A Beaten Girl, Silenced Neighbor, and Broken System: Chicago Is Failing Our Children

A Beaten Girl, Silenced Neighbor, and Broken System: Chicago Is Failing Our Children

My mother stood over me as I lay quivering in my small bed. “Turn over," she growled, with the belt poised. When I refused she said, “If you don’t turn over, I will hit you on your face.”

I was no older than seven, and I had no choice. As the hard leather of the belt melted into my flesh, I did my best to hold back my tears. For years, I fought so damn hard to keep those tears inside so she wouldn’t see my pain.

Earlier this month, the blogger I Hate My Developer heard her neighbor hit her young daughter with a belt.

"I don't know if it was the length of the spanking (10 mins) or that the belt sounded particularly vicious but I felt more and more nauseated with each blow.

Should I call the police? What exactly caused the spanking? Was the little girl acting up? Did Mom have a bad day and a small infraction set her off?

I didn't know what I was dealing with so I opted to do nothing and not call the police."

In a private conversation on Facebook, I strongly encouraged the blogger (a colleague of mine here on ChicagoNow) to contact the proper authorities, namely the Department of Children and Family Services. She worried that doing so would put her in danger if her neighbor found out who reported the incident. She also wondered whether involving DCFS would make the child’s situation worse.

As I remembered my beatings, as well as the the bruises that appeared on my mother’s face and body after inviting two abusive boyfriends to move into our home, I pushed I Hate My Developer to make the call. Chicago is a major American city. We must have services in place that will protect concerned neighbors and potentially abused children. Don’t we?

The answer, sadly, is no. Perhaps we do have a system, but it’s broken. After a heated debate with I Hate My Developer, I persuaded her to connect with a Chicago psychologist I know who holds a Ph.D. and has worked with children in Chicago for years. I respect this woman. She is caring, intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate about keeping kids safe.

I had two goals in introducing them. The first is that I wanted my colleague to know she was not alone. And the second is I remembered hearing somewhere that psychologists are required to report abuse if someone tells them about it. I figured that if my fellow blogger couldn’t contact the authorities, maybe the psychologist would.

And she did. The psychologist reached out to DCFS. And here, in her words, is what happened.

I called DCFS and discussed the situation with them. Their response was very disheartening. In summary, the case worker on the call told me that they would never pursue a report "just b/c a neighbor heard something through the wall." Unless there is solid proof that a child is in danger, the call would not be taken further, meaning we would have to see visible marks on a child. Hitting, beating, spanking, etc. does not constitute abuse unless there is definitive threat and the child's safety is compromised. The more I probed and asked for clarification, the more frustrated the worker became. When I asked to speak to a supervisor, she said she would have one call me back. That was one week ago. This is a system that is so broken and overwhelmed with layers and layers of issues. 

So there you have it. We are letting a little girl who may be suffering abuse stay in her home with no intervention. Sadly, I’m reluctant to say that separating the child from her mother would even solve the problem. Why would the foster system she’d have to enter be any less broken?

I will never forget the beatings I experienced at the hands of the woman who brought me into this world, or the horrors that took place afterwards. It’s how I know with 100% certainly that we cannot sit by and let our children grow up with unhealed wounds and broken spirits because we were too overwhelmed, busy or afraid to fight for them. Children deserve to feel safe in their homes. And if they don't, it's up to every one of us to do something, especially when our Mayor and government agencies won't.

* September 16, 2014: This post has been corrected and updated. DCFS is a state agency run by Governor Pat Quinn, who appointed Bobbie Gregg as director in April of 2014.

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