Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Protect Your Children Well
I’ve finally calmed down enough to write about what happened to Jessica about a week and a half ago. For a while now, I have wanted to write something about protecting our family members with disabilities from abuse, but the thoughts just weren’t coming together in my mind. Instead, they were tossing about like the numbered balls in a lotto machine. Little did I know that something would happen to cause all those thoughts to crash together right into my heart.
Jessica spent the first nine years of her life in the foster care system, a system where, unfortunately, physical and sexual abuse is more commonplace than anyone would like to admit. Jessica was born to a very young, non-English speaking mother. At four months of age, Jessica was diagnosed with brain cancer. After the removal of a brain tumor and two years of chemo and radiation, Jessica was left hemiplegic (limited use of the left side of her body – much like a stroke survivor) and significantly mentally retarded. Beginning in infancy, Jessica’s birthmother was overwhelmed with her care and relinquished her to Social Services. Thus began Jessica’s journey through foster care hell.
I adopted Jessica at age nine. She was confined to a wheelchair, was not toilet trained, could not speak such that anyone could understand her, and she was alternately aggressive and seductive (both results of her abuse). The first few years after the adoption were very, very rough. Jessica was not used to living in a strong supportive family, and probably believed it wouldn’t last. So before we could hurt her (in her mind), she decided to hurt us and do everything she could to disrupt the adoption. But, with lots of medical and psychological/psychiatric interventions, I believe she has finally decided to accept our family and perhaps even to love us.
For the last few years, Jessica has lived in a group home for children with mental retardation. The group home is very close to our home, less than 3 miles, and that means we still have daily contact with her. She is, however, moving towards adulthood, and the group home setting is helping to prepare her for life as an adult. For the most part, the group home has been a good environment for her. While there are some things I would change, I admit that my obsessive/compulsive and perfectionist tendencies are not always what are needed. Jessica has maintained the things I worked so hard to teach her and has also learned a lot about getting along with other people. Perhaps because things had been going so well, I was lulled into an almost apathetic attitude. But that all changed the night Jessica was assaulted by another of the group home’s residents.
It was a Sunday night. I had just spoken on the phone to Jessica and all was well. Twenty minutes later, the group home staff called me and said Jessica had been attacked by the home’s newest resident, a young man diagnosed with autism and extreme aggressiveness. The boy had tackled Jessica to the floor, hit her with closed fists, and bitten her twice on the face. I told the staff to take her to the emergency room immediately.
At the emergency room, Jessica was x-rayed, given a tetanus shot, and told to ice, wrap and stay off her left leg for several days. She had to resort to using a wheelchair, and spent most of the rest of her days last week in bed with an icepack on her leg. By Friday, her knee was getting more swollen by the minute, and she had trouble putting any weight on it at all. Another trip to the emergency room ensued, and once again she was x-rayed. No fractures were found, but she was referred to an orthopedic specialist for follow-up.
Through all of this, I tried to stay calm for Jessica, but inside I was seething. The group home staff and management KNEW this boy was aggressive and dangerous. The other parents and I had been complaining for weeks and asking that the boy be moved to a more appropriate, safer setting. But we were ignored – until Jessica got hurt, that is. After calls to Child Protective Services, Licensing, an attorney, and a consultation with the police, the group home did decide to discharge the boy last weekend. Immediately the mood in the house improved. The staff and the residents were calmer and happier. The crying had stopped and the kids who had been like prisoners locked in their bedrooms, were once again in the common areas and enjoying each other’s company.
While it is certainly better now, I just don’t know why this had to happen at all. As parents, we trust the caregivers into whose hands we place our family members. Those caregivers say they understand what is needed, say they have the proper training, say their hearts belong to their charges…yet harm still occurs on a regular basis to our most fragile family members. What can parents do? What should society do? How long will we continue to accept substandard treatment for the people in our society that have little or no voice in their destiny? I am embarrassed that as a parent I let this happen to my daughter. I am embarrassed that as human beings we aren’t doing more.