When I came out of the store tonight, I heard this sound, like a cross between a thud and clunk, a thunk, I guess you could say. I looked around, and found the source of this sound. A little girl, about five or six years old, skipped along beside her daddy toward their car. She wore pink rubber knee high rain boots that hit the pavement, thunk..thunk..thunk. Needless to say, it was adorable.
When I worked Wayne County Juvenile Court in Detroit, a scene like this could heal all the despair and stress of the day. A happy child. I used to come home from work and hug my boy. Nothing felt better than feeling his arms around my neck and his warm little cheek pressed against mine. I used to put up an emotional shield to protect myself from the things I had to deal with at work. I adopted a very clinical approach to investigating and assembling the evidence of the pain and neglect inflicted on my little clients. When I came home, I could disassemble the shield and just be a normal parent and woman. Except it did not always work. Sometimes after I let my guard down, something would penetrate the storage bin of anger and despair I had locked away in my brain and I would end up sitting on my couch, crying or screaming at the TV. Stories about the famine in Ethiopia, with footage of the children with their swollen bellies, starving, would reduce me to a crying mess. I hated getting caught off guard like that, losing control.
I thought I left all that behind when I left the Juvenile Defender Office and went to work for UAW-Legal Services Plan, then on to the Department of Corrections. But once in a while, something would come up during a hearing that would bring it all back.
I did a hearing one time on a young woman charged with Insolence and Creating a Disturbance. Control center was announcing the ten and five minute warning for count time. She did not want to end her phone call and go to her cell for count. The officers were going up and down the halls, telling the women to say goodbye and get ready for count, go to the bathroom, etc., before they had to lock up. This girl kept talking and would not hang up. She was starting to mouth off at the officers when they told her to hang up and go to her cell. She ended up yelling at them, calling them names, and trying to get the other prisoners to join in with her,claiming the officers were singling her out and picking on her. After the unit was released from count, this girl got back on the phone and called her mother, her children's grandmother, to demand that her mother call the prison to report this mistreatment by the officer. Grandma was caring for this girl's two children while the girl served her sentence.
At the hearing, she demanded I listen to her phone to Grandma call so I could hear how awful the officers were treating her. All the phone calls made by the prisoners are recorded. So I agreed, and the hearing investigator pulled the tape and set it up on the CD player in the officers lounge, which was the quietest place in the unit. The phone rang, and a little girl, I'm guessing she was around five or six, answered. When she heard her mother, she squealed, "Hi Mommie!". You could hear see her smile and the shine in her eye in her voice. Her mother immediately barked at her, "Go get Grandma! I don't want to talk to you right now! Get you grandmother! I need to talk to her!" It was like a kick in the gut. I imagined the light in the child's face fading away. I gasped out, "Oh my God!" An officer had come in the room and heard that portion of the call and my involuntary response. She just said "yeah". Compared to the cases I did in Juvenile Court, it seems like a small thing. But experiencing it more or less first hand was completely different and so much more disturbing. How do those police officers, nurses, doctors, social workers teachers who see the abuse and neglect of these children first hand stand it? I just don't know.