OUR Children’s Safety & Success Project:
One Parent’s Story:
Hiding in the Dark…
That’s where we find some of our most painful memories – pushed deep down and way back in the farthest, darkest recesses of our memories.They are hard to find there and not easily remembered. That’s where I found this memory. I kept that memory under the surface for nine long years.
I began working with Hands & Voices over three years ago in Indiana and around that time I heard about the OUR Children’s Safety and Success Project. OUR stands for learning to Observe, Understand and Respond to child aubse and neglect for children who are DHH. As a board member and a GBYS Parent Guide, I remembered listening to updates about the O.U.R. Project and thinking, “Oh, this makes complete sense. Our population of children is at greater risk for abuse and neglect. This is an important program.” The memory stayed buried, though.
Last year, I moved to Texas, connected with the TX H&V chapter and became the Statewide Program Coordinator for the GBYS Program. A few months ago, I was on a monthly O.U.R. call listening to Sara Kennedy and Harold Johnson and others. Slowly, a memory began climbing up out of a dark corner of my mind where it had been carefully hidden. I remembered. It happened to us; physical abuse happened to my Deaf son at the hands of the supervising teacher of the elementary school. Why had I forgotten about this for so long? He turns 21 years old this month, and it probably happened when he was 11 or 12 years old. I had not thought about it since then!
Briefly, I will try to share my experience, but mostly I want to focus on the important things I learned from this so others can benefit from our story.First, I will provide a little background. My son is profoundly Deaf, relies on manual sign language/ASL for communication, has cerebral palsy, ADD, and is on the Autism spectrum, among other things. His greatest struggles are language and expressive communication, abstract thinking, and social skills. However, he functions at a very high level given all of that. In school, though, he had behavior issues from time to time. I have to say that he is also very sweet, silly, and social; he loves sports and always loved school (the whole child, right?). I was very involved in the school and well-known by the teachers and staff.
One evening I noticed a fairly large patch of broken, raw skin on my son’s back.
First Lesson: Observe your children.
“Where did that come from?” My son has a high threshold for pain; sometimes recess could result in some bumps and bruises that he would not report to a teacher as other students might. He didn’t tell me about this. I found it. Why didn’t he tell me? What happened? I needed to gather some information from him before I talked to the school. And so began a conversation (really more like twenty questions on steroids). I wanted to hear the facts from him, but he really struggles with expressive language and particularly the “why” question. This was not going to be easy.
Second Lesson: Learn how to communicate with your child.
Thank God I could communicate with him in sign language at a level sufficient enough to address this situation with him. Nevertheless, it was a very frustrating process; we struggled for a long time with questions, drawings, flow charts, acting it out – everything. I knew that my son communicated best when I asked questions and then provided a couple choices of answers, followed by the signing the question: “which?” However, I wanted to be careful that I didn’t lead him to any answers. If he perceived that I preferred one answer to another, he would choose that one. So, I would ask and re-ask; check and double-check. Sometimes, I would have to go with the most consistent answer; select the answer he gave two out of three times. Still, the facts weren’t flowing and coming together. Next, we tried drawing stick figures with labels – “this or that?” – I asked him to point to what happened. Then, when I thought I had a basic idea, we used a flow chart, because it is a little more concrete to get at that abstract concept of why (cause and effect). “What happened first? Then what?How?” We had to act this one out. I asked him to show me exactly; we took on roles.
Third Lesson: Provide every opportunity for a child to tell you what happened, despite language struggles. Be patient and tenaciousand creative.
So, I thought I had a good sense of what happened now. He had a behavior incident and was sent to the supervising teacher’s office. He chose to stop walking with her, because he did not want to be in trouble and he did not want to miss class. So, he simply went to the floor in the hallway. The supervising teacher proceeded to drag him along the hallway on his back by his arm resulting in rug burn and broken skin. I believe he didn’t tell me because he felt he had been “bad” and he didn’t want me to know; I believe he also felt that because he was in trouble and because he fell to the floor, he deserved what was done to him. Again, grateful that I could communicate smoothly with him, I had to make him understand that although he misbehaved (and we talked about how he should handle that next time), there was no scenario where it was okay for an adult to hurt a child. She was wrong to do that to him. It was not an acceptable reaction to his behavior. We discussed that his supervising teacher was an authority figure (using language he could understand), but that no punishment for behavior should result in injury to him. She should have remained in control even when he lost control. She was an adult. He was a child. This was such an important lesson. He needed to understand that he had the right not to be hurt; he needed to also understand that he must tell me or any adult when someone hurts him.
Fourth Lesson: You must teach your children self-advocacy and self-importance. It’s crucial for life.
So, ultimately I took a picture of my son’s back, typed up what happened, and called the supervising teacher to get her side of the story. Unfortunately, she acted surprised and assumed the injury must have happened when he fell to the floor; he must have done this to himself. When I pushed a little harder, I received a small confession that maybe she could have pulled him a little, but she doubted it would have caused his rug burn to happen. So, here was my next dilemma; what does a parent do with this? I’m sure you think you all know the exact answer, but it wasn’t an easy question for me. It was the only school I found to be appropriate for my son educationally and socially. I was very happy with the teachers, the staff, the after school programs and sports, the technology employed in the classrooms, and the progress he was making at this school. He was happy and doing very well; and I was very connected to the school. I didn’t want to leave this school. Also, I wanted the staff to continue to be nice to my son and supportive of him and me.
Fifth Lesson: Don’t be quick to judge parents’ decisions, because you never know the specifics. We have to respect that we all do the best we can with the situations we have.
I scheduled a meeting with the principal of the school. I showed her my typed information provided by my son, my picture and shared my conversation with the supervising teacher. I also shared my concerns that no one informed me of this incident. I always try to see the other perspective and I told her that I realized that my son (and other children) can be very frustrating, but the staff needs tools and training to learn strategies to manage these situations. I don’t know if it was a result of my visit or if it had been planned all along, but later I noticed that staff training and in-servicing were taking place. In my visits to campus and after school activities, I noticed staff implementing some techniques and strategies when encountering students who had lost control of their behavior. Also, the supervising teacher ended up retiring within the next year or so.
Last Lesson: Report!Never ignore child abuse of any kind.
Teach this to your children, too. You can come up with solutions that you can live with. Change can happen and I do believe that schools in general do a better job of reporting incidents to families now.
I recently came across an envelope in some old school files. I opened it to see what was inside. I found the picture of my son’s red, raw back. I quickly put it back in the envelope.I did not read the documentation I had carefully typed out and placed with the picture. I shoved the envelope back in the file, closed the drawer and buried it back in my memories. It still hurts.