Child Abuse Season and the Prayerful Principal

My “Holiday Child Abuse Memo” which came out in early November each year, covered up all kinds of passion and emotion, sadness and trauma. So much in schools revolves around seasons, and the memo served as a kind of code reminder to educators that we were entering a season of trouble.

Educators are witness to a kind of trauma associated with dealing with some horrible abusive situations. And the responsibility for the most basic health needs of children (don’t let them get raped or beaten up at home) seemed huge and remains so. It was during these kinds of incidents that I began to pray at work, and to feel the presence of a kind of threat I couldn’t really identify. Who knew where the abuse would come from? What if I missed the signs? Teachers of elementary age children generally do not sanitize their orientation towards their students. Many teachers feel what their students feel and must work hard to maintain balance, focus, and a sense of proportion as they see individual students suffer in ways they can’t help.

Ostensibly, abuse increases around the holidays due to a kind of crisis on the part of many parents of the reality-expectations gap. Our culture portrays this time of year as filled with happy family gatherings, abundant food, and marvelous gifts that signal one’s success. The television is filled with ads for children that result in shrill nagging, “ I want that!!” The frustrated parent can easily snap and slap too hard, and step over the line in other ways.

This season of growing peril is also Advent on the Christian calendar. As Advent begins we pray in thanks and expectation for the coming of Christ, the light of the world. At the same time we know that for many children, the strength of evil grows in parallel. As a kind of meditation, I have laid out a few of my professional experiences with abuse in juxtaposition with excerpts from prayers from the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church for the four Sundays in Advent.

1st Sunday of Advent

At our home we light the first candle on the Advent wreath and read from The Book of Common Prayer,

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….

 

The first I knew of what happened to Reba Mae was when she started talking about it and crying at school. I was a teacher then so I wasn’t aware of this aspect of school administration, or life for that matter. Our school psychologist told me it was a kind of hysteria, the need to tell everyone everything, no matter what the social cost or impact. For years her older brother, also a former student at school molested her in their shared bedroom at home. She was threatened to never tell, but she did. The police responded by putting the brother in jail but his parents managed to bail him out. When he got home he laid his right hand on a stump, choked up on an axe like a confident hitter at the plate, and chopped off his index finger on his right hand in front of Reba Mae. Her mother came to school and yelled at her in front of her class for ‘what she done to her family and her brother.’

2nd Sunday of Advent

We light the second candle on the Advent Wreath and read again from The Book of Common Prayer.

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to head their warnings and forsake our sins….

 

I wasn’t aware of this incident either until John came to school with a large bandage around his head, similar to one of those World War I movies. His mom was angry at his wise-ass attitude, and in response, threw a full coffee can at him. He wasn’t able to duck in time and ended up with gash across his forehead and a good number of stitches. He was also placed in a foster care receiving home, but really didn’t want to be separated from his mom and siblings. I learned this later, that no matter what the abuse, the kids want to stay connected with their families.

 

3rd Sunday of Advent

We light the third candle on the Advent wreath and read from The Book of Common Prayer,

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

I was involved in the referral for Larry when I was still a teacher as well. He lived in a family that had many cats and that did not bathe or do laundry. As a result, his clothes were stained in fresh and not so fresh cat shit. His skin was in a constant rash that could have been anything from a bacterial infection to scabies. Calling Child Protective Services (CPS) I learned that this was a social condition that fell under the legal rubric of ‘benign neglect.’

This meant that a social worker could go to the home and instruct the family about hygiene but there would be no serious repercussions, unless the child suffered from social or psychological effects. This was the ticket. Kids teased this boy as you can imagine and I wasn’t too happy with having him in class either. He received additional counseling services and was taught how to clean himself and his clothes before school. Our school also had a washer, dryer and spare clothes so he could wear them each day until his clothes were clean.

4th Sunday of Advent

We light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath and read aloud from The Book of Common Prayer,

We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by they daily visitation…

This incident was not the first I dealt with as a principal, but it haunts me to this day.

I knew that several single mothers in one of the apartment complexes were drug addicted and when they were high they neglected their children. We made several calls and referrals to CPS since the kids were dirty, had head lice, scabies and often came to school hungry. The school cooks always had extra snacks for hungry children and these kids benefitted from this unwritten policy. Social workers came and interviewed the children but their program consisted of trying to help the families improve in terms of hygiene and organization. One day, the kids in one family were removed to foster care and we didn’t know why. After a call to a worker I learned that a 15 month old child had received a ‘donut’ burn from the mother. The mother had become frustrated with the infant because he wouldn’t potty train fast enough, and she dipped his bottom in scalding water to both punish and wash off the fecal matter. This seemed to me the devil’s advent wreath. Of course he was burned badly. She took him to the clinic and was arrested.

When school resumed in January after the Christmas (now winter) Vacation, abuse always dropped dramatically. January was a month for academic focus and undistracted progress as the hopes and disappointments of the holidays faded. The merchants knew that no one had any more money to spend on toys and tinsel. Advertising was muted, and the neglect and abuse of children declined.