Why do people hurt the ones they love?
After 31 years in the Human Services field, I am no closer to the answer than I was when I started.
The speculation differs from person to person based on the narrative in their head. From working in both Mississippi and Alabama, I have heard all of the generalizations, including those based on prejudice and bias. For example:
“You know that most abuse is perpetrated by African Americans (or Mexicans or Arabs or any other minority).
According to statistics of children coming into care from abuse and neglect, the percentage of Caucasian to African American perpetrators is almost completely equal with other minorities in a completely lower percentile range.
“Its the lower class, welfare recipients that hurt their children”
I have investigated a family who lived in a camper in the woods, who took good care of their child. I have also investigated a case, where the butler let me in to a foyer the size of my house. That child was, indeed, abused by his alcoholic mother.
You see, Stereotypes just dont work when it comes to predicting child abuse.
A case in point was Simon Peter Masterson.
I had been investigating abuse reports for about two years in Mississippi, when I got the call about 16 year old Rachel. A shy girl, Rachel typically changed into her gym clothes in the bathroom. On this day, however, all the stalls were taken. The coach had threatened to fail her if she got on the court late “just one more time”. So she quickly changed in the locker room with her back to the lockers. But the wall of green metal offered no protection from prying teenage eyes. A classmate gasped at the red welts climbing like ivy up her back.
“What happened to you?” She asked, revulsion curved her lips into a downward scowl.
Rachel muttered something about falling into a sticker bush before pulling down her shirt and running into the gym.
The teen girl told her math teacher what she had seen. The math teacher told the counselor. And, after trying to get more information from Rachel about the injury to no avail, the counselor called DHS. I responded to the school to interview Rachel.
Rachel was dressed in a long skirt and a modest blouse. Her long hair coiled around her head and ended in a tight bun held together by multiple Bobby pins. Her face was fresh and make up free. When the nurse and I examined her for injury, we found that she did, indeed, have multiple healing lacerations covering her back. There were no other marks on her (which undermined her story of falling into a thorny bush). However, she did not waiver from her story. Her eyes begged me to believe her. When I explained to her that I would need to speak to her parents, she began to cry. Her mother died when she was a baby, she said, and her father was doing the best he could. Rachel asserted that she had never received a whopping like this before. She didn’t want her dad to get in trouble.
When I asked what led to the whipping she explained. Rachel told me that her family was involved in a very strict religious organization. Women were not allowed to wear make-up, cut their hair or wear pants. Following these rules made her an outsider at the school. She had been teased by kids who called her things like “Amish” and “Laura Engals Wilder”.
Sick of being different, she bought Jeans and make-up, stashing them in her locker. Every day she left for school dressed plainly and changed when she arrived. It made her blend in; feel normal. Somehow her father had found out and he had beat her with a rope to save her soul.
Due to the seriousness of the abuse and knowing that Rachel could be unsafe going home while I conducted the investigation, I arranged for a sympathetic aunt to take her in temporarily. I called Mr. Masterson, who was quite upset about his daughter staying with a relative instead of coming home “where she belonged”.
,My mind filled with images of this evil man who had to control his daughter so completely that it was justifiable for him to beat her with a rope when she veered away from that control. Obviously a dangerous man, I brought my supervisor with me on the home visit. Armed with assumptions, judgement and a healthy dose of anxiety, I went to meet Simon Peter Masterson.
The Masterson home, located down a long and winding gravel road, turned out to be a modest brick rancher nestled behind sprawling oak trees. We knocked on the door, bracing for the monster, and was greet by a small statured man. His face and hands were so lined with wrinkles that he appeared much older than the reported 45 years. Although he was very obviously not happy by DHS presence in his home, his demeanor was not threatening.
But the atmosphere was intense as the strength of his emotion caused him to tremble. So, he chain smoked throughout the entire interview.
Mr. Masterson recounted his family history as I took notes and my supervisor listened. He told of his own childhood experiences: raised in an ultra religious household where children and women were to be silent and obedient. Mr. Masterson knew physical abuse as a constant. At 17 years of age, he met and married a girl from the church. They had 2 daughters: Martha and Rachel and for the first time in his life he remembered being truly happy.
As he recounted the history, he continued to light one cigarette after the other. The room was almost dense with the smog like smoke. I asked if he could open a window, which he did.
Continuing, he recounted the day his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Martha was 5 and Rachel was only 2. He lost his wife within 2 months of the diagnosis. Interestingly, despite the robotic way he recounted the tragedy, I knew he had been devastated. With his wife gone, he raised the girls alone. Determined not to be his father, he gave a measure of freedom to the girls, allowing them to make decisions about their style, their friends and even their church.
Martha had joined a more progressive church and seemed to be very popular and happy. Then three years ago, she started acting different: defiant, belligerent and distant. He thought she was going through a phase, so he gave her some space. She overdosed on drugs a few days before her 17th birthday.
All of a sudden Mr. Masterson became increasingly agitated and his shaking became more pronounced.
“WHERE WAS DHS THEN?” he yelled. And he let out a short but loud guttural yell.
Shaken, I watched as he suddenly lept out of his chair and went to his gun cabinet, flinging open the doors and grabbing…
…Ok. So let me tell you what went through my mind in the seconds between the scream and the opening of the gun cabinet. First, I assessed where I was in relation to the only exit in the room: the front door. Unfortunately, I had chosen to sit on the couch close to the gun cabinet that required me to go past him to escape. My supervisor, more experienced, had chosen a chair right by the door. Playing the scene in my mind, I knew I would not make it. But, I could help her get out. I put my arms around the throw pillow ready to fling it at him, surprising him enough to allow my supervisor to escape…
Cut back to scene. Mr. Masterson flung open the gun cabinet doors and pulled out…
Another pack of cigarettes.
As he reclaimed his chair, his composure returned. Mine took a little longer as I practiced deep breathing, willing my pounding heart to slow down.
Lighting up a cigarette, he continued talking.
He explained that after Martha died, he blamed himself. Had he followed his teachings, Martha would not have been using drugs and would not have overdosed. So, he returned to the only parental style he knew: absolute control. When he found out Rachel had been sneaking around, wearing blue Jean’s and make up, he snapped.. Like his father did to him, he whipped her on the back with a rope. Afterwards, he felt the old shame and self loathing return.
“But I did it to save her”, he seemed to be trying to convince himself.
Upon leaving his house I discussed , with my supervisor, the death scenario that had played out in my mind including my plan to save her when Mr. Masterson pulled out that gun. She laughed and admitted she had thought he was getting a gun as well. But as for saving her, she had thought about how she was going to bolt out of the house and that she would miss working with me. We both laughed to relieve the anxiety we had experienced.
I left that house having learned 2 very valuable lessons.
Always take the seat with easiest access to the door.
When you begin an assessment with a family where child abuse has occurred, you cannot proceed with your own narrative until you take the time to learn all of the facts. Proceeding with preconceived ideas can result in you hearing information skewed towards your own narrative. It is so important to look beneath the stereotype to find the truth.
Mr. Masterson abused his daughter Rachel. That was fact. The underlying issues of past traumas and desperation, however, went much deeper.
This family had a good outcome. After counseling, parenting and other intervention, Rachel and her father reunited. He was able to learn and implement more positive discipline practices. They both improved their communication practices with each other.
As for me, I carried that lesson with me for the next 28 years in social work.
Meet the family where they are.
Don’t create a narrative without all the facts.
And, most importantly, I may not know the why behind all parents who abuse their children. But by engaging the families I work with, non judgementally and with a sincere desire to hear…I found that most families are not monsters. They are hurt people who hurt people and they don’t know how to stop.