"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just Tell Me What You Want Me To Say

I represent children in a fair number of abuse and neglect cases. It tears your heart out and infuriates anyone to see a child treated badly. One of the trickiest things in an abuse case is to get the child to even tell you about it. The child may be afraid of the abuser or, just as likely, the poor thing is more interested in protecting the parent than himself. Sometimes a child will come forward to protect a younger sibling but most are extremely wary about saying anything that will get their parent in trouble. So all that means that when a child comes to you to report abuse, you have to take it seriously. It may be the only time they get up the nerve to tell someone.

So what do you do when the child you have in common with your former significant other reports that he is beating her (but there are no signs of injury); that his wife calls her names; that she is not allowed to eat with the family; that she has to watch her half siblings open presents while she gets none; that they say she (the mother) is a fat pig; that her step mother said that she didn't deserve to have toys because she didn't take care of them; or that the child is stupid, just like her mother? Mind you, in this scenario, I am not suggesting that the child has been physically injured or has reported sexual abuse.

Well, if you are like most people, the first, most immediate thing you are going to do is try to get your rage and terror under control enough to keep from having a stroke. Next? Call social services? Call his mother? Call a lawyer? Call the police? Call HIM???

So is your first instinct to call him? Yes? To check her story? Because that doesn’t sound like him? Because the two of you clearly have a problem and need to get to the bottom of it?

Good for you. That is what co parenting involves and it doesn’t matter if you are living together or not. When a child knows that her parents are going to compare notes, and, more importantly, when a child knows that her parents trust and respect each other, she has no strong incentive to make things up. Accordingly, what she is saying is far more likely to be the truth even if it might be an exaggeration.

So was your first instinct to call a lawyer, the police or social services? Did this just confirm what you always suspected? Have you ever told your child that the other parent was a bad parent, had a crappy significant other, was mean, that you didn’t like them? Yeah, I mean even ONE TIME. Really. Just once. Then slow down. If you have had that conversation with your child – even once – you’ve dramatically increased the likelihood that your child is going to exaggerate and make things up because it gets your attention and because, frankly, they think you want to hear it. It brings the two of you together, don't cha know? That doesn’t mean she won’t be telling the truth but those of us who deal with the kids are going to look at it pretty closely based on very common experience.

It is a terrible thing with a child lies about a parent because it pleases the other parent or gets them attention. Sadly, it is not rare. Think about the emotional place this child is in if he/she would do this.

I frequently (frequently) have parents in an absolute uproar because their child is reporting awful things about the other parent or the parent’s spouse. The incensed parent takes them to court, extended families in tow, utterly convinced that the judge will surely arrange things so that their child never has to see that SOB, again.

Hearsay is always a tricky thing because a young child is rarely called. However, in the interest of getting to the bottom of things, especially when lawyers aren’t involved, a lot of it gets in. As a guardian ad litem, I will object to introducing a child's out of court statement if it contradicts what the child has told me or told his therapist. But I generally don’t object if it is something I have reason to believe the child would say if he or she were called. After all, the court has to have some idea of what the fuss is about. And if it keeps the child from having to testify, I’m happy with that. Moreover, I always get to give my report so I can place the comment in context if it needs it.

Earlier this week, I saw a young mother lay her head down on the table in court and weep. Her child (who is just a precious little thing - I keep her picture on my computer and am looking at her, right now) had been telling her mother all kinds of horrible stories that simply weren’t true. There wasn’t a shred of truth to them. The mother had spent months encouraging the child to give her more and more details to strengthen her court case. To put the best spin on it, mother was convinced this was the way to protect her child. But she had blinders on. She never checked with the child’s therapist (the child began going to a therapist when the guilt caught up with her). She never checked with me. She never checked with the child’s father. What ended up happening was that the child was having a complete meltdown in her guilt and grief. She couldn't even get through a day of school on the days she was going for visits with her mother so angst ridden was she that she'd have to keep up the charade. What started out as a means for the child to get her mother’s attention turned into writing “affidavits” that her mother assured her would land her "horrible" father and step mother in jail. The mother had convinced herself that was what they both wanted.

Imagine the effect on that child who knew it wasn’t true, couldn’t tell her mother (who she loves), couldn’t tell her father (who she loves). The mother was playing gotcha co parenting and saw this as a golden opportunity to get back custody of her child. She didn’t see the emotional damage she was inflicting on the poor child, which was severe. What this mother did was outrageous. And you know what? I think she genuinely believed everything her child was telling her and that she was doing the right thing. That mother (and child and father) were in a hell of mom's making.

Now, mind you, the child began reporting similar things about the mother to the father. She admitted that she did this to try to keep things even - bless her little baby brain. The difference was that the father reached out, immediately to confirm with the mother, who denied any such thngs were happening. Sadly, instead of telling the father what the child had been telling HER, she kept that under her hat with the notion she'd ambush him at trial. When the father couldn't get to the bottom of things with the mother, he took the child to a therapist who figured things out in short order.

I get a LOT of custody/visitation cases like this.

It isn’t easy trying to co-parent.

If I can, I hope to be able to work a bit on some quilting stuff, today.


Anonymous said...

What a tightrope you end up walking. You certainly deserve quilting time today. And a glass of wine and an Evelyn serenade. Enjoy!


Lisa said...

I've heard the stories from my grandson while his daddy was in the Army.. He came out and told his papa that mommies boyfriend threw him into a wall and he hurt his back. I checked while he was sleeping and found a bruise. I ask mommy and she said oh boy friend scared grandson and he fell backwards into a wall. Another time he cried and said boyfriend hung him from his ankles over the stairs railing. Again I spoke to mommy and she got mad and wanted to know why he made up stories when he visits me. After that I didn't see him for 4 months.
Now the 3 year old step granddaughter told me she didn't want to go with her daddy cause he locks her in her room.. This one we wonder about since he's a druggy, he was recently arrested while under the influence on a weekend while his daughter was in his care, by chance he dropped her off with his mother....
Can we believe these kids? I know I can't say anything cause there's no right for grandparents in Florida.
I'm sorry these things have been nagging me for sometime now...

cindyquiltsOR said...

I worked with teens, and told them early on: I am almost shock proof, so don't bother making up a bigger story. Just tell me what is going on, truthfully.

They wanted to be heard and believed, but also knew I was a mandatory reporter ...

Bless you for listening.
Cindy B.