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Friday, July 1, 2011

The limits of our responsibility for abused and neglected children

One of the hardest things for new carers who really do care is understanding that your role stops at the door.

For hours each day, we put these children first and do our absolute utmost to make their day happy and successful.  Many of us put heart and soul into the welfare of the kids in our care. 
But for children, daycare is only one small part of their world.  Each child has a context, a home background over which we have little or no power, even if it's a highly undesirable environment for a child. 
Sure, we can fill in the appropriate forms when there's an 'incident', we can talk diplomatically to the parents, we can call in social workers.  In extreme cases where there's clear evidence of wrongdoing, we can call DoCS and cross our fingers about the result- but when a child comes from an abusive background (and that can mean physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, or simple neglect) we have to realise the boundaries of our influence.  

Much as we'd like to scoop up that little child and rescue her, much as we'd like to be a better parent to that troubled little boy, we have to leave our fears and sadness at the door of our centre or we risk burnout.  It's a hard lesson to learn.  Many a carer has gone home and cried over the welfare of a child she desperately wants to 'save'.

I wrote this story, loosely based on a true case, to let out some of my own sadness and frustration about caring for a large number of abused and neglected children in a relatively short time early in my career.  Sadly, there are lots of them out there; sadly, DoCS can't always help.  Most dedicated carers will come across at least one case which breaks their heart, before they learn the limits of their responsibility and the necessity of accepting what they can't change.  In many cases, all we can really do is make sure these children are well cared for during our limited share of their day.
Perhaps it will help other 'L-plate' carers to cope with their hurting hearts if they read this story, and know that they're not alone.



The Apple of my Eye

When Jacqui calls I am sitting in a poorly-screened booth in Centrelink, shouting tearfully at the ignorant sweaty woman behind the desk. She is programmed to believe the worst of me. It is unlike me to answer my phone mid-interview, but I make an exception given her gratuitous rudeness. I walk out immediately, wipe my eyes, leaving the ungroomed and undeserving possessor of regular work with her fat mouth flapping.

I replace Jacqui for a week.

I have been looking for work for three months. It has taken me that long to realise that, simply, I am too old to be considered useful.

I come to the job determined to like it, and by some miracle there is no need to delude myself. I realise quickly that that this work and I are right together. I promise myself that, somehow, I will make them keep me.

I knew long ago that my great-grandmother left me a gift- the vestiges of a third eye, a knack for seeing the unseeable. I see feelings like others see colours; sometimes I see ghosts or futures. Now I understand that she has left me another dubious prize. The Polynesian blood has been diluted by three generations of whitefella, but still I bear the trademark silhouette. My body stubbornly refuses to cooperate with endless diets, endured in the hope of making a 50-year-old woman apparently more employable. 

Now the stigma of size proves useful at last; the children perch happily on the soft ledge of my hip, where I can carry them happily all day without pain. They come to me sometimes cheerful, more often tearful, arms raised for comfort. I read them without thinking, whisper their unspoken feelings back to them in gentle words, watch them calm immediately. You see me, their eyes say as the tears dry. The two gifts converge into a rightness that creates a magnetic peace wherever I am.

My seniors, the 19-year-old girls I must learn from, like having me in the room. I make their work easier.

When I open the playroom door for the first time, a blonde child in a branded hat is at my eye level, being a book. He grins at me cheekily, blithely displaying a wide gap where his two front teeth have gone missing in action. He needs to be seen. I perceive that climbing the shelves is Not Allowed and extract him gently, whereupon he rollicks into my heart, pushing the pink-clad perfect girls aside. He runs me ragged all morning, lisping joyfully and incoherently as he scrambles back into the forbidden shelves, coming back to me like a yoyo when I dare to care for the other children, climbing up to my arms for hugs, demanding to be carried around.

I am not dressed for this work. I was going for an interview, trying to look smart. The child pulls at my shirt, exposing my cleavage.

I can thee your boobieth, he says, patting them.

So what? I bet you've seen boobies before, I say to him. He laughs.

Don't touch. They're mine. You have to ask before you touch a lady's boobies. He grins again, pats them again. I put him down, bemused, and he runs off to climb the shelves again.

The other carer rolls her eyes when I ask his name. That's Cody. He's a pain in the arse.

Later in the playground as the children mill around the New Teacher in curiosity, he comes to me again and takes my hand. Or so I think. I greet him by name.

I'm not Cody, I'm Tyson. That's Cody over there. Perfectly enunciated. Under the branded hat, a perfect smile. I do a double-take.

He is taller. Not a twin, but close. Barely a year older.

Baby bonus kids, I think later, when I know more.

Cody rampages around the yard, pushing a plastic bike, running over anything in his way. Plastic or human is of no account. Tyson walks around with me, holding my hand, asking to sit on my lap when I settle to watch the others playing. He inspects my earrings. Notices the same motif on my necklace. It's childproof $2-shop jewellery, but pretty.

One here, two for my ears. How many suns is that, Ty?

Three. Without hesitation.

I tell him I wear my little suns to keep me warm. He smiles delightedly, understanding that it's a joke. He removes my earrings and plays with them for a while. Asks for the necklace. Take it off.

No, I say, drawing the line. Smiling.

Later he creeps up behind me and undoes my necklace, runs away laughing. Gives it back intact, when he chooses to.

The earrings get removed every time I work with a sleight-of-hand worthy of a pickpocket. They are always returned, replaced ever so gently.

Let me do it. I can do it. Does it hurt when I put them in the holes?

The director continues to call me for the next three weeks. I never meet Jacqui; she's taken the long walk, disillusioned with the constant demands and lousy pay. Conversely, I am grateful for the lousy pay. The demands are not a problem.

Ty is disturbed one day when I give the junk a rest and wear something better. Where are your suns?

I've got the moon and stars in my ears today.

But not round your neck. He likes sets. He likes things to match. Everything in its place, all in order. His world needs constant sorting.

When I go to leave he runs to me, holds up his arms. When I pick him up he kisses me gently on the cheek, holding my face in his hands as though it is fragile and precious. Will I see you tomorrow? I nod. Wear your suns. I smile and promise.

Cody hugs me tightly too, snuggling his head into my shoulder. He demands one last piggy back. I promise him too. Tomorrow.

I watch the brothers over a string of tomorrows, with a creeping awareness of something dark. Ty's charm has disarmed me, and I am unprepared for the shadow that descends when he leaves his orbit of my little suns. He and Cody laugh and play happily together for a short time before a furious fight commences. Their knuckles are white as they scream and tug at a toy. 

Innocently, I intervene and hand it to the younger boy, and Tyson slaps me with his open hand- hard. I remonstrate with him and he does it twice more, adding a kick for good measure. I speak to him seriously, holding him by the shoulders and demanding he look at me. He stares blankly away from me, closing his eyes completely when I turn him to meet my gaze. He is deaf and blind to me in that moment. I keep him by me for a while. He is rigid with resentment, slapping or kicking me again if I draw him too close. I let him go. He has gone where I can't reach him.

The other children mistrust his occasional overtures, fearing his inevitable violence. I see him beat his rage out on other workers, other children, slapping, punching, kicking them blindly when they thwart him. I watch him pick up a handful of dirt and dead leaves and throw it at another new worker, a well-meaning woman who has tried simply to hold him still so his victim can escape.

The regular girls would like the brothers removed from care. They can't make contact with Ty. His blankness scares them, his violence angers them, his refusal to take part in the sorry protocol flusters them. His articulate expression, his memory, his affection, all make no lasting impression on them. He is hard work.

Cody is merely a pain in the arse.

His mother's mad, the girls tell me. She tried to sue us when Cody knocked out his teeth. Those teeth were rotten- they all live on junk food. We saved her a trip to the dentist.

I learn things piecemeal with every new misdeed. We keep calling the parents but they don't give a stuff. They just keep having more babies. There are six or seven of them, or there were. They've had two kids taken away from them already.

I ask questions, trawl for answers. You think Ty's bad? You should've seen the next one up. He's got ADD. He picked on Ty the whole time they were here together. The older kids beat the younger ones up and the parents just laugh it off. What can you do? DoCS is hopeless.

And most distressingly, they've all been in care since they were six weeks old. The parents left a huge bill at the last centre. I was there. I couldn't believe it when they turned up here. I thought I'd got away from them.

The cook is a loving grandmother. She confides to me, ashamed, that she can't feel any attachment to those boys.

The parents' enrolment note says the boys have a loving, caring home. They are spotlessly clean, always. And unmarked. Any brutality is of the clever, careful variety. Their hair smells of apples. They stand like dolls, blankfaced and greeting no-one while their sheepish father signs them in. Transition, we call it. Carers should facilitate children's transition from one setting to another. Inside to outside. Chaos to love. Neglect can smell of apples.

The father leaves and their noses, hastily wiped at the centre door to facilitate the facade of care, start to drip. They are too ill to be at school. Again, I'm told. They never miss a day. You'll find mum down on the corner outside the pub with some fellow. Never the kids' dad. She won't speak to you if you say hello- she pretends not to know you.

I reach for the gloves and tissues.

Later Ty is articulate in his protestations. I can do it. Now he is too busy holding his arms up, silently pleading for my embrace as he emerges from home.

The young girls who work here give so little of themselves, working with care but with little understanding. They keep their distance. They hold a child in their arms and talk about it to each other over its head, as though it hears nothing, understands nothing, feels nothing.

I say nothing. They are my superiors.

I tell the boys about my home, my pets. I show them a photo of the dogs, opening my phone up on the other side of the window as I leave and watching their faces beam back at me. I see the thought register through the glass. You remember us when you go.

Days later Ty is still talking about them. The brown one's Ben and the black and white one's Chester.

Hector, I correct him.

I go home and let the dogs out each afternoon, run them around, the brown one leaping high in the air to catch the ball, and each day my third eye sees Ty laugh, sees Cody run helter-skelter after the ball too, joining the game. I see them choose a dog each, match the athlete to Cody and the fluffy collie to Ty, see their arms wrapped around them as though they're huge teddies.

I wonder if I am seeing the future or just dreaming, seeing what should be, life in some parallel universe where all children are allowed a childhood.

I set Ty on my knees, remembering a game I used to play with my son. There was a frog, sat on a log, waiting for his daughter. He waits happily, not fidgeting.

His eyes were red from the tears he shed, and he FELL…

On the word I half-drop him through my knees. He giggles.

into the water.

Do it again, he demands as soon as I set him back on my lap. I tease him, stopping halfway through with an ummm… as though I forget the words. He fills in the rest of the rhyme, chortling as I drop him again.

I love you, Marie, he says. Not for the first time. I bury my nose in his hair and breathe sweet apples.

The next week the work dries up. Jacqui has been replaced. My name has passed along the grapevine; I work at other centres, using what's left of my third eye to get through the days efficiently, easily. Warmly.

I think every day of Ty and Cody. At night I see Ty's loss, his confusion.

Shopping in town, I think of dropping in at the centre to say hello. My head understands that this is a bad idea. Regardless of my true intent, I will be seen as odd, perhaps perverted. They will never call me again if they feel uneasy.

At last I'm called back. As I walk through the gate Ty screams my name with delight and runs into my arms. He clings to me all morning, sitting close every time I choose an observation position.

He becomes quiet. Thoughtful.

Why didn't I see you?

I try to explain the vagaries of being a casual worker. He is sad and mystified still. He asks over and over. Finally, giving up, he says,

Do 'There was a frog'.

It has been 8 weeks since I saw him. I played the game with him once. He is four.

He asks me for a photo of my suns. I take one, print a tiny, child-sized photo of the three little suns in a row, pop it in his bag at sleep time. The next day he is delighted. Take a photo of the others. The moon and the stars.

He asked about you every day. It has registered with the most aware of the young workers that something unusual has happened to Ty. He has attached. He loves you, she says, in a tone of wonderment. Without judgment. It's probably the only nurturing those kids have had in their whole life.

Silently, I have made her see.

Cody is pleased to see me too. He demands to be carried around constantly, says I'm your baby. He has taken to pulling down the girls' pants, or taking off his own as he hides under the playhouse. I find him on his knees, grinning as he displays his tiny rear to another little boy who is holding him by the buttocks. I drag them out, trying to find a way of saying no without contaminating them with my adult fears.

Later inside, I see him pulling his pants down between the banks of shelves. I swoop and catch him up in my arms as he is about to pee on the wall.

Don't you dare.

I expect cheeky laughter, but inexplicably he breaks into heartbroken tears. My eye says this is not about my words but the fright of being suddenly seized from behind. Bewildered, I hold him close on my lap until the sobs cease, breathing apples.

I consider calling DoCS.

I remember the woman in Centrelink.

I remember that they are clean, and unmarked.

I do nothing but hold him, keep being there for him.

Cody comes to school so ill he can hardly breathe. At sleep time his gasping and choking is nightmarish. The girls call his mother. She will not come.

Yeah, he had asthma last night. He left his puffer at home. Call an ambulance if he gets too sick and send him to the hospital. We've got cover.

I sit by his bed, making sure he is breathing. When he wakes I carry him around all day on my hip. Today you can be my baby.

In the yard the girls are screaming as the boys try to bring down a golden orb weaver from a tree to kill it. I go over and stop them, give them an impromptu nature study lesson. Do you like mosquitoes? They make faces. Mosquitoes bite you, don't they? But this spider won't bite you- she'll bite the mosquitoes and eat them up. Leave her alone- she's a good spider. Look- she spins gold. How clever is that?

They have broken the spider's web. It hangs down in the sun, magical spun gold. I break off pieces of it and hand them out, the fine thread turning to powdery gold fluff as it loses tension. Cody's eyes are dancing. He hands me his piece of gold. You look after it for me, he demands. I'm going to give it to Mummy. My clothes are in the wash before I recall his forgotten gold in my pocket.

Ty never forgets. He stands looking at the spider long after the others, holding his fragment of magic gold tenderly in his tiny hand.

In the third last week Ty refuses to give up a toy at the end of his turn, slapping the girl waiting for it. I take him aside and sit him down, enduring more slaps until he stops. His face is frozen.

Why did you hit Keisha? You hurt her. Why did you want to hurt her?

Silence. But something in his face changes, and I let the eye lead me.

What are you angry about? Are you angry about something else?


Are you sad about something?


It's okay to tell me. You can tell me if you're sad about something.

Silence. I wait without saying anything. I watch the children play. And then, much later, a tiny voice drips heartbreak.

Where did Jacqui go?

I understand that I have been chosen to be here. I heard her name twice, half a year ago, but I haven't forgotten. Like Ty, I never forget.

Jacqui got another job. I got to do Jacqui's job here for a while. Then they got Rachel to do Jacqui's job. That's when you didn't see me.

A pause. Thoughtful, I ask did you like Jacqui?

I love Jacqui. I miss her.

I think for a moment.

If I find out where she went, would you like to send her a card?

Radiant light returns to his face.

I try to find Jacqui, but she has left no trace. The girls are mystified by the story. Jacqui hated the kids, they say. She was so tough with them. She wouldn't take any shit.

Boundaries, I say after a while. He felt safe.

Ty asks me every day if I have found her.

I write more incident reports.

In the second last week Ty starts another fight, stealing a toy from the little pink princesses in the sandpit. I take it from him and return it to them, and he lifts the rocking horse by the handles, swinging it at the girls as they scream in fear. I prise his hands off the handles and carry him away as he kicks and slaps me and, finally, bites me on the arm. Hard. He does not let go.

I follow the eye, pinching him lightly on the back, just hard enough to startle him. Against the rules. I don't care.  I trust the eye. 

The teeth release. And the blankness shatters in a moment.

OW! You hurt me!

You were hurting me. I had to stop you hurting me. It hurts when you bite me. It hurts just like that, just like what you felt. It's not nice, is it? Friends shouldn't hurt each other. Can we say sorry now? I'm sorry I hurt you. Are you sorry too?

He is looking at me, looking right into my eyes.

My back hurts.

I pull the t-shirt up and inspect the spot. There is no mark. I tell him so. I show him the twin crescents on my arm.

I don't have to ask again. Sorry. A tiny voice. I hug him, holding him in my arms like a baby, and he snuggles in.

I follow the eye.


Very softly.

If you keep hurting the other children and the teachers, I'm scared they won't let you come here any more. And then I won't see you any more.

(Like Jacqui, says the eye, but the other way round. He'll see. He'll understand.)

He starts to cry, silently. He is so close to me, so still, that I don't realise; not until the other children start to drift to me, fascinated. Tyson's crying. Why is Tyson crying?

Tyson never cries. Never.

At the end of the last week I notice the apples in my fruit bowl, turning soft and dark-spotted. I vow to throw them away after work, wash up, change the sheets. I am exhausted by the early starts and by working flat out every second I'm there, the expendable casual jumping through every hoop so they'll continue to choose me. For Ty. To be there for Ty. I am determined not to disappear. But I have no tenure; I simply have to be better than anyone else they might call.

Ty has been good this week. As long as I'm there he can be good. We have talked more. When the knuckles go white, I say to him, remember Friday. Let's not have Friday again. And he lets go, and his fists flail the air, but only the air. His face shows the fight. He stays with me. He remembers.

At mat time I give him an award for good behaviour, and we talk about things that make us angry. What to do. It's okay to be angry. It's not okay to hit. What can we do instead? I talk gently to him in private. I rejoice for him. I plan the next steps.

On Friday, this last Friday, a tiny jumping spider falls out of a tree onto his arm. I see he is afraid. I let it jump onto my hand and show him how it always goes upwards. If you don't want a spider to run up your arm onto your face, hold your arm up like this. I show him, let the spider run up my outstretched arm, over my hand and onto the tree again. Fearless now, he catches it again and leads it here and there by moving his arm. His eyes are full of magic as we let it go.

He is more clingy than usual. After a while, seated on my hip, he says, We're going to Queensland for a holiday.

School holidays, I remember. Next week.

Next week? I say aloud. He nods.

I'll miss you, I say. He smiles.

The mother rings ten minutes before the end of my shift, cancelling the children's care without notice. The director wryly shoves an invoice into Ty's bag. She owes over $800 in unpaid fees. We'll never see that. Tell Rachel to find the kids' journals.

We're going to Queensland for a holiday. I remember the last little secret he shared with me and wager that the holiday will be a long one. Doing a runner. I wonder how much rent they owe.

It's sleep time. Ty will wake and I will be gone forever, erased from his life in a blink. Like Jacqui. He will be left with a photo of three little suns to keep him warm, if no-one takes it from him. If no-one discovers that it matters to him.

It's not my place to wake him. In any case I can't bring myself to toss him headlong into the bleak abandonment that he will otherwise realise only gradually. In ten minutes I can't hope to sort out the pain that no-one else will think to explain. My third eye sees a week hence, a month, however long it is before a holiday becomes inexplicably forever in his head, before he asks. I see his unspoken grief play out like a silent movie behind my eyelids, looping over and over.  I see where the story leads.

Cody at the wheel of a stolen car, bound headlong for a tree. Laughing.

Ty handcuffed, blank-faced after some nameless violence.

I wonder if I am seeing the future, or just dreaming.

I think of writing Ty a note, posting him a card.

I remember that he can't read. And God knows what his parents would make of it. A threat. A judgment. An excuse, perhaps, for a complaint.

I think, again with my heart, of offering myself as a babysitter, and my head realises at once that I cannot trust such people with my phone number.

In any case, they won't be here. We're going to Queensland for a holiday.

If I had time, if he woke up I could teach him my number. It's an easy number. He would learn it quickly. This is where I am. You can always find me here, I would say. And teach him how to press the right buttons on the play phone.

There is no time. The clock has crept to 2 o'clock and he is sleeping. The window has closed.

At least, I think, at least he won't be scared of spiders. Some tiny enduring gift. He will remember that much forever without help. No-one can take that from him.

I calculate the years until he might look for me here by himself, if he remembers. It is too long. I am, simply, too old.  And there are too many hazards in the way.

I wonder if, somewhere, he will see the marks of teeth on flesh and remember.

I collect my bag. As I walk back through the preschool room I see he is half-awake, sitting on the side of his bed wearing his transition face. Dazed, unsure where he is.

I bend down and hug him, whispering simply I love you. No more.

It is too soon since he woke. He is somewhere else, sorting the preschool sleep time tableau into the right box. His face remains blank as I straighten and leave the room.

As I pass the front desk I say to the director, He won't have the least idea what's happened. What can I do?

She nods. She has read my incident reports.

You can't do a thing.

I think if we were closer, if we were not on opposite sides of the desk, she would hug me.

In the car I remember Ty sitting at the little preschool table with blunted scissors, skillfully cutting tiny rectangles of paper and then colouring them green. He is making money. He passes handfuls of rectangles to me, saying now you can buy nice things

He sits there for forty minutes while I patrol the room, the pile of money getting larger and larger. The other children want to play the game with him, use his money in the play shop, but he glowers and they retreat. The money is all for me. He wants to give it all to me.

As I walk in my door the dogs welcome me with the chaos born of a week of neglect, bouncing at me in delight as I survey the chewed shoes, the torn blanket. I push them away blindly, the pressure building behind my eyes. 

My house smells of apples.



  1. Yes, it breaks mine too... even all this time later.

  2. Thank you for an extremely powerful piece of writing. Thanks for taking the time to include so much detail.

    I think most carers will have a similar story or two, tragically. Mine is almost identical to Ty's although my student was 10 and one of the best story writers I have encountered. I still think of her often and fruitlessly ruminate on ways things might have been different. Yes, it is heartbreaking. The incident reports gather dust in a filing cabinet somewhere, forgotten. This narrative speaks more truth and will resonate for much longer. Thank you.

  3. Hi AA, I am still new to all this blogging stuff, so can't figure out how to just email you! I have put the we handprint logo onto my blog so here is my link - cheers, loving your posts, Kierna


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