Two weeks ago, I wrote what I then felt was a story of hope. Or, perhaps, what I then felt was the story that should be told. Everyone involved, from the neighbours to the Rotary Club members who were assisting, to the woman and her children, was talking about the chance for a happy ending.
I had my doubts. Having been defeated over years, women leaving batterers often return several times before ever permanently escaping abusive relationships. And, battered women tend to be at high risk of being killed when they do finally decide not to go back, creating great fear about trying to permanently leave. Women also face endless harassment from their abusers during the process of leaving itself: repetitive calls to their phone day and night as well as demands, guilt, blame, manipulation, pressure and promises. Familiar with such harassment, women may feed this pattern, perhaps because they feel incapable of moving ahead on their own.
I had other hesitations, what if this woman couldn’t manage the stress of caring for seven children by herself, even with charitable help for an apartment and living costs? Could she heal enough to re-establish clear thought, good decision-making and secure self-esteem if, in the end, she never received sustained counseling? In this likely scenario, would the children heal as they should or just endure, perhaps repeating a dysfunctional cycle in their own lives as they grew?
I write again about this real life story, which I suspected wouldn’t so simply unfold. There’s an eighth child due in a few months, following a failed termination, and the woman remains a heavy smoker, though when I took her to hospital last week the doctors said that it was affecting her heart and breathing. She left the apartment secured for her and has taken the children with her back to their father. She and the children remain at risk of various levels and kinds of abuse.
The clothes and other items they received from public help are at risk of being sold to pay for their father’s drug addiction. They can tell you where drug blocks are. All the children there are at risk of being involved in stealing, with parental knowledge, to survive.
The neighbours have been pushed away, for the woman felt that they were too much in her business. She’s threatened them harm if her children are taken away by authorities, and, fed up, her neighbours are resorting to responses we know so well: ‘she must like the licks’, ‘she wants the children so people will provide charity’, ‘there is nothing more we can do’.
Right now, they wait impatiently for the Children’s Authority to remove the children from the room where they again now live, all of them sharing two beds, the oldest complaining of cockroaches. There’s a home where the children can be sent together, but it’s the authorities who have to exercise that decision-making power, and they need to do it sooner rather than later.
One older boy, who has had to look after the younger siblings when both parents are not there in the day or at night, starts to cry when he talks about the situation, his feelings of frustration and powerlessness clear, for the adults whom he loves who will not do what is right.
Every day those children are around such neglect of their needs counts. How many days until their situation changes? What does a happy ending for them mean? How can we help make that possible?
Before we resort to the single narrative of woman-blame, we should remember that daily, professional, even over-the-phone, crisis counseling for a woman trying to leave a long-term abusive relationship is not accessible, making the messiness of this current outcome much more likely.
Even if a good shelter takes in all the children, they are unlikely to ever receive the extent of counseling they too need. Both batterers and victims have often grown up in abusive homes, and in one way or another repeat details learned through socialization to violence. Crucially, our social services are completely unable to cope.
This is one story, of thousands, across the country. Today it is told with more uncertainty than hope.