By WENDY HODGE
I know a girl who is very brave. She is a friend of my best friend’s daughter. Her voice is quiet, not because she doesn’t have anything to say, but because she is unaccustomed to the sound of her own voice. Or maybe she’s just not used to someone hearing her. She is petite with a shy smile, and for several months she spent a great deal of her time at my best friend’s house. Between eating meals together and driving the girls to and from school (and all over town), I got to know her very well. We all did.
One night, a few weeks ago, I got a phone call in the middle of the night. It was the same sweet girl. She was at a sleepover at my best friend’s house, and she needed someone to talk to. She was crying. We switched to video messenger so I could see her face. And she told me the truth – about her home, her father and the nightmare she had been living.
I watched her struggle to find the words. She spoke haltingly at first, but with every sentence she found strength. Her father is an alcoholic. He has a temper. Her mother drifts in and out of her life, bringing nothing good with her. Her siblings (and there are several) and she share a small house and a couple of bedrooms and a history of abuse. The house, like the children, bear the scars left behind by adults who were never meant to be parents. This father’s and mother’s legacy is this: a broken window, bruises in the shape of hands, empty kitchen cupboards, a crescent-shaped scar on a child’s forehead, sheets sagging from windows, stomachs that rumble with hunger, a mistrust that may take a lifetime to overcome… and fear. Ever present, insidious, life-altering fear.
On this night, when this brave girl called me for help, she had been sent a video by a sibling who was still at home. She played the video for me. Children were crying and screaming, facing the wall with their arms outstretched, waiting as their father counted down before striking them … over and over … while hurling obscenities, calling his children names that I wouldn’t call a rabid dog. All because someone had misplaced something.
It took everything I had not to get sick, not to rush to that house and save them all, not to hurt that man. Instead I told her I would help her, whatever that involved. The police were called to the house where her siblings were hoping someone would rescue them. When they arrived, they spoke to the father, who assured them all was well. When the children were questioned, they did what they have always done – whatever it took to survive. They told the policemen they were fine.
So a plan was made. The next morning, I would take my best friend’s daughter and her scared friend to the police station. She wanted to be the one to break the silence and tell the truth. Nobody slept that night. When morning finally came, we drove downtown and parked. I asked if she was ready, and she answered, “Yes, ma’am.” The three of us stood on the sidewalk looking up at the emblem above the door – protection For All. I reached out to open the door, but the brave girl stopped me and said, “Can we all pray together?” Her words stunned me. Of all the things racing through my head, praying was not one of them. But it should have been. We bowed our heads, and she asked God to protect us all and make us brave. One of us already is, I thought, while I looked up at her face as she spoke.
Over the next couple of hours, this brave girl told her story to a detective, a police sergeant and to a social worker. She played the video, and I had to turn away. Every single person in that room cried silent tears. Even the social worker was speechless for a moment. And then, everyone got busy. Reports were filled out, numbers and names and dates and events logged detail by detail and a new plan was made. The children would be separated from the father and interviewed separately by someone who was trained to elicit the truth. We went home to await the fallout.
I wish I could say there is a happy ending to this story, but real life rarely ties everything up in a neat package with a pretty bow. That day, when a girl was brave enough to speak out and do what was right for herself and her brothers and sisters, was the day they all entered the child welfare system. It is a train with wobbly wheels that runs on a winding track whose conductor means well but whose hands are tied behind his back. And the passengers are children who just want to go home – whatever that may mean to them. My best friend and I, along with his children who are loved and fed and praised and unafraid of the adults in their lives, do all that we can do. We stand by and watch as the train rolls on and hope that, like the broken windows in that sad house, her spirit can be mended and she will always be brave.