didn’t want a bunch of people to know and he wasn’t supposed to tell me. I kept checking in with him and his mom for the next few days, all the while pretending to her that I didn’t know what had happened. About a week later, she asked me if I could get the boys from the bus stop after school because she had to work late and had no one to take care of them. I did so. When she came to pick them up, while they were still upstairs playing, she told me some vague details about how she had broken up with her boyfriend because he was an abusive jerk. She explained that now, because both of her parents work and her break up, she was going to lose her job and have to try to find a different one. She explained that the only jobs she can really get are housekeeping or cleaning crew or convenience store types of jobs. Basically, she doesn’t have the luxury of choosing her hours and is easily replaceable so if she doesn’t have someone to watch the kids, she either has to call off or leave early…both of which have caused her to be fired in the past.
She of course started apologizing for telling me all of this. I offered her comfort and support, which I hope helped in some small way to make her feel a little bit better. She was clearly at an impasse. Breaking up with the abusive boyfriend had also put her at risk of not being able to financially support her children. As you can guess, she doesn’t make much money on a cleaning crew and was already scraping by without having to pay a babysitter to watch the kids. So that was the choice she had to make in deciding to believe her sons and leave their abuser who then abused her as well: stay, get abused and allow her children to be abused but have the financial resources to feed and clothe her children or cut ties with him and face the consequences from her job because she doesn’t make enough to pay a babysitter and was going to get fired. I can’t imagine being in that situation. I can’t imagine how hopeless she felt.
I shared this story with you to help illustrate the issues that many people don’t think about when they hear about victims of abuse. There are far more ways that the lives of these people are affected than what appears on the surface. If you think, well it’s just money, try going without it for a while and see how that goes. Think about these things the next time you are about to say “why didn’t she just leave?”
The other point to this is that if you are a parent, encourage your children to listen to other children and try to get them to go to a trusted adult if they are being hurt and to report it to you so that you can try to find a trusted adult for that child if they don’t have one. I abridged the contents of the discussions I have had with my sons about these issues for the purpose of making this readable and not 10,000 words long, but there are many good resources out there to help you have this conversation. Don’t just stand by wondering or wishing you would have done something. Please.
[I hesitate to put this next part of the story in here, because I don’t want this to seem like I am looking for praise. The only reason I am including this is in the interest of helping others see ways that they can help victims of domestic violence. After C and N’s mom told me that she knew she was going to lose her job because of not having anyone to take care of her kids, I volunteered to watch them for free. It’s a few days a week after school and occasionally on the weekends. I can’t tell you how many times since I started watching them for her that she has broken into tears of gratitude. It really matters to her and it has helped make her situation and that of her sons a bit less hopeless.]
The point here is that there are many ways that you can help people who are vulnerable. You can donate to shelters or try to help people you know. Money, clothes, time, groceries, toys, whatever it is that you can give, I hope you will consider doing so.
**Please note that I got permission from C and N’s mom to share their story. She just asked that I not use their actual names.**