Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When Did Your Eyes First Open?

I remember a time when I was pretty naive about the world.  Do you remember that time in your life?  It hits everyone at a different age and time.  You know what I'm talking about...the event(s) that you either witnessed or experienced that opened your eyes for the first time to the tragedies that exist in our world.

For me, the 'opening of my eyes' was during an internship in college.  As I was cleaning off an old computer (by 'old' I mean one that had Windows 98 on it), I came across a paper that a friend of mine wrote in 2003 as a class assignment for college.  It is about part of my experience on the Cherokee Reservation back in the early 90's when I interned as a Guardian Ad Litem.   

While I was re-reading this for the first time in 7 years, there were a few things I was reminded of:

1.  I was/am very blessed to have a wonderful set of parents and a great childhood.
2.  If you think a swat on the butt of a child for misbehaving is abuse, you are mistaken.
3.  It's important to take good notes.
4.  There are things you will never be able to "un-see".
5.  A good cry cleanses the soul.

To understand, read below: 

Meredith Threatt
Advanced Comp
September 2, 2003
Kathy Crowley: Guardian Ad Litem

“Is it ok for my daddy to touch me…down there?”

The question hit Kathy across the face as it leapt from the lips of a normally shy twelve-year-old Native American girl whose brother was already one of Kathy’s cases.  Kathy’s defenses went up immediately. 

Her initial panicked thoughts of “how do we get this child out of that house?” had to be replaced by the rules her training had ingrained in her:

#1: Stay calm.
#2: Don’t ask too many questions.
#3: Call in a professional.

After all, Kathy was not a professional.  She was an intern. 

It was the summer of 1993, the summer before Kathy Crowley went back to West Carolina University to complete her four-year degree in criminal justice.  It was also the summer that changed her views of the world and of parenting.  And after a particularly trying case, it would be the summer that altered Kathy’s career path away from criminal justice altogether. 
On a tip from a college advisor, Kathy discovered an opportunity to be a summer intern with the Guardian Ad Litem program in Asheville, NC.  A Guardian Ad Litem is a volunteer who acts as a child’s voice in the criminal justice system.  As an unpaid volunteer, Kathy would spent her summer counseling children, investigating reports of child abuse and juvenile delinquency and occasionally making court appearances on behalf of children too young to testify for themselves.  Since Kathy’s major required an internship and she was already leaning toward a job with juvenile services, the position seemed like an exciting opportunity.  So early in June, Kathy packed her bags and moved onto the Cherokee Reservation to begin her work as an Ad Litem volunteer.
          The first case Kathy was given involved a young boy with deep scars on his right shoulder.  Kathy’s heart ached when she discovered the scars were from cigarette burns.  Apparently the young boy’s father had been careful to put his cigarettes out high enough on the boy’s arm that his T-shirt would conceal the wounds.  Teachers and friends were oblivious to the torment the young child endured at home.  To her dismay, Kathy soon discovered this sort of case was typical in her new role.
As the summer progressed, Kathy found herself working on the case of another young Native American boy.  This time it was the stepfather who was the abuser and he was beating his stepson.  While working on the case, Kathy visited the boy’s home and eventually met his siblings.  There were two younger sisters and a younger brother in the house.  The older of the two sisters was Anita (name changed for her privacy).  Anita was just twelve years old.  She was that same twelve year old girl that walked into the office and asked the question that sent Kathy reeling: “Is it ok for my daddy to touch me…down there?” 
As Kathy sat looking into the large brown eyes of the young, slightly overweight girl, she struggled to wrap her mind around Anita’s question.  Kathy gently explained that it is ok for daddies to hug their children and asked Anita to explain her question further.  While Anita tried to explain exactly what she meant, the training started to kick in and Kathy moved quietly to a phone.  She tried to keep Anita calm and at ease while she called in a professional detective.  It was imperative to keep Anita feeling safe enough to keep talking without letting her say too much before the detective arrived.  This part of Kathy’s training had been explicit.  While Kathy kept Anita occupied with toys and games, a detective slipped into the room and joined their conversation.  Kathy looked reassuringly into Anita’s eyes and asked the young girl to share her story with the detective.  As Anita talked, Kathy’s heart sank.  She realized the stepfather she was already investigating for beating his son had also had sex with his daughter.  What she did not know at the time was that Anita’s brother had seen it happen. 
A physical exam soon revealed that Anita, just twelve years old, was pregnant.  Later, DNA tests confirmed that her stepfather was to blame.  Kathy was appointed Guardian Ad Litem in the case.  She would be the young girl’s voice in this trial.  From that moment forward, every move was critical.  Every conversation was recorded in explicit detail.  Care was taken to follow the law to the letter.  And as each day brought them closer to trial, Kathy’s thoughts echoed in her head, “I can’t screw this up.  If I screw this up this father will get away with it.  If I don’t do everything right, he’s going to go free and that will be my fault.”
Kathy did do everything right.  Though the case didn’t make it to court until after the summer was over and Kathy had already returned to West Carolina to tackle her senior year, her case notes were entered into evidence on Anita’s behalf.  The evidence Kathy had gathered was impeccable and overwhelming.  Despite Anita’s mother constantly swearing it never happened, a federal court and a ton of scientific evidence convicted Anita’s stepfather of incest and sent him to prison.  Anita’s mother was ordered to receive counseling to, as Kathy puts it, “help her see that her alliances should be with her child.” 
News of the verdict did not reach Kathy until midway through the fall semester.  It came by phone.  The director of the Guardian Ad Litem program called Kathy’s dorm room to give her the good news.  Kathy was elated.  As she hung up the phone, she ran into the hallway looking for someone to help her rejoice in the victory.  Sorority sisters gathered round as Kathy explained the story and trumpeted the news of the stepfather’s incarceration.  The young women in Kathy’s dorm exalted with her.  But as the joyful celebration subsided, Kathy’s thoughts returned to Anita.
The twelve-year-old had suffered so much at the hands of her stepfather.  The trial that had offered a sense of closure and relief for so many did not end Anita’s suffering.  Anita was still carrying her father’s child.   Anita’s mother tried to force her daughter to have an abortion, but the unborn baby was considered evidence in the case and so its life was spared.  On a number of occasions, Anita had talked with Kathy about the baby.  The young girl wanted to keep the baby and raise it.  Kathy suspected that more than anything Anita simply wanted something of her very own.  But Anita wasn’t allowed to keep the baby.  Once it was born, Social Services forced Anita to put her baby up for adoption.  Anita, on the other hand, was never removed from her home. 
Ten years have passed since that arduous summer.  Kathy graduated from West Carolina University with a degree in criminal justice and started her career in that field.  After a few years as a parole officer in Georgia, Kathy opted to take a job in management with a large computer company.  Kathy still considers the Guardian Ad Litem program an exceptional experience and believes it is an important part of the criminal justice system.  But the abuse she witnessed proved to be something she couldn’t bear to see every day for the rest of her professional life.  Kathy is grateful that her experience with the Ad Litem program came when it did.  She says, “If I had seen the things I saw when I was just a year or two younger, before I knew all the theories on child abuse and before I had become firm in my religious beliefs, I’m pretty sure I would have gone the other way.  It would have driven me away from God and away from prayer, instead of solidifying my spiritual beliefs the way that it did.”

Take a couple minutes to say 'thank you' for the good things in your life. 

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