EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in a multi-part series about child abuse. The second story will be published in the April 9 edition of The Itawamba County Times.
When she was three years old, Cleo’s stepfather had sex with her.
Allegedly, this and similar abuse occurred repeatedly and continually for years until, after a long and difficult battle, Cleo’s biological father and stepmother gained custody of her.
It’s impossible to describe the impact sexual molestation can have on a child. Cleo’s stepmother tried anyway:
“We’re constantly in a position where we have to think about her safety,” she said. “Our family doesn’t function on a normal level. We’re always in crisis mode.”
Cleo’s father elaborated:
“It’s sad when you can’t even take your daughter to the Christmas parade because you’re afraid of who you might see,” he said. “She’s always looking over her shoulder, wondering if the person who abused her is coming up behind her.”
Sitting between them, Cleo, now nine, tapped on the screen of a phone. She asked if she could draw on a nearby dry-erase board. Her parents consented. She smiled brightly, then slipped out from between them to play nearby.
“She remembers it,” Cleo’s stepmother said. “She panics a lot at night. That’s the part people don’t see.”
True, it’s unlikely few would suspect Cleo, which isn’t the little girl’s real name, had been through something so traumatic. Children can often hide secrets surprisingly well. Or, when they do tell them, it may be in ways that adults don’t understand or fully comprehend.
“These kids have been told that nobody’s going to believe them,” Cleo’s stepmother said. “In their eyes, what [their abusers] have told them is true.”
Cleo’s secret was revealed through her drawings … graphic illustrations penned by a girl seemingly too young to comprehend them. When her father and stepmother found them, it changed everything for all of them.
“You don’t want to believe it; you don’t want to even think about it,” her stepmother said. “It just … I felt rage. I felt like somebody had violated our home. My first instinct was just to grab her and tell her that everything was going to be OK.”
It would be, in some ways. In other ways, however, things wouldn’t be OK at all.
Even in this day and age of near-constant sharing, child abuse — sexual and otherwise — remains a taboo subject. Like Cleo’s stepmother said, people don’t like to believe such atrocities are possible, let alone talk about it.
Unfortunately, child abuse is disturbingly common. According to Angie Floyd, supervisor and social worker with the Itawamba County Department of Human Services, her office currently manages around 30 prevention or protection cases … that is, families in which some form of child abuse has been identified and with which local social workers are working. There are currently 24 Itawamba County children in foster care, meaning the kids have been removed from their homes for the time being.
Most reports of child abuse, Floyd said, start off small … hints and rumors reported to her office from teachers, local law enforcement or calls to the national tip line. All tips, no matter how small, are investigated by one of the seven local social workers within 24 hours.
“We try to make contact with the alleged victim within the day,” Floyd said. “We interview all household members and do a full walkthrough of their home looking for any safety risks.”
The social worker will also contact correlating sources — teachers, church members, family friends — in order to verify the reports of abuse.
What happens next varies from situation to situation: If a child is in any immediate danger, the social worker will make contact with Itawamba County’s youth court judge to get him or her out of that environment as quickly as possible. That’s the last resort option, however.
“It’s traumatic; we don’t want to do that to a child unless he or she isn’t safe,” Floyd said.
In most cases, social workers try to mend families, not tear them apart. It’s important, Floyd said, to check for underlying issues. Putting a bandage over an infected wound won’t help it heal.
“We try to look at the bigger picture,” Floyd said. “There’s so much more that can go into abuse … Were mom and dad drunk, or on drugs? We try to get the help for them.”
According to Floyd, substance abuse is the single largest issue facing her office … children living in an environment in which one or both parents are drinking or using heavily. Often, this abuse follows another source of stress … the loss of a job, for example. The abuse is the result of releasing pent up frustrations and isn’t necessarily something that will repeat. Yanking the child away from his or her family in a situation like that is only adding fuel to the fire.
“They’re self-medicating, and then taking their frustrations out on their children,” Floyd said. “We’re trying to get them the help they need to keep the family together; we want to do whatever we can to keep that family together.
“Do we think daddy is abusing his child on a regular basis? No. But we need to get help for his alcoholism,” she added.
Making the decision whether or not to pull a child out of a home is a challenge.
“It’s always a tough call, but we have so many tools in place now,” Floyd said, adding that support from the state level — including training and a better distribution of cases — has improved dramatically in the past decade, making it easier for social workers to make the right call.
The right call, Floyd said, is always the one that most benefits the child. In most cases, that’s staying at home under the supervision of the DHS; in the worst cases, that may be with a foster family.
“The big thing is permanency with the kids,” Floyd said. “Hopefully, that’s with their parents. But most importantly, it’s with someone who is going to love them.”
Someone who loves her
“She knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are going to keep her safe,” Cleo’s stepmother said as her little girl settled down into the chair next to her.
Cleo’s fortunate. Despite the horrible things that have happened to her … despite the nightmares that may plague her forever … physically, she is safe.
The same can’t be said for every young victim of abuse. For Cleo’s parents, it’s an awful, gut-wrenching truth. To this day, they continue to fight for justice for their daughter — to tell her story and make others aware of all the “Cleos” out there.
They’re screaming at the top of their lungs; they’re just hoping somebody is listening.
“There are ways to protect our kids,” Cleo’s father said, looking at his daughter. “First, we have to believe what they tell us.”
Next week: Fighting the good fight.