HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on April 26, 2013.
I’ve been reading these stories of homeschool kids who were so scared of CPS. They were told that CPS were evil, would find any excuse to take them away, and that they would wind up in foster care situations where they would be horribly abused, physically and sexually, and where people hated them because they believed in God. They were told that the worst thing the foster care people would try to do was force you to reject Jesus and if you did, you would go to hell with them when you died.
Sadly, that fearmongering anti-CPS indoctrination was my story too. I was told the same thing. I was also not allowed to go outside in the yard on weekdays until we saw the Catholic schoolgirls through the window, walking down the sidewalk in their matching skirts, signifying that “school hours” were over. My parents were careful to keep us hidden from truancy police even if they weren’t careful to have us do any actual schoolwork.
Given all these years of instilled fear and propaganda, and how much I honestly believed a lot of it back then, I ended up doing something surprising as a teen, something that is still to this day the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and I figured I’d share it here.
Just to give you the background, I was 14 years old, my grandparents had recently forced my parents to put all of us in public school (I went into 9th grade), and my Dad still regularly did things like hit us with belts; slap, kick, and body slam us; yank our hair; drag us out of bed or out of the shower; and repeatedly slap us in the face. Often it looked and sounded a lot like this. As we got older and he increasingly lost control of us, as we started to question and oppose things more, the abuse just seemed to escalate. It was bad enough that today I have a “bum knee” and a pinched nerve in my upper back, both developed in my mid teens and neither attributable to any other cause than getting physically abused by my Dad, as I did not play sports.
The worst part of it all was seeing my siblings get hit (I either “tuned out” or fought back when I got hit) and I was concerned that one of them might get maimed or killed, particularly my younger brother, the eldest son, who always got it the worst. At public school I had recently learned that most people figured you were supposed to call 911 if something real bad was happening. I decided to give it a shot.
“I’m gonna call the police!” I said, but nobody seemed to notice. Dad was too busy hitting and shoving my brother and calling him names, and my brother was too busy curled up on the livingroom floor, trying to make himself as small and unhittable as is possible for a nine year old to do. I don’t know where anyone else was. It was a small old house with all the rooms pretty much connected to all the other rooms, but people still seemed to find ways to quickly disappear at times like this, except for me. I never seemed able to pull off the escaping thing very well, and by now I was thoroughly sick of it. I had also been told I was responsible for my siblings often enough that I believed it. I had decided I was going to do something radical and crazy. Even if foster care got us it couldn’t be worse than this, right?
I shouted about calling the cops again and again no one paid me any attention. I went into my parents’ bedroom and picked up the phone. I pushed the 911 buttons quickly so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. I could barely hear the sound of the operator’s voice over my own heartbeat. I told her “my Dad’s hitting my brother and won’t stop.” She calmly asked for the address and said “ok, we’re sending someone out there right away.” She asked me if I wanted to stay on the phone until they got there and I said no and then thanked her. It seemed I only had a moment to wait and then suddenly there were sirens. The police arrived and then two young men in blue were standing in the living room. I came out and sat on the old gold-colored couch in the living room in my ratty nightgown, stifling sobs. I suddenly felt embarrassed as I hadn’t brushed my teeth or washed my hair since waking up, and my face was red and stained with tears. I felt ugly and by the looks on their faces they seemed to think I was ugly too. They looked at my brother, standing there, bug-eyed, and then let him go in the other room, which he was in a hurry to do. Dad turned on the charm and told them a story of how he was disciplining his son, who had misbehaved and that I had just lost it and interfered. He told them I was wayward, and willful, and disrespectful and had cursed at him.
One cop took my Dad outside to hear more of this yarn, and the other one stayed to look at me sternly and lecture me on how I needed to be respectful to my father, accept punishment for bad behavior, and not curse at adults. I sat there, seething, saying nothing. You just don’t talk back to a cop, especially when you’re a 14 year old girl and he’s obviously taken sides and ignored all evidence that didn’t fit with what he wanted the situation to be. They didn’t even check my brother for bruises or marks (which he had). The cop looked only a few years older than me, not much taller. He apparently knew nothing about this type of situation and obviously didn’t want to learn more.
Mom was standing there in her nightgown, nervous and sinewy, arms folded tightly, with purple lips and a crazy, almost baffled expression. Her usual look when fights happened. The policeman tried to include her in the conversation about what I should and shouldn’t do. I glared at her and said “you know what was going on, and you never do anything.” Now it was time for her to play the victim. She looked at the cop with big child eyes and said that she believed children should be disciplined in a Godly manner and her husband was the head of the household, blah blah blah, but that she didn’t like it when he slapped the kids in the face and when he would get mad she just didn’t know what to do.
The cop then directed all of his attention at Mom, trying to ask her questions, probe deeper into this. He quickly discovered what everybody else already knew, that asking Mom any kind of yes or no question and expecting any kind of direct or conclusive answer was an exercise in futility. She gave him a few long, indirect run-on sentences about nothing. He became bored and joined the other cop outside with Dad. I looked out the window and saw them talking on the gravel driveway, just along the fence line. Dad was standing inside the gate and they were standing outside. His body language showed that he probably wanted to kick them off the property altogether but instead was being submissive and deferential and thinking he might be in trouble. I looked at my brother, who’d come back in the living room, still bug-eyed, to look out the window with me. He said “you shouldn’t have done that, Heather.” I turned away from him as my heart sank and I sobbed. I’d done this for him. I didn’t want him to get killed. I looked back out the window.
The two policemen looked comfortable, chatting with Dad easily. One of them came back up to the door to tell Mom that they’d spoken to him and told him that corporal punishment was ok, but that slapping your kids in the face is not included or allowed. They said they’d also told him that if they had to be called back out here, he’d be arrested. They were leaving now. That cop didn’t even look at me again, still sitting on the couch. I didn’t matter. I felt so alone, terrified. I figured I was probably going to end up dead. Dad would kill me and I would be buried in the ground somewhere and no one would ever find me! They were leaving and he was coming back inside and I knew he was furious, and…suddenly I wasn’t scared anymore. I was a ghost, floating up above my left side, looking down at the ugly gold couch with the ugly teen girl on it, saying “hmmm, I wonder what’s gonna happen to that girl, Heather?”
Dad walked into the house and I stopped dissociating. I wasn’t a ghost anymore. I was me and all I could hear was my heartbeat. I wasn’t afraid. I would meet death straight on and show no emotion. I would look expressionless. He would not get any begging for anything from me. He stepped into the kitchen and instead of showing anger, he looked over at me with the saddest betrayed eyes I had ever seen him look at me with. He seemed like a little child that someone had punched. He slowly looked at me again and then averted his eyes, seeming to not bear to even see me anymore. He spoke to Mom in a sad voice and said “I can’t believe you didn’t support me. I don’t even have a good Christian wife that supports me.” He brushed off her attempts at conversation and sadly shuffled into the bedroom to lay down. Mom tried to go in and talk to him but he said “just leave me alone,” in the same sad resentful voice, and she ended up coming out and cleaning the kitchen table instead. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t smacked or yelled at or killed! I was still on the couch and nothing had happened to me.
The next day at school I felt exhausted and mentioned to the boy I liked in computer science class that I’d called the cops on my Dad. He looked at me, shocked, and said “Wow, that’s terrible!” He didn’t ask any questions and kept playing Doom, so I kept playing Oregon Trail, feeling worse than usual every time my pioneer family drowned in a creek or starved to death. I felt guilty. Maybe it was terribly wrong to call the police on a parent. It sure felt wrong, but so did a lot of things. Was it more wrong to treat your own kids like that? Was it wrong to be a cop that’s stupid and doesn’t pay attention when it’s your job? What was I supposed to do? Accept that it was corporal punishment and it was ok, we deserved it? I just couldn’t. Getting hit had just always felt wrong, disrespectful. I decided I wouldn’t say anything else to people at school though. Apparently that just wasn’t a good idea. Still, the more I thought about what happened when I called the cops, the more I felt angry. I was still afraid and on guard the next few days, thinking there was a chance I might still have it coming from Dad.
All that week he didn’t speak to me or interact with me, except once to tell me “Grammy wants to talk to you,” and hand me the phone. I picked it up and she started yelling on the other end. She was attempting to tell me what a terrible child I was for calling the police on Dad. I tried to explain to her what was going on, because she’d listened and tried to help when I’d told her stuff before, but she just couldn’t hear me over all of her own yelling. I finally told her I knew I did the right thing and she just didn’t know. She got me to promise her that next time there was a problem, I’d call her, not the police. It was an easy promise to make because after what had happened and how those cops were, I didn’t plan on ever calling them again anyway.
After that everybody stopped mentioning that I’d called the cops on Dad. The only reminder was that he seemed to try and show more self control. He stopped getting the belt or the red stick, even if he still threatened to use them. If we did something he didn’t like, he would put us “on restriction,” his term for grounded, in back-to-back two week increments (which would usually end up being extended for months on end), and when he did lose it, he was more likely to only corner or intimidate us, and if he did hit us, only leave bruises where clothes or hair would cover them up. Also, now he had to be careful because every time he lost it on somebody, Mom would scream “I’m gonna call the police! I’m gonna call the police!” She never did call on him though.
The abuse ended for me when I moved out at age 17 after Dad knocked me over in a chair, chipping my front tooth. The abuse ended for my siblings two years later when Dad moved out and my parents divorced.
Two years ago my brother, now 25, and I finally talked about the time I called the police, our first time ever discussing it since it had happened. He said he was sorry for telling me I shouldn’t have called back then, that he had thought what was happening to him was just routine, normal, and that what I did was what was out of line, extreme. He said looking back he was glad that I called, that he felt it was a “wake up call” to Dad and while things still weren’t ok after that, they got better. I cried when he said that.
There was certainly no need for him to say sorry for anything he’d said as a little boy, but his words now, as a grown man affirming that I’d done the right thing, meant so much to me. Nobody had ever told me that. Back then everyone had acted like I was very much in the wrong, a person who betrayed my family.
I look back and feel so very thankful that I somehow had the guts to fight that fight, that my siblings and I all survived it, and that the younger ones can just be kids and don’t have to go through any such stuff.