Abuse in a Nice Family: A Cautionary Tale

 

This is a true story about two families, and the six children of those families. The names used in the story are not their real ones, and have been chosen to follow a kind of alphabetical code to keep family membership and birth order straight.  Like most true stories, it has no neat ending, and the future will write more chapters.

“…missed the subtle signs that something was wrong.”
The story begins when a young couple moved to a new town and found a nice little house in a pleasant neighborhood.  Mr. and Mrs. Abbott had a single child at the time, their two-year-old deaf daughter Alice.  They soon got to know their friendly new neighbors, including the Miller family, whose backyard was separated from theirs by an easily-climbed chain link fence. The Millers had three older children:  Mark, age 11; Nancy, age 8; and Peter, age 5. The Abbotts were pleased to have such nice neighbors; the Millers were obviously a happy family and their kids were polite and responsible. They'd climb the fence and come on over to the Abbotts' house and play with Alice. The kids even learned to communicate with Alice; a sure way into the hearts of any parents of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Within the year, the Abbotts had a second child, Ben. As both families grew, the traffic across the fence went both ways. Mrs. Abbott sometimes worried that Alice and Ben might be making nuisances out of themselves, but was assured by Mrs. Miller that they were not. Nancy was still young to be babysitting, but with her mother just over the fence, the Abbotts started to hire her once in a while. By this time Mark was a teenager, and once in a while they'd hire him for a few hours of babysitting.  All the kids seemed comfortable with each other, and all appeared right on the surface.

When Alice was about six or seven years old, and Mark was 15 or 16, he started to sexually abuse her, taking advantage of times when he was babysitting or times that Alice went visiting and the Miller parents happened to be out of the house. He started slowly, gained her trust, but also abused that trust by proceeding to violent rape on at least one occasion. The Abbotts were distracted by some serious health issues that Ben was having and the arrival of their third child, Charlie, and missed the subtle signs that something was wrong. Alice was having difficulties learning to read that seemed to them more than just deaf-related; did she have an additional learning disability? There was an "inappropriate" picture that she drew at school. When Mrs. Abbott decided to hire Mark to provide some transportation for Alice in order to manage all the family's demands on her time and presence, Alice complained.  This would have been the opportunity for Mrs. Abbott to ask "Why don't you want Mark to drive you?" rather than respond with a long-winded explanation about the family's logistical situation... but sexual abuse was the last thing she'd associate with clean-cut, pleasant, responsible, hard-working Mark Miller.

Alice was a rule-follower, cooperative with adults, and sensitive about being scolded for anything.  The picture she drew got her sent to the principal's office: there was a pleasant talk from the principal and no punishment, but just being sent was mortifying, in her mind. Alice was afraid to tell either family or school, and was trapped in a car with Mark several times a week. She "took charge" of the situation and became a "willing" participant, feeling this put her "in control," not understanding that 17-year-old Mark had her right where he wanted her. Little wonder school was not going well. As an adult, she now realizes that she wasn't "all there" and she has difficulty remembering anything at all about those particular years.

The next fall, Mark left for college.  Having unwittingly put Alice in a hideous situation, the Abbotts now equally unwittingly did the opposite by moving to a new, larger house on some acreage outside town.  A complete change of scenery and no more Mark (Nancy was now driving and still available for babysitting) allowed Alice to push those experiences to the back of her mind, even forgetting the worst episodes for a time. She started to do a lot better in school, and the Abbotts breathed a sigh of relief that she finally seemed to have hit her stride.

After a couple of years, Alice was able to let her parents know that Mark had abused her.  She was still afraid to tell all and soft-peddled what had happened; telling her parents it was some "touching" that had occurred three or four times. After assuring Alice that it was not her fault, the Abbotts decided not to report it to the authorities, largely because the stories they'd heard gave them little reason to trust the court system in their state to handle a case involving a deaf child: would Alice even be believed?  They felt Mark had made a serious mistake, but still thought he was a basically a good kid (and by now he was married and living at the other end of the state) and didn't want his life ruined, either.  Mrs. Abbott had a private chat with Mrs. Miller, told her all she knew at the time, and requested that Mark not make any contact with her family. Mark has adhered to that, though he eventually moved back to town.

And now the fall-out.  Alice remained shy of any contact with males through high school and college. By college she'd thawed enough to be able to say that she was attracted to men, and even go on a date or two. Then a strange man tried to push his way into her apartment and the really bad stuff started coming back to her. Over a period of years, she pulled the memories of what Mark had done out of the recesses of her mind and re-examined them from an adult perspective.  She experienced nightmares and flashbacks, and finally she sought the help of a counselor and is now getting through the healing process.

Meanwhile, her younger brother Ben was also somewhat shy in high school, and did little socializing in college, preferring internet chat with old friends from his dorm room to going out and meeting new ones. It took him much longer than it did Alice, but he was able to talk first to her and later with his parents that he'd experienced some sexual abuse from Mark's younger brother Peter.  He says he's over that, but "it took me a long time to figure out who I am, and I'm not over what it made of me," referring to the social anxiety that still plagues him.

Now it was clear that there was a lot going on under the surface in the Miller household. None of the Miller children were doing well as adults--Mark's wife left him, and Peter did jail time. Nancy had chronic health problems of the sort now believed to be sometimes due to childhood stress and trauma. Mrs. Abbott had another talk with Mrs. Miller, who swore she'd never suspected anything so serious and that she intends to get to the bottom of it.  (We can only speculate how it all began, but when two brothers are both abusers, it's not an isolated phenomenon.)

And then there is Charlie, who might seem to have no part in this story, since he was less than two years old when the Abbotts moved out of the neighborhood. His role is to serve as a counter to the stories of his two older siblings. He approached life with a markedly different attitude as he grew up, and all the Abbotts started to refer to him as the "social butterfly" of the family. He is clearly comfortable in just about any situation, and his high school and college experiences can best be described as busy and joyous. The Abbotts suddenly found themselves with a "typical" teenager and could clearly see what was lacking for Alice and Ben as they became teens and young adults.

The Abbotts have many, many regrets and now feel older, wiser and above all, less naive.  Why do we have to raise kids while we're so young and inexperienced? But if their experience can prompt one other parent to ask "why don't you like that babysitter?" or "is he doing something you don't like?" this story will be worth the tears it took to write it.

Editor’s note: Hands & Voices and the OUR Project is so grateful to this family for sharing their story to help raise awareness about child abuse.  What can you do to keep OUR kids safe?

  1. Break the “taboo;” Share this story with a friend or professional, and raise the topic of child abuse.  
  2. Ask the question of your school, “What are you doing to protect my child from abuse?”
  3. Become informed: Watch a brief “Bright Spot” video on topics from how to talk to your child to how to raise this topic at a meeting, and more.  (http://deafed-childabuse-neglect-col.wiki.educ.msu.edu/Bright+Spot+-+Home+Page)
  4. Act!  If your gut tells you to be concerned about a child you know, that child might be experiencing abuse, and needs your help. Call 1-800-4-A-Child, 24/7, to learn about signs and symptoms of abuse and help you understand what you can do.   

 Because every child matters.   

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