I know what Mary Ann’s is talking about. Been there, experienced that, done that. When I was six years old I told my mother about the two teenaged boys who touched me in an inappropriate way.
My mother said, “That’s where babies come from,” but she didn’t do anything.
What if my mother had done something to support me instead?
To my shame, I too, failed to report an incident of domestic abuse that I witnessed a few years ago.
I shared this story with Mary Ann when we chatted on the phone in early April. I had called Mary Ann to interest her in supporting my Walk Across Oregon to Stop Abuse and Heal the Wounds. We started the Walk Across Oregon in 2008, specifically to address the issue of child sex abuse, but in Winston, Oregon, we ended up witnessing domestic abuse. Our support van parked across the road from a house on a rural road, and, as we paused to refresh ourselves by drinking water and eating snacks, we noticed that there was a man standing on the front porch of that house. The man held a beer in his left hand while he shouted and gestured at a woman. She circled the house as though she was looking for a way into the house, but she never entered.
We watched this interaction unfold for more than thirty minutes, debating on what we should do. Although we were all profoundly disturbed by what we saw, we ended up doing nothing. We ended up walking away, and while we were walking away, the man continued to stand on the porch and shout and gesture at the woman, who continued to circle around the house. Later, when I recounted the incident to domestic violence advocates, they told me that we should have called the police.
It is hard to know what to do. Sometimes abuse doesn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct at a time and in a way that social workers can conclusively document. Sometimes, victims of violence and abuse are struggling with their own relationship and self esteem issues and don’t welcome outside interference. Sometimes the perpetrator of the abuse is a well-respected man in the community, and people can’t believe he is an abuser. Sometimes the perpetrator is a woman, and some people can’t believe that women are capable of abuse. But there are consequences for not reporting abuse which impact our whole society.
A few years ago I was posting flyers for the screening of a film on clergy abuse that I hosted. I decided to give a flyer to a man selling Street Roots, a newspaper written and sold locally in Portland, Oregon, by people struggling to overcome homelessness. Upon reading the flyer, the man confided to me that he was chronically abused as a child in nearly every foster home in which he lived.
Then he added, “I haven’t told the guys down at the shelter about that.”
After our conversation ended, I walked down the street to the Park Blocks, and offered a flyer to still another man selling Street Roots. He, too, confided that he was a survivor of chronic child abuse. Certainly many homeless people are on the streets for reasons other than child abuse, but I’ve gotten in the habit of asking, and I have found that around 50 percent of the homeless people I spoke with were victims of some form of child abuse mixed in with the war veterans and others who appeared to have biologically based mental challenges.
So victims of abuse and emotional trauma suffer depression, anxiety, low self esteem, problems with trust, boundaries, relationships, jobs, drugs alcohol, and housing -- often so severe that they cannot maintaing jobs and housing other people find routine.
And there are other, more severe consequences......
In November 2009, at least five Oregon women were killed by ex-husbands or boyfriends who preferred to kill the woman in their life rather than give up control of her. In December 2009, a 15-year-old girl named Jeanette Maples was tortured to death by her mother. Friends and family reported her case numerous times to the Department of Human Services, but caseworkers concluded that she was old enough to advocate for herself. But like many victims of abuse and violence, she was too cowed by those who abused her to tell the truth to authorities. In another chilling case that made the Portland Oregonian newspaper this spring, a five year old girl living in Portland suburb died after repeated beatings by her father’s girlfriend. Investigators said they found it hard to believe that no one around the girls observed the violence perpetrated on her, but there are no records of any reports made to authorities.
Why should we care?
Because all the forms of abuse are related to each other. If children are being abused by a father, it is likely that the mother is also being abused by that same man. Moreover, Mary Ann told me if the children aren’t victims of violence, but the mother is, the children still frequently suffer from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from all the violence they are witnessing. Moreover, as child victims often grow up, they often have such poor self-esteem, that they are vulnerable to even more abuse as an adult such as date rape and domestic violence. The cycle of abuse goes on and on..
Why should we care?
Because the cycle of abuse won’t stop until we become brave enough to talk about it, report it and support the traumatized survivors. Supporting survivors is another important issue, because it is so much harder to heal alone and unsupported.