You Have To Make Them Bleed
Getting hired to work with children is easy. All that’s really required is responding to the barely worded classified advertisements in the back of newspapers. Social services agencies are often so desperate for anybody to fill the next available time slot that they’ll almost certainly give the job to any respondent. At the social service agency that hired me, the running joke – during trainings – was that we were willing to hire anybody that could fog up a mirror with their breath.
I was hired when I was 22, and I spent a little more than three years working with teenagers, mostly boys but occasionally girls. With the boys, I was expected to fulfill my role as a teacher-counselor, which included everything imaginable depending upon the client. Sometimes I taught crisis management. Sometimes I taught cooking. With the girls, I was expected to be a heavy, less a teacher than an implied threat capable of offering immediate calm in widespread crisis situations. That was the work and although I’ve been gone for almost ten years but I’d be willing to guess that it hasn’t changed much.
Although our kids came to us for a variety of reasons, the overwhelming majority of them came with the same horrifying histories. It always featured abuse that boggled the mind. After awhile, abuses started to blend together, such that only the worst of the worst stuck out. Occasionally, teammates and I would have brief conversations about what we’d read, and at other times, we told each other that we hadn’t read the files at all, because what did it really matter? There was no undoing what had been done.
We were tasked with helping our clients adjust to impending adulthood. This was especially true of our boys, as they would never be going home. This meant teaching all sorts of lessons but one of the most important was that actions have consequences. Those consequences could be anticipated, understood, mitigated, and, with appropriate decision making, avoided altogether. It was important then to maintain consistency with our clients. Unfortunately, there aren’t always consequences.
Rare is the day when parents are taken to task for how they treat their children. Many adults are often desperate to justify ill-treatment, even in cases where the evidence is overwhelming. These adults are getting challenged once again, this time after child-injury charges were brought against Adrian Peterson, an NFL running back credibly accused of taking a switch to his four-year-old son with horrifying and yet predictable results: bruising, lacerations, accidental strikes that reached genitals, etc. At that first link, there are photographs from a week after the incident.
This evidence is almost impossible to ignore, and yet, here is Charles Barkley explaining away the discipline as being just what Southern parents do. Whether or not this is something that many parents do hardly justifies it – lots of people have done lots of things, after all – but there are aspects of Barkley’s opinion that remain widespread in society. Not only will he not be the only person to say this, but there will be scores of people rushing to defend Peterson’s behavior. Hell, in numerous states, hitting remains a legal form of in-school punishment. A society comfortable with teachers and principals striking children is not going to draw the line at parents doing so. This is how the abuse continues.
Aiding it is when those with power refuse to intervene, or worse, give the behavior a tacit thumbs-up. In my case, it came after a round of golf with a local judge. He had inquired what I was doing and I explained my work. Eventually I brought up the statistic that I considered most odd about my work – that parents were never punished for what they had done, even in cases where no possible doubt could exist.
“I’ll tell ya son,” the judge said, “The only way I’m finding a parent guilty of abuse is if the punishment ended up in blood. You’ve got to make them bleed.”
He said this casually, easily, as if the “make them bleed” rule was some sort of established legal truth, as if there was no question about this, as if even having to say it was asking too much. He was on to the next subject immediately and I was left to stew on the claim’s implications. I suppose it’s saying <i>something</i>, barely, by noting that Peterson’s behavior would have strayed across this judge’s particular line. The switchmarks Peterson left behind were enough to draw blood after all. So that’s good?
One wonders though if the standard for interactions between adults is as strenuous. My guess is that it wouldn’t be, that one adult mercilessly punching another without drawing blood would still be considered criminal assault, nevermind one adult whipping another with a switch. Or maybe we do not wonder, mostly because we know better, because even a second’s worth of contemplation reveals that, societally speaking, we are more troubled by adult-on-adult violence that we are by adult-on-child. Before anybody insists that this is a false dichotomy – that we should be equally troubled by both! – know that I agree, and also that we are not. Because we know that children are routinely hit and we do nothing. If our response to domestic violence is woefully inadequate, our response to child abuse is plainly non-existent.
Part of that non-existent response is what made it so easy for me to get hired. I was not brought in for my expertise. I was not brought in for my skill. I was not brought in because I showed great promise. I was brought in because I was willing to leave for training a day later. I was brought in because I was willing to work a 112-hour-shift at the end of the week. I was brought in because I could fog up a mirror. And I was brought in because nobody gives a fuck about abused kids. That’s why they get stuck learning about how to live their lives from a 22-year-old political science major.