My now grown daughter, Beth, was a tweenager and had asked if a new friend could spend the night. Though I had met the mom who was on a PTA committee with me, I hadn't met "Elsie," a pretty little thing -- petite with blond hair and enormous blue eyes, but painfully thin. She was also sweet and docile, an unusual pick for my high-energy soccer-playing daughter. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but Elsie seemed overly eager to please, hanging around and offering to set the table and help me with dinner. (I secretly hoped my daughter was taking notes.)
That night when the girls began getting ready for bed ("sleeping" was not in their vocabulary), Beth asked me if I had anything for burns. My mother radar went up. "How did you hurt yourself?"
"It's not me," she said. "Elsie has a bad burn on her back and she's crying."
I grabbed some aloe salve and charged up to the bedroom. Three angry red stripes ran down Elsie's back which was so thin that her spine and ribs stuck out. "How on earth did you get these, hon?" I asked.
She stammered. "I dropped the curling iron down my back this morning," she said, trying to hold back the tears.
I looked more closely at the outlines. There was no way it could have happened the way she described. Elsie would have had to be a contortionist to position the marks in such a way, and why three bad burns? Instead of being tip down as a burn might have been had she dropped the curling iron, the tips pointed up. I shuddered, thinking how painful the blisters must be. Looking even closer, I noticed similar healed scars.
As I gently applied the aloe, I thought about her mother, a large, boisterous woman who talked too loudly and was a bit of a thorn on an otherwise agreeable PTA committee. I knew knew little about the family other than that Elsie's parents were divorced and she was an only child. Who else could the abuser be but her mother? But how to ask Elsie?
The soothing cream did its job, and she gingerly pulled her loose nightgown over her head, taking care not to touch her sore back. We sat on the bed -- my daughter's eyes as wide as saucers.
"You didn't drop the curling iron, did you, sweetie?" I asked quietly. Again her eyes filled with tears. She ducked her head and shook it from left to right.
"Was it your Mom?"
By that time she was sobbing. "It wasn't her fault. I didn't listen when she told me to hurry up and make my bed," Elsie said. "If I had just done what she asked, she wouldn't have burned me. You won't tell her I told, will you?" Her voice was panicky. I promised Elsie I wouldn't say anything to her mom, but that was where the promise ended. I knew I couldn't sit idly by. But who should I tell? A teacher? Social worker?
I tossed and turned all night long. After deliberating with my husband, we decided our only choice was to call Child Protective Services and ask them to investigate. I had no idea what I had gotten into, but I knew I had to do something.
My fingers fumbled when I dialed the number and asked for a caseworker. She listened carefully, wrote down the pertinent information and promised to look into it. "It's the law," she said. "We have to follow up on every report." She also assured me she wouldn't reveal the source of the report.
"Will you let me know your findings?" I asked.
"No," she explained. "The information is confidential."
After Elsie went home the next morning, my daughter asked if she could ask her to spend the night again. "Absolutely," I told her. "But you're not allowed to go to her house." Beth nodded, totally understanding why.
There was a PTA committee meeting scheduled the following week, and I was more than a little paranoid. Did Mrs. S. know I had reported her? Had anything been done to help Elsie? How would she react when she saw me?
I needn't have worried. She was a no-show. "Elsie went to live with her father," a neighbor of theirs told us. "There's a 'For Sale' sign on the house, so I guess we'll have to replace her on the committee."
I said a prayer of thanks that Elsie was out of harm's way, at least for now. But not knowing if she were going to a better or worse situation haunted me. The school was no help. They were bound by confidentiality rules too.
I hadn't thought of Elsie in years until Huizar's timely article on the One With Courage campaign that encourages people to take a stand and report abuse when they see it.
The signs of Elsie's abuse were obvious me because she bared her back to me. Had she been fully clothed, who would have known? Subtle signs are easy to overlook. But we must pay closer attention. According to Huizar, five children die every day in America due to abuse and neglect. Last year Children's Advocacy Centers across the country served over 279,000 child victims of abuse and their non-offending family members.
We owe it to them to stand up and "be the one with courage."
Warning signs of abuse:
1. Unexplained burns, cuts bruises or welts in the shape of an object.
2. Bite marks.
3. Over compliance or anti-social behavior.
4. Sudden changes in school performance.
5. Fear of adults.
6. Apathy or depression.
7. Hostility or stress.
8. Lack of concentration.
9. Eating disorders.
10. Lack of adult supervision.
11. Unsuitable clothing for the weather.
12. Dirty or un-bathed.
13. Extreme hunger.
[Compiled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Child Welfare Information Gateway and Child Help, National Child Abuse Hotline. 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453).]
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