Look before you leap...if you can
I answered an urgent call to our agency from a caseworker of a neighboring county agency. She explained that two weeks earlier a lady she had been counseling suddenly disappeared. The husband had been physically abusive toward his wife over a long period of time. Periodically, he was even abusive toward the children. The mother had been in domestic violence counseling and making excellent progress. She had separated from her husband. The mother had returned to the family trailer to remove some personal items two weeks prior to my receiving this urgent phone call. She specifically chose a time that the father would have been at work, but he was not at work. He was at home.
The next-door neighbor observed the mother and father in the yard talking while the children were crying. This neighbor was aware of the previous domestic violence, as she was the best friend of this mother. Since the two trailers were side by side, the concerned friend could see and hear what transpired between the couple.
The father began to talk louder and louder. The mother stopped responding to him and remained mute. According to the neighbor, the entire family calmly got into the father’s car and drove away. Although the friend had heard nothing significant that indicated the mother and children were forced to leave with the father, the friend was worried. When the caseworker made a home visit a few days later, the friend approached the caseworker and shared her concerns. No one had heard from the family for two weeks. The friend pointed out that the mother had left behind her borrowed car with a bag of groceries on the front seat. After the couple left, the friend called the police and made a report. The police had initially looked for the family, but the search had stalled as a result of a lack of leads. The police really had little evidence of a crime, but everyone involved believed the mother had not left under voluntary conditions.
Today the other caseworker received a call from one of mother’s relatives stating the address where the family was now living. The caseworker requested that I make a home visit to investigate, and she gave me the exact address that was in the county that I handled. Because many families move across county lines during investigations or while their case remains open, it is routine to work joint county investigations and to transfer open cases between counties. Infrequently, three or more counties can be working together with one family.
I drove to the address provided, which was one side of a newly built duplex townhouse. A man answered my knock on the door. According to agency policy, I gave my name, title and the agency’s name. I asked if he was the person on my report. The man stated that he was that person, and his family was home with him. He cordially invited me into the house.
The father was nicely dressed, providing a stark contrast to the mother’s apparent exhaustion. She wore no makeup, and her hair was in disarray. The two children (ages five years and three years) were playing happily around an elderly woman identified as the father’s mother. With the exception of the mother’s appearance, the scene was of a perfectly normal family. The grandmother offered me something to drink, but I declined the offer and began to explain the reason for my visit.
I explained that I was there to talk with them about the circumstances of their departure from their previous home. The father immediately became agitated. He stated, “Somebody down there called you—who?” I explained that I could not provide him with the name of who called. By law the identity of the reporter of any child abuse referral is confidential. I continued to discuss the situation.
I began by stating that there was some concern that his wife was not with him voluntarily. I stated that he could understand that I needed to be sure that she wanted to be with him. He dismissively but quickly assured me that everything was fine. Without making eye contact with me, his wife slightly shook her head in silent agreement. She looked at the floor while keeping her hands down by her side.
The father spoke rapidly. “Them people want to break us up. Yeah, they do!” I asked what people? He said, “The DFCS people want to break up my family.”
“Just ‘cause they do. Why, they get a kick out of breakin’ up families, forcing folks to divorce.”
I asked if he and I could talk alone. He agreed and told the others to go upstairs. As we discussed the issue of domestic violence and the circumstances of his family leaving the other county two weeks earlier, the father denied ever physically abusing his wife or his children. When his wife wanted to reunite the family, he was very happy. They were presently living with his mother until he could find a job, and they could move out to their own home. Next I asked to talk with his wife alone. The father was hesitant but agreed. I asked to speak to her upstairs with everyone else coming downstairs.
As the grandmother descended the steps, she asked her son if he told me about that time he was in “that mental place when you beat them up?” The father reacted by saying that was a long time ago and in Virginia. He claimed that experience had nothing to do with now. He explained that he was in the facility in order to “detox from drugs.” I just listened. The grandmother muttered that she wished “they” would leave her son alone, that he was “a good boy.” She was calm and cooperative.
The children dashed down the stairs displaying no fear; they ran to their father and were climbing on him. I took note and counted it as a good sign.
The mother said nothing as she walked to the upstairs bedroom farthest away from her family. She quietly closed the door, moving like a zombie. Her arms never moved from her side, and her eyes were always locked on the floor. I told her that I was there to insure she was safe and that she was not being forced to do anything against her will. When I asked her to tell me why she left the other county and came here, she remained quiet and non-responsive. Her eyes filled with tears that were beginning to drip off her face and drop onto her shoes. Still she said nothing. I repeated my question to her, but it elicited no response. I told her that I could not help her if she didn’t talk to me. The tears dripped more, but there were no other signs to tell me she even heard me. I waited.
“Thank God you are here,” she finally uttered softly. I waited for her to continue. She told me that she had prayed and prayed that somebody would come and rescue her and her children. Now she was looking directly at me but still talking softly as she told her story.
She gently raised her hands to reveal the massive bruising on the inside of her arms. There were additional bruises on her shoulders and abdominal area. Her intuitive husband intentionally made no marks on her face or neck. He had ordered her to keep her arms down so no one could see the marks. I was shocked.
She had been held hostage in this home for the entire two weeks. I asked if she had tried to run away; she explained that he watched her every minute he was awake. He kept the children with him when he slept. He promised her that if she ran, he and the children would be dead when the police arrived. He never hit their children, but he frequently hit her and the grandmother. I commented that the grandmother was also in need of help. She laughed quietly and said, “Not really. Them two are always knockin’ each other. She dishes out as good as she gets.”
The mother described what had been occurring when I knocked on their door:
Just prior to my arriving, the father had been complaining of an upset stomach. He announced that one of the two women had poisoned him at lunch. The grandmother exclaimed that was ridiculous. No one poisoned him. Immediately he focused his attention on his mother, slapping her in the back of the head. In retaliation, the grandmother balled up her fist and hit him in the chest. This blow knocked him into the refrigerator. The man was coming after his mother when I knocked on the door.
I realized I was in over my head. The only phone was downstairs in the kitchen. (This occurred before caseworkers were issued cell phones). I had to get out of this situation to alert the police! When I explained this to the mother, she grabbed my arm and begged me to take her and the children with me. She was sure that he would kill them before I could return with officers, and she added that he kept a loaded gun in the kitchen cabinet. Not only was I scared, but also I felt stupid for not requesting law enforcement to come with me in the first place. I had to think about what to do.
I knew I couldn’t leave alone. Should anything happen to these women or the two children; I could not live with myself. Somehow I had to separate this dangerous man from his vulnerable family. If I could get them outside where others could observe the situation in public, my chances of keeping everyone safe would increase. How to do that was not clear to me.
As I was trying to figure a way out, the father began yelling for me to come back downstairs. He was asking what was taking so long. I could hear irritation in his voice. He began demanding we come down! I instructed the mother to follow me down, remain behind me and to say nothing. She agreed.
We went down the stairs. The father seemed to relax once we started down the steps. Since the front door was right at the bottom of the steps, I opened the door. In my calmest voice possible, I explained that I needed everyone but the father to come outside, as I had to speak to him in private.
The father became suspicious as the children ran to their mother. He said, “Why they gotta go outside? No, no this ain’t right. No way!”
Suddenly, to my surprise and dismay, the mother screamed, “I’m leaving you! She’s come for me, and I am going. I’m leaving, do ya hear?” This declaration was met with a dead calm. My knees were shaking, but I managed to place myself solidly in front of the mother and children to block them from the father. As firmly as I could say, I told the grandmother to go outside with us. To my surprise, the father did not react with violence. He simply said he wanted no trouble, but he kept asking why I was taking his family. I told him that his wife wanted to leave. He took a step toward us, so I told the mother to take the children outside. She did. The grandmother did not move while the father continued to ask why I was doing this to him.
I was focusing on the father when the grandmother exploded in anger at me. She screamed, “No you ain’t gonna do this.” Then she ran outside, grabbed the three-year-old girl and tried to run upstairs with the child. I ordered the grandmother to hand me the child, or she would face arrest. The grandmother was screaming that I was “an illiterate.” I told her again to hand me the child. The father was crying, the little girl was sobbing, the grandmother was screaming, but she finally handed me the little girl. I am not sure what she thought “an illiterate” was, but she kept calling me this. The mother and children managed to get in my car. The father followed us out but kept asking why I was doing this to him. I ran around to the driver’s seat and slammed my door…
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