29 October 2010

Neglect: the invisible abuse

Abuse doesn't always manifest in bruises and other physical trauma. Joanne Hart says that sometimes it's about children being treated like strays by deadbeat parents.


A friend of mine goes to collect her 11-yr-old daughter after a school function, and her stomach sinks when she sees that young Celia* isn't waiting on her own. Beside Celia is another girl, Yvonne*, who has become her daughter's shadow. 

A sweet enough child - the problem is that little Yvonne, more often than not, ends up coming home with them and staying for days at a time. What do little Yvonne's parents say? Not much. Like call-centre consultants, they are disembodied voices at the other end of telephone conversations, requesting permission for their daughter to be fostered out to people like my friend for a day or two – or three.

But, on this day, the situation takes a turn for the worse. My friend's daughter is not only flanked by Yvonne, but there is a new child, Rosalie*, waiting with them. 

Rosalie announces that she is to stay with them for five days, but her mother would like my friend to call her?! Soft-hearted and taken by surprise, my friend says "okay", hoping that a conversation with the kid's parents will clarify what is a rather weird situation.

My friend calls the mother who, apparently, is quite happy for her daughter to stay with total strangers for a week as she is going out of town. My friend resists a bit, but eventually (more for the child's sake than anything else) she agrees. As she concludes the phone call, Rosalie's mother asks: "Oh, by the way - what is your name?"

The story gets even sadder - it turns out that Rosalie hadn't brought enough of anything with her, had no money for entertainment and was plagued by headlice. Being a resourceful and seasoned mom, my friend got all three of them checked and sorted out before bedtime.  As far as dump-sites go, little Rosalie had landed on a soft and safe spot. 

The five days duly came to an end, and when my friend took Rosalie home, she discovered that the mother hadn't been out of town at all. In addition, it appears  that the child gets parcelled out to strangers on a regular basis – which explained why the mother hadn't bothered to call her daughter once during her stay.

So, this is all mildly scandalous, but no-one got hurt, right? Annoyed and inconvenienced, sure, but these are minor issues, yes? No.

The real horror here is what can happen the next time that Rosalie arrives in the home of unvetted strangers or, even worse, what has already happened.

Apart from the potential dangers of molestation, abuse, illness and accidental injury, there's the actual damage of not belonging – no security. And, if you're being packed off with no money, inappropriate clothing and a massive case of headlice, we can imagine that zero self-esteem is the logical consequence.

But there's an even deeper and more subtle evil – the child is the one who has to absorb the frustration from unwilling hosts. Try as they may, even the sweetest of parents are going to be sighing and rolling their eyes by day three of the 'visit'. The neglectful parents aren't around to see it, but the neglected child is. One can only imagine what it does to a 10-year-old – not wanted at home by deadbeat parents, or by a successive line of strangers. 

Speaking to various moms who've been placed in similar quandaries, they add that these kids are often unhelpful and disrespectful, but that comes as no surprise to me. Being handled like unwelcome baggage or an unwanted pet doesn't really prepare a foundation upon which to build proper social skills. 

Other than speaking to various people at the school all the children in this story attend, my friend is at a loss as to how to handle this situation. Well, watch this space. November the 19th is World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, and we'lI do some research on the proper and available remedies for dealing with this kind of neglect.

(Joanne Hart, Health24, October 2010)

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent involved




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