One of the toughest jobs I ever held was that of Child Sexual Abuse Investigator.
For many years, I listened,, while boys and girls of differing ages opened up to me about the theft of their innocence by a trusted adult. Exposed to the underbelly of unnatural human atrocities, my world quickly darkened. The experience drained me and often threatened to rob my joy. I continued, however, out of the sense that protecting these children from further abuse was important enough to justify my own secondary trauma.
Until I met Donna.
Interestingly enough, the final straw on my camel’s back had less to do with the darkness of the content and more to do with the flaws in the system.
Donna, a 13 year old girl, came from an impoverished family. Living in a dilapidated shack, away from town, Donna’s family were considered to be of the lowest caste. Her father, a day laborer, could be found wandering along the road inebriated most nights. Her mother, rarely seen at all, often sported bruises.
Donna attended public school, but had little interaction with other children. Often with the odor of the unwashed, she stayed to herself to avoid the taunts of mean children.
I met Donna, after receiving a CPS call from her teacher. The 8th grade students had been asked to write a story about love. Miss Preston, the teacher, read Donna’s assignment and immediately called me. Donna’s love story, you see, described a sexual act between a child and an older adult in the woods.
Of course, the young teacher professed, that by observing Donna’s withdrawn, anti-social behavior in her class, she had suspected all along that Donna’s dad had been molesting her.
I MEAN JUST LOOK AT HIM!
As I began to work with Donna, however, the truth that emerged looked very different. Her father drank nightly and often beat her mother, causing a fair amount of anxiety throughout her young life. But her dad was not, she proclaimed, the man in the woods. No, she had been lured into a relationship by the kindness of a stranger; seduced for over a year and groomed for his gratification.
The perpetrator in this story dwelt high atop the small town class structure. He held a much more powerful position in society than the common parents of Donna.
A true predator, he had observed this child, who longed for any act of kindness, and finally bought the loyalty and love of a 12 year old girl with a bar of chocolate, some compliments and a few sweet words.
Now, when I recount how vigorously I investigated the allegation with a fierce intent to expose this monster…well, I must admit that I let it get personal. My heart and mind were fueled by outraged at the thought that a child’s innocence could be bought with a bar of chocolate. So justice for Donna became my obsession.
I found corroborating evidence from the girl’s statement and located family members of his who recounted their own experiences and were willing to speak of the abuse in court. I felt great satisfaction when the DA accepted the case.
However, a few weeks later, I learned a painful truth that shook me to my core.
I discovered that the DA’s office were dropping the charges against the rich man.
His children, in deference to their mother’s social standing in the community, decided not to testify, and denied all statements made to me.
According to the DA, At that point, the case became “unwinnable”.
I argued that Donna gave very credible testimony and could carry the case. But, the mock jury that had viewed her testimony apparently found her to have been a “voluntary participant” because she verbalized that she fell in love with the man.
Without going into all of the legalities of a 12 year old having the ability to legally give consent, suffice it to say, that I was appalled. And I truly saw an ugly truth I had never clearly seen before.
The class disparity between victim and perpetrator played the starring role in the farce that was justice for Donna.
He was rich and had standing.
She was poor and had nothing.
Donna seemed relieved when I told her, which both amazed and shamed me. As most victims do, she carried with her the shame and self-blaming for the crime against her.
My obsession with finding justice had led me to veer away from my own true mission: helping Donna find safety, permanency and well-being. Learning the ugly truth about the inequalities of the system, filled me with the shame of my own privilege as well.
Donna found permanency with an out of state aunt, who had been estranged from her brother for years. With compassion and caring, she helped Donna to get some needed service interventions: counseling, tutoring and a positive mentor. Most of all, she demonstrated to her niece that kindness and caring does not have to come with a price.
As to the perpetrator, he suffered a stroke not long afterwards and passed away.
As for me, I continued working with abused and neglected children, listening to their pain but also to their visions. What would make them feel safe? What did they need to thrive; mentally, physically and emotionally?
By focusing on their vision, instead of my own, I became more empathetic and more effective in helping their vision come to pass.