Suspecting Child Abuse

When a Foster Child Suffers Traumatic Stress

I am Annie's voice.

When Annie was barely six months old, she was taken from her teenage parents and placed in foster care.  She stayed in our home until she was over a year old - then returned to them after they had "cleaned up their act".  But things once again spiralled downhill, and over one year later, she is back in our home- this time as a silent, confused and completely different child. 

A year ago, this same little girl was a smiling, giggling, happy toddler.  One that would squeal in delight when you tickled her feet ; one that would shriek with happiness as you chased her around the room.  Now each tickle brings a squeal of fright, and that same chase around the room makes her cry – even when you catch her in a hug.

What do you do when you suspect the child in your arms has been abused?

What do you do when there is no "proof" except for a silent child clinging to your neck and a doctor telling you she has all the classic signs? What do you do when she convulses as the nurse tries to examine her;  when she falls instantly and strangely asleep so she doesn't have to deal with the trauma that only she knows?  What do you do when she wakes up and looks up at you, and you ask in so many ways for anything - a word, a gesture, a nod - anything to confirm or deny what you fear is true? 

The doctor with a question in his eyes - his pen twirling in his fingers - waits for me to make a decision. His hand hovers over the paper; a pregnant pause fills the room.  And I know the answer I need to give.  The pen scrapes across the paper; the nurse gently pats my arm and gives a weak smile; nodding to affirm that I did the right thing.

The next day I sit at a table surrounded by "professionals" - those that have the power to change this child's life with a snap of their fingers.  And as Annie sits quietly on my lap - wide eyes staring, her finger tracing circles on my arm as her head lay on my shoulder - the minutes tick by.  As I talk, the hands of the clock circle at least once, and this child's head hasn't moved; the circles haven't ceased; her silence hasn't been broken.  My eyes and voice fill; for when a child has no emotion remaining, I feel my own heart must supply it.

I want to scream out to this boardroom of people who hold this child's fate in their hands "Can't you SEE??" I want to pick up their reams of paperwork and throw them in the trash since Annie's story is in her eyes and not written in ink.  What child sits and stares into space for an hour? Never before have I wished so badly for a child to scream and shout and throw a tantrum for an audience – it would make me cry with relief that this child was like every other.

What do you do when the proof they seek isn't tangible?  What do you do when that gavel bangs down, the book shuts, and the room empties?  A pat on the arm; a passing glance; a shrug of “there's-nothing-else-we-can-do” and the doors close behind me. I drive home breaking all speed limits - daring the police to stop me - my tears blurring the road.

As I walk through my front door with Annie clutching my hand, I hear my own children shouting in the background - secure in themselves; running across the yard with abandon; their laughter floating through the air.  With thumb in her mouth, Annie presses her nose against the screen door and silently watches, listening to the sounds of a childhood she has never had a chance to have.  Her silence hangs over me like a weight; one that I’m still unsure I can carry on my own.

I hoist Annie up into my arms and give her a light kiss on the nose. She stares at me blankly and settles her head in the crook of my neck; her fingers creeping across my arm to start their circles. I glance down at my list - names of doctors, therapists, social workers - hoping just one will give me that elusive "proof" I need to find help for this small, silent child. 

I tuck the phone in my shoulder and resettle Annie on my lap.  She is leaving soon for a weekend visit with her “father”.

And I have to let her go. 

As well as being a foster parent, Karen Elliott is a web designer and freelance artist who also works for the Yummy Mummy Club as the online editor.

She and her husband live in a small hamlet in rural Ontario with their two biological children and a continual stream of others who pass through on their childhood journey.