For many years, I have been an advocate for women and children in crisis. I have volunteered my time and donated my resources to protecting those who are most vulnerable in their greatest time of need. Like many people, I kept my ‘lens’ focused on the seemingly obvious, the presumption that the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by men against women. The truth is a whole lot murkier, a whole lot more complicated than that. It took a virtual hurricane to level my assumptions, to broaden my understanding, to remove my self-imposed blinders, to open my viewfinder.
Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned of us get it wrong. Really wrong.
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For months, they were confined in a single room in a women’s shelter. Eight kids, ages nearly-two to nearly-thirteen. Even with court-ordered visitation, there were weeks when their mother simply wouldn’t allow them to leave to see their dad.
Their muscles atrophied, they were constantly sick. When we were able to take them out to play, they would complain of aching joints, aching muscles, feet hurting… even walking hurt. They had gotten used to captivity. It took its toll.
Five months confined.
Their mother has a five bedroom home, now- rent paid for in full by the state. They are still confined. With a playground in sight of their bedroom windows, a month went by and they hadn’t been out to play. They venture out, now, alone. Minding each other as best little children know how. Left home alone frequently, they make the best pasta meals they can and feed each other. They aren’t being schooled. At all. The oldest girl (eleven years old) is trying to teach herself, as best she can. The rest of the younger kids can’t even read. Or write.
They miss trees. They miss their five acres in Pleasant Valley. They miss their log home. They miss the wood stove warmth and their dad. They miss their dad.
Their dad gave the log home to their mother, along with a fifteen passenger van. She refused the home and sold the van. The log home has been repossessed by the bank. Their garden didn’t get planted this year. They harvested wild strawberries from their playground fields for the last time in June, mowed the lawn and wondered what would become of their home.
“We carry our ‘home’ with us,” I whispered, through their questions and tears, “no one can take THAT from us, in the end.”
But their sense of stability and home is forever rearranged. Displaced. Disjointed. Their oldest brother has been bounced from a mental hospital to a boys’ home- and now, most recently, to foster care (by their mother). He no more than gets settled in one place and she uproots him, displaces him, forces him back into chaos and deeper into the system. His counselors are confused. They can’t imagine why a mother would give away her own child, especially a gentle, well-adapted, considerate and traumatized boy who has not once evidenced any type of violent behavior of which he has been accused.
The kids are grieving the loss of their father and their oldest brother. The littlest boy cries inconsolably for his brother, when he is tired. Saying his name over and over again like a mantra, he weeps his baby grief into my arms. I cry with him. There’s nothing else that can be done.
The system is irreparably broken. There were no charges filed, no trial, no evidence, no jury of his peers on the day the court granted a 20 day ex parte order against the children’s father, an order that ended up lasting for more than two months. In fact, he wasn’t even present in court. He was at work. At his job. Supporting his family as he had always done. He had no knowledge that any action had even transpired, much less any opportunity to question the horrific charges against him. Because it is considered a “civil matter” and is handled by family court, he never had the opportunity to defend himself against the accusations before his children were awarded to the person who kidnapped them.
There is no “men’s shelter”. There is not one single advocate for a man who has been systematically destroyed by a woman for thirteen years. There is no free legal help for a male survivor of domestic violence. In fact, there is silence. The silence of a community. The vast emptiness that exists in the wake of false allegations, nine restraining orders filed under false pretenses- that emptiness echoes with the questions and the fears of eight lost children.
Who will advocate for them? Who will stand up for their right to an education? Who will ask the hard questions and demand accountability of the woman who is collecting every possible form of welfare and community assistance, and is incapable of using seat belts and car seats to safely secure her children in a vehicle?
Who will question why a person can obtain the homeschool funding to school children and buy a new laptop with that funding, but has yet to even begin instructing those children? Who will question why a woman with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, who has traveled and lived abroad for years, who refused to work outside the home in gainful employment as a teacher, who decided to bring eight children into the world- who will question why she refuses to do the work of educating them (or, at minimum, allow them to board a school bus and join their peers in established classrooms)?
Their dad’s hands are tied. He can’t advocate for them, their mother made certain of THAT. Their oldest brother can’t advocate for them any longer- she made sure of that, as well. Seven months have passed. The youngest child has now been separated from his father for more than a third of his short life. The oldest child is living in foster care, surrendered by his mother due to no fault or action of his own, in spite of the fact that he has five family homes open to him in this same community- the homes of his uncles, aunts and cousins. The oldest child has only seen his father for two hours total in the past two months, in spite of a court order mandating that he be allowed visitation with his dad twice a week for a total of 13 hours/week.
The Office of Children’s Services is over-burdened by the mere thought of involvement in a case that includes eight children, and so has conveniently sheltered themselves behind the wall of silence. Inaction.
Who will question how it could possibly happen that the oldest child is committed to foster care and is housed by a foster parent who is married to the person responsible for his “treatment plan” and counseling. Yeah… about that. Conflict of interest, anyone?
And so it goes.
The funny thing about truth is that it’s often inconvenient. Ugly. Unpalatable. It’s so much easier to just believe that “surely, there has to be SOMETHING that man did to deserve this, after all… there’s two sides to every story.”
We always want to believe that somehow, the person who is suffering grievous injustice and unspeakable wrong is culpable. It absolves us of accountability. That’s a function of epistemic myopia, my friends.
Ask the hard questions. Do your research. Investigate. Do the WORK. Don’t ‘shelter in place’ from human suffering. Be the difference. Question your own closely-held beliefs. Accept accountability and take action. Refuse to be silenced.
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