Child abuse. Have you ever had the situation of where you were aware or witnessed child abuse or neglect? I did. At the time, I was only a child myself, probably in sixth grade and still in grade school when my mother and I accidently discovered a helpless victim. And we regret that we should have done more.
One block over and up the street from my house lived a family with dark and abusive secrets. I’m not sure how they even found out that I lived close by and was willing to hire out as a babysitter, but they did. The only catch was, I had to watch the three small children always in my house, never in theirs. Strange request since of course that is usually the gig of babysitting- go to their home; watch the kids; go home after parents return home.
However my mom didn’t mind having three extra children around, even at meal times. I am going to guess that the oldest was probably around seven or eight and I will call her Tara. Tara was cute with freckles and red hair, but I thought she was a little too skinny compared to other kids her age. Her younger sister, Angie, I am thinking she was around five or six and had beautiful dark brown hair. Robert, the toddler, had a shock of blonde hair and was a happy kid that rarely fussed.
Almost without exception, I would be asked to come and get the children; walk them down to my house; feed them supper and keep them entertained or put them to bed until their folks would pick them up. I was to never bathe them. Usually the parents, who I’ll call Mr. and Mrs. Smith, came around midnight or 1:00am. I guess they would be out dancing or something. I never asked. As long as I got paid, life was good at that age.
Tara would always complain that she was hungry. When I would ask her what she had for lunch, her answer would either be “nothing” or “half of a cupcake and cold spaghetti”. That was always her routine answer. I’m ashamed to admit it; at that point I didn’t believe her. In my own limited child’s mind, how could that be the same answer every time? But I was soon to have a life-changing experience that would change my naivety. The night finally came when the terrible secret of their home life was revealed.
Angie, the middle child, had an accident and didn’t make it to the toilet in time. She started crying and sobbing hysterically with absolute terror of her mishap.
“Angie! Angie! It’s okay! We all have accidents! It’s alright! Let’s go into the bathroom and I can help clean you up, alright? It’ll be okay, honest! You are not in trouble!” I said as I hugged her, caressing her soft brown hair and gently stoking her head to comfort her. I took her by the hand and lead her into the bathroom for a bath.
I started the warm bath water first and then stood in front of her while the water filled the tub behind me. I pulled off her little soiled blouse that I think she had worn for several days, and then her black shorts and cotton panties.
“I have to go potty” she said quietly looking up at me with undeniable fear in her precious eyes.
“Okay, go ahead and I’ll take your clothes to mom to wash while you get finished. Maybe I can find you some of mine to wear or something for now. ” I turned to walk out of the door but caught a glimpse of something wrong out of the corner of my eye. I stopped cold in my tracks and stared for a heartbeat. And then got sick to my stomach. I reached down to shut the water off, still holding her dirty clothes in my arma, while I told Angie –
“Angie, I’ll be right back with my mom, okay? Go ahead and go to the bathroom and I’ll be right back! ”
I stepped out into the hallway and ran into the living room where mom was sitting in her overstuffed chair working on a cross-word puzzle.
“MOM! MOM! Come quick! You gotta see this!”
“What’s wrong Vic?” she immediately lowers what she is working on and leans forward in her chair ready to spring into action.
“It’s Angie! Mom, she has been beaten! She’s bruised from the middle of her back to her knees!”
Mom threw the book down and jumped up to join me as we both re-entered the bathroom. Angie was finished using the toilet and was standing by the tub.
“Angie, can my mom see your back, please?” I gently knelt down so I could be on the same eye-level as her. She nodded and slowly turned around.
“Oh, my God!” mom repeated my exact words that I had thought to myself just a few minutes ago. By the green, yellow and black bruising it looked like it had happened more than once.
“Vic, why don’t you go ahead and help her. Um, maybe a shower instead of a bath if it hurts her to sit down? I’ll go throw her clothes in the washer and we’ll be as good as new in no time.”
About a half-hour later I met mom in the kitchen while the kids were in the living room. I had put one of my t-shirts and a pair of my little brother’s underwear on Angie for now.
“What are we going to do, Mom? Shouldn’t we call the police? That’s just not right!” I whispered to my mother so little ears in the other room couldn’t hear me.
“I called my friend Martha who is a nurse at the ER at the hospital. She said to bring Angie up there tomorrow when she is at work.”
“TOMORROW?! Why not now?! I argued. Even though I was young myself, I knew the sooner the better with a situation like this.
“No, she said that the doctor who is on call tomorrow is much better at prosecuting things like this, so it would be better to wait until then.”
“I don’t like it! What if they don’t ask me to babysit tomorrow? Then what?” I shake my head in total objection to the stall tactic of my mother and her nurse-friend Martha.
“Well, if that happens, we will think of something. But for right now, let’s check to see if the other two kids have any marks or bruises on them. This may be more than just Angie.” Mom suggested as she whipped around to march back into the living room where the children were sprawled out on the couch fighting off sleep. Tara and Robert did not appear to have any signs of abuse on them. Only Angie.
After her own clothes were dry, we dressed Angie back into her own clothing and let her go back to sleep. And then we waited for headlights to pull into the driveway.
Very much later that evening, a drunken Mr. Smith staggered into our home. He was a large man in both stature and girth. Mom and I stood in the kitchen by the stove and watched him as he weaved his way into our living room after he threw a crumpled twenty dollar bill on the table.
I leaned over very close to mom’s ear and asked her very carefully –
“What are we going to do if he hits one of them?”
My five foot- two mother who had some Cherokee blood in her responded –
“Take him out somehow. Between the two of us, we should be able to knock him down. We just have to make sure that he doesn’t get up, okay?”
I nod in agreement as I ponder how much force it would take to topple him over if I went for his knees.
“HEY! GET UP! WAKE UP! C’MON! WAKE UP!” He bellows while shaking his fist in the direction of the girls. Mom and I prepare to pounce if he strikes any of them. He bends down and gently picks Robert up to carry him out. The girls slide off of the couch cushions, rubbing their sleepy eyes as they groggily stumble out into the darkness.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was tormented by what I had seen and what I had witnessed with a new set of knowledge of innocence lost.
The next day Martha called. Bring Angie up now. She had spoken with the doctor and they were ready and waiting on us.
Mom and I hopped into the car and drove up the street to the little white house snuggled in the quiet middle-class neighborhood littered with bicycles, a swing set, and a red wagon.
I knocked on the door. It opened only about three inches with a safety-chain preventing it from opening any wider. I noticed how dark the house was even though it was a bright sunny summer day outside. It looked like all of the curtain shades were drawn and no lights on in the house. The face that peered out from behind the door was Mrs. Smith. And she had a black eye.
“Hi, Mrs. Smith. Say last night Mr. Smith paid me too much money! So mom and I thought that maybe we could take the kids down for some ice cream at the Dairy Queen as a way of saying ‘thank you’.”
“Well, that’s awfully nice of you Victoria, but they’re sick today.”
“Sick?! All three of ‘em?! I’m sorry to hear that. They all seemed okay last night . . .”
But what I really wanted to say was “Look, we saw what someone did to Angie. We have contacted the authorities. . “, but I continued not wanting to reveal my true emotions –
“Okay, well maybe tomorrow then.”
The next day, I tried again. Only this time I walked up the hill alone and was going to pretend that I was bored and just wanted to see the kids, and then make a run for it with Angie if I had too. Behind the scenes, all the pieces were again in place. Martha. The doctor. Plus mom was sitting in the alley just out of sight, with the car engine running.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I waited and tried to see if I saw any movement through the drawn living room curtains. None. So I knocked again. Still no answer.
“Oh, I think they moved” . . . came a voice next door from a neighboring yard.
“MOVED?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘THEY MOVED’?! I WAS JUST HERE YESTERDAY!” I shot back at the lady who was standing outside watering her flowers.
“Yeah, well I thought it was really strange to be moving stuff in the middle of the night but I think they’re gone.” She nonchalantly said as she puffed on a cigarette with one hand and held a garden hose in the other.
I was too late.
With my colored pencils, I drew a picture of me babysitting those three kids. I still have that drawing. Whenever I run across it in my box of heirlooms, I stop and say a prayer that they survived. Especially Angie.
But I wonder if I should have done more. I think so.