Fri Jan 11th, 2008 at 10:08:39 AM EST
In the past few weeks I have been involved as an interpreter in a rather gruesome case. A 43-year-old Slovakian woman is seeking to foster her two-year-old grandson as both of his parents are suspects for murder of his baby brother who died last September. The baby suffered a cracked skull, a broken rib and a dislocated arm, and died of his injuries on the very same day.
I have been interpreting for the social worker to help her determine whether the grandmother is suitable to foster the child. I also met with the mother, last week. I was quite horrified at what happened to the child and of her indictment. Sure they must have done it... it couldn't just be an accident! So many grave injuries don't just happen like that. I was, however, quite surprised when I met her: a tiny, quiet, polite, heartbroken girl of twenty-one who looked adoringly at the image of her elder son on the computer while we talked to her about him. I tried to imagine her as a murderer, performing this unspeakable violence against her child, but I wasn't able to. From her we gathered that the baby fell while she was in another room taking care of the older one, and at first it wasn't clear the injuries were so serious. She did not want to tell us very much, though, as she had probably been advised by her solicitor not to speak about it to anyone by herself.
The day that her son died has forever changed her life, and not just because she lost a child, which in itself is a horrendous ordeal. Her two-year-old was taken away from her and placed in foster care where he got recently injured (he stuck a curtain string hook into his eye) and had to be hospitalized. She said he has been frequently sick and walks around in dirty clothes. He feels his parents betrayed him by leaving him with strangers. The mother and her partner are allowed to see him for two hours a day, supervised, and they don't miss a single visit, but he gets angry at them each time they leave and sends them away, pretending he doesn't need them. If the mother is convicted, these visits will be reduced, and if the child is placed with his grandmother, she won't be able to visit her either.
The social services, however, are not happy with the fact that the grandmother and her partner smoke, as they are not allowed to place a child under five with a smoker (as a result of complaints of fostered adults with respiratory problems who sued the government for being placed in a smoking environment as children). If she doesn't manage to quit before the beginning of February when the court decision is due, the child might be placed permanently with a stranger. There is also the possibility of his Slovak grandparents fostering him, and the social worker is preparing for a trip to go and assess them as well. (I might end up going if they don't find an interpreter based there.)
If the mother is convicted of neglect, she will spend two years in prison. She won't be able to care for her son, most likely until he's eighteen and then he won't need taking care of. If he gets placed with his grandmother, she will have severely restricted contact with her, which will be probably very difficult as they are very close. And God only knows what her partner thinks of what happened, but I'd imagine he must blame her for it - she said he's supportive, but even the most supportive partner would feel some serious resentment against someone who allowed his child to die. If they ever have another child together, they will be subject to strict supervision and will be relentlessly monitored for years.
I don't know what exactly will happen if she's convicted of murder, but I can only imagine the picture will be a lot bleaker - is that even possible?
It is hard to believe one mistake can cost someone so much: not one child but two, contact with mother, trust of partner, future opportunities for a decent job and a good standing in the society. I cannot imagine what agony she must be going through.
After these appointments, coming back home felt as if I had just woken up from a nightmare back to my good, happy life. But I realized, with a shudder, how many times I could have ended up exactly in the same situation. Looking back, I feel I (or we) was just very lucky. How many parents can honestly say "my child was ALWAYS safe"? When Jonathan was a toddler, he managed to escape from our house in Riverside at least three times. Once the gardeners didn't lock the gate as I always did and our dog ran away, and Jonathan chased after him. I found him three blocks down the road at someone's yard - they are very, very fast, dogs and toddlers. Another time he figured out, being not even two years old, how to unlock two sets of doors without anyone noticing (there were three of us adults in the house and Miguel was about three meters away from him reading a book while I was showing something to Pilar in the study). Jonathan walked out and dutifully closed both doors behind him to cover all traces. After I searched in panic under beds and in kitchen cabinets, I ran out onto the street barefoot in my pink stained bathrobe, only to find Jonathan in the arms of neighbours who had already managed to call the cops. I almost cried with relief, but to the almighty cop who came to investigate I was a low-lifer, trailer-trash junkie living perpetually in a stained pink bathrobe and not giving a rat's ass about my son.
In addition to his escapist stunts, during the course of his childhood Jonathan overdosed on Baby Panadol, got his arm caught -- up to his armpit -- in the guillotine type window so popular in the US (what do you do when you live in an old house?), and almost swallowed a needle (I only found out he had one in his mouth after he wouldn't stop smiling from ear to ear). He fell off my bed numerous times when I passed out during nursing every frigging hour of the night and didn't manage to get him back to his own bed, and one time we realized he rode all the way from San Francisco to Riverside, California, strapped to a seat that, however, was not strapped to the car. There you have it. Maybe I was a terrible mother. I have a feeling, though, that every parent could come up with a few stories like mine. I believe that in many ways, we are all just lucky.
Thinking of this young girl who might soon be going to prison and lose even more that she already has, I am wondering whom the court system actually punishes the most while trying to "protect society (and other children such person might have)". The mother will have to live with her loss and terrible guilt until the day she dies. This is the cruelest punishment. Is taking her son away really a solution (if she's convicted of neglect, not murder, of course)? Does the court really believe she would allow for this to happen again? I think that having such an experience would produce a parent who would be, if anything, overprotective and paranoid, certainly not a careless slacker. It might not be easy to live with such a parent, but I'd still think it would be much better for the child than foster care. Her son is already suffering a lot, and it seems it will only get worse.
This is such a difficult moral and ethical issue, and I'm probably not being very objective. I don't know what really happened. I'm just trying to put myself in the girl's shoes. Doing this, I realize how precariously parents of little children teeter on a blade between happiness and despair, and how all we care about can be gone in a flash.