Heartbreak

I Overlooked Horrific Parental Neglect Of My Own Child

Photo: joseph gonzalez | Unsplash
Young 13 year old girl sad and reflecting on her childhood thus far

I remember it so vividly, which is odd considering how little color I saw that day. It was an insidiously cumulative event, silently developing before the news of it burst through my phone line, stopping my world as I knew it, and immediately transporting me to a surreal place and time, parallel to, but with a feeling different than what I’d known.

Though life had been going okay in my mind, I guess I deserved to be awakened from both my nap and my ignorance, and abruptly so by the rude ring of a telephone. What a cliché way to ruin a reality.

I was given no time to brace myself for this shift of pace. And if nothing else, I remember my daughter’s face  —  so innocently unaware of the other way things could be. The way things are for people whose lives aren’t always in danger. The way things are for little girls with coloring books to fill.

I’d been withstanding abuse from my husband for years, but in doing so, I’d found a way to protect my daughter from harm. Playing along with his behavior meant he didn’t hurt her — or so I thought. I knew he displayed a general, narcissistic type of disinterest in her (except when in front of other people), but I didn’t realize how severe the neglect was. Worse than I could have ever thought, the depth of darkness existing in some people never fails to make me shiver.

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I know I’ll never know the full truth, the hideously complete tale of what my daughter went through with her father until she was three years old when we finally left. I planned for a long time. I even had a go-bag with a stash of cash. I was just waiting for the right moment, waiting for the safest set of situations for us to slip from his grasp.

At the time, though, my daughter and I lived a regimented life. Each morning, I packed her a bag for the day, and she went to work with her father. He worked at a pick-up drop-off store for a chain of dry cleaners, so there was no heavy machinery to injure her while she spent the day there. There was nothing at all for her to do in this empty brick building. That’s why her bag always had snacks, a rotation of toys, coloring books, crayons, and a change of clothes.

The weight of the guilt for sending my daughter to spend unsupervised time with her father weighs on me to this day. You may be wondering how a woman undergoing abuse allowed her daughter to be alone with the man throwing the blows. So was I, and honestly, I don’t know how to explain it. Perhaps it was a product of his psychological abuse, but I was certain he would never hurt her — and I was wrong.

I think I was just trying to get by, and my daughter is the one who paid the price.

I felt desperate. I didn’t know another option. I worked part-time in the hospital as a nursing aide and went to nursing school full-time, working a total of four 12-hour shifts a week plus courses and projects. It wasn’t easy, but who else would watch my daughter as I prepared us for a better future? I was committed to leaving him; I was just stuck at the moment, but I had a plan.

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So what happened on the phone? Well, Barbara, a woman who sometimes shared shifts with my husband but mostly held down the fort when he didn't, was on the other line asking if I needed any help and that she had bought new coloring books and crayons for my daughter. While I thanked her for her generosity, it was unlike her to call the house instead of my husband’s cell. And what did she mean by asking if I needed any help? There was this sad tone in her voice; it was almost apologetic.

I questioned her further, and she requested I come into the store to talk privately. It wasn’t far from the house, so I scooped up my daughter and drove us over there. I spent the 10-minute drive racking my brain for what could be going on. I felt sure the anticipation of not knowing had to be the worst part. I was wrong again.

I’m not sure how long our conversation lasted. It felt like a million years. It felt like a sliver of a second, too. I was listening intently to what Barbara had to say, but I had eyes on my daughter the whole time. I felt the tears welling in my eyes. I tried to hold them back as she talked.

Throughout this conversation, I learned that Barbara had discovered my three-year-old all alone, crying in the corner of the store on two occasions. Both times, she had forgotten something at the store and returned at a time when my husband wasn’t expecting to have company. He had turned the store’s sign to closed and shut off the main lights. I learned later that he used this time to visit a woman nearby for up to two hours at a time, but that’s not the point.

My three-year-old had been discovered all alone, crying in a corner of the store.

As I was attempting to absorb this initial blow, Barbara carried on. She was under the impression that we didn’t have enough money to buy coloring books or toys for my daughter. When her crayons turned to nothing but nubs, her dad replaced them with a #2 pencil. When the activity book was filled, she was given a Marine Corps weapons manual to color in.

On every page of this several hundred-page book, every cubic centimeter of space was filled with doodles and rainbows. Every. Single. Page. And they weren’t even colorful doodles lighting up the pages. She was stuck with a singular, gray pencil.

And the bag I packed each morning? Barbara had never seen it. I later discovered that he left it in the truck every day. It never made it into the store, and my daughter never received her toys, art supplies, and, sadly, even her snacks on most days.

And it’s all so counterintuitive. I had no reason to suspect he was neglecting her in that way. I mean, what do kids do when they get bored and hungry? They cry. They scream. They pull at your clothes and disrupt your productivity. What parent would want this instead of a happily occupied toddler? I don’t know, and to this day, his actions make no sense to me.

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My best guess is that he was trying to create a daughter who never asked for anything because she never expected anything. If he succeeded, he would be able to leave her for long periods and know that she’d never make a squeak; he had molded her this way.

She was underfed and understimulated. She was undergoing a sadistic form of abuse right under my nose. As I learned of it, I knew I had to keep my new knowledge a secret from him, which meant letting my daughter spend yet another week going to work with her father just to be neglected. Barbara did help me and went by each day to keep an eye on her. I tried to find an alternative, but for my escape plan to go accordingly, I needed one more paycheck. While it didn’t go exactly as I planned, we did make it out soon.

After finally leaving, my daughter began to display a plethora of emotional problems. We went through years of therapy, and I learned, according to the National Institutes of Health, that there is a multitude of deficiencies that are known to result from early childhood abuse and neglect, including learning problems, problems relating to peers, internalizing symptoms, externalizing symptoms, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

   

   

Additionally, their research suggests that these children develop into adults with an “increased risk for psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, serious medical illnesses, and lower economic productivity.” Spoiler alert: She’s exhibited and required therapy for many of these very things.

So what can I do? I ensure I remain vigilant for any relapses of her previous mental illnesses, and I raise her under a roof where open discussions of mental health are welcomed and encouraged. Hopefully, this will be enough to ward off any other ill effects of the neglect she suffered as a toddler.

Her father may have succeeded in molding her into a quiet, mindful wallflower for the time he needed her to be that way, and I’ll never know how much of her mental health issues can be attributed to this neglect. I do know, however, that she’s flourishing now. She’s no wallflower; she’s in full bloom.

Children need enough care to be healthy and enough supervision to be safe.

Child neglect is when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being. Adults who care for children must provide clothing, food, and drink. A child also needs safe, healthy shelter, and adequate supervision. There are several kinds of child neglect, which you can read more about on the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline’s website. There is no “smoking gun” for most child neglect. While even one instance of neglect can cause lifelong harm to a child, neglect often requires a pattern of behavior over some time. If you suspect a child you know is being neglected, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline for more resources at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

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Juliette Roanoke is a registered nurse, writer, editor, and mental health advocate. She blends her career in nursing with her lifelong passion for writing to illuminate issues in healthcare and society, including domestic violence, in a way only someone who has been there can. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.