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52 MAY 2003
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The “village” that brings up a child: Adults being responsible

Anne White

Having known since last spring that I would be speaking to you today, every now and then during the summer I would think about what I was going to say. Of course, as provincial and national Home and School President [during 1994-96], I would have to stress the importance of parental involvement in education and the need for on-going, open communication between teachers and parents. But I kept thinking, “How can I drag that message out for half an hour? There must be another important issue I can raise with these people, something very profound that I can tell them so they won't be disappointed to have invited me to kick off this conference."

And then, in mid-September, something happened. Something happened which affected me and my children and many other people in our community. Something happened which made me more determined than ever to use whatever influence I may have to raise awareness about the tragic, lasting effects on kids of family violence – verbal, emotional, and physical.

Let me go back several years to when I first met a young boy I'll call “Chris", who became a close friend of my son's when they went to junior high together. He began spending a lot of time at our house. He was quiet, well-spoken, exceedingly polite, and very patient and kind to my younger daughter who was a toddler at the time. It wasn't long before my son told me that he thought Chris's father was beating him. I'm ashamed to say that at first I doubted him. We live in a nice neighbourhood, right? Pretty normal, middle-class people, who go to work every day, pay their bills, go to church, attend Home and School meetings, right? These aren't the kind of people who beat their kids, right? WRONG!

"Well," I thought, “if it's true, surely someone else knows. Surely someone else will alert the authorities. Aren't teachers supposed to be on the lookout for such things, and don't they have a responsibility to report?"

On several occasions, my son would comment that “Chris's father beat him again. Why doesn't anybody do anything?" I was very troubled, but neither my son nor I had proof, only a nagging feeling. When my son asked Chris if anything was wrong, when he would come to school obviously exhausted and troubled, he'd just say he didn't sleep well. He didn't say that he'd been up most of the night dealing with a drunken tirade from his abusive father. My son was clearly distressed and frustrated during this time, and I'm sure he felt that I should do more to help.

A turning point came one day when my son came home from school and angrily told me that maybe now, at least, someone would help Chris, because he had shown up at school with a handprint on his cheek and marks on his neck from being choked. I was appalled, but I agreed with him that, at least now, someone would help. A teacher, the Principal, someone would have seen the marks and called in the social workers, right? I was off the hook, right? WRONG!

I felt compelled to follow up, so I called the Principal the next day to see what action had been taken. I thought I must be dreaming when the Principal insisted that there wasn't a problem, that there were no marks on Chris, and went on further to tell me that he'd had Chris and his father in his office the day before to discuss Chris's behavioural problems and disruptive actions in class. He also told me, “He's a real bad character, Anne. Don't waste your time worrying about him. He's just a trouble-maker."

I was taken aback. Momentarily, I wondered if my son was mistaken, not only about the marks he said he saw, but maybe there never was any abuse, maybe my son had been misinterpreting the dynamics of Chris's family relationship. But I couldn't ignore how upset my son had been, how outraged, and how concerned he was about his friend. And I was, quite frankly, appalled that a school Principal appeared to have written Chris off as nothing but a trouble-maker who didn't warrant his concern.

I hasten to add here that I firmly believe that the vast majority of principals and teachers are caring, compassionate professionals, who would not turn their backs on kids in crisis. But for it to happen once, to one child, is one too many times. What must a child think when he or she knows that a person in a position of authority has seen signs of abuse and chosen to ignore them?

When Chris arrived at our house later that afternoon, he reluctantly let me look at the marks on his face and neck. Almost two days after the assault they were still quite vivid – there was no way anyone could have seen Chris and not been aware that he'd been abused. It broke my heart when he shrugged it off as a normal occurrence, something he'd come to expect as just part of his life. He had seen his father beat his mother until they divorced, and he had come to accept verbal and physical abuse as routine. How many other kids are living this same hell, resigned to their lot in life because they don't see any evidence that anyone cares, that anyone will stand up for them and help them?

When I alerted the school social worker the next morning, she responded immediately. Community services became involved and Chris's father was “questioned." Chris was initially unhappy with me for “rocking the boat," but he came to understand that I had a moral and legal responsibility to report what I knew, and he realized that I really cared about him.

Was Chris removed from his father's custody? Did anything happen to stop the abuse? To indicate to Chris that people cared about his welfare? Did this boy ever have a chance for a normal, safe, happy adolescence? No, no, no and no.

Did Chris's behavioural problems worsen? Did he become more disruptive? Did he grow ever more angry? Did he become increasingly involved in committing petty crimes? Yes, yes, yes and yes!

I'll never forget the night that he arrived at my door around 11 o'clock, upset and sobbing, after yet another violent assault. He felt safe coming to me by then, and admitting to me his fear and despair. I felt so inept, so powerless to help him. All I could do was offer him some comfort, put my arm around him – this big, six-foot tall young man, sobbing like a little boy, embarrassed to death for me to see him like that, but needing to be held.

Fast-forward a few years. Chris went to live with his mother, who had to work long hours, many all-night shifts, at minimum wage. Chris was often unsupervised and was getting into more trouble at school and with the police. I had to tell my son that he was not to go to Chris's when his mother wasn't there, but I also told him that Chris was always welcome in our home. He often stayed overnight, sometimes for several days at a time. He was a model house guest, and I saw great potential in him, if only he could “get his act together." Some people tried to help him, but by then so much damage had been done that it must have seemed, to Chris, to be too little, too late.

How many kids are out there, just like Chris? Kids filled with rage and despair? Kids with so little self-esteem, so little hope and so little support that they are engaging in self-destructive and anti-social behaviours? About eighty percent of incarcerated youth in Nova Scotia come from abusive homes – if you can call them “homes". For these kids, a youth correctional facility must surely be a happier, safer place than their “homes"!

At the correctional facility, Chris was well fed and safe. But when they released him, they released him into the custody of his father! Is it any wonder that he felt abandoned? Is it any wonder that he truly believed no one really cared about him? Is it any wonder that his inner rage grew until it consumed him, and that one night he finally snapped and committed a horrific, violent crime? I am not for one moment excusing him. I'm absolutely appalled at what he did. I and my children are secondary victims of this crime. It has affected us profoundly and we will never be the same.

But I am not surprised. He was a time bomb. It was only a matter of time before he exploded. Our schools are full of kids like him. We must seek them out and give them support and comfort. We must not label them as trouble-makers and nuisances. There are reasons behind every graphic and gory headline. When kids commit violent crimes we must all ask why. Every young offender is someone's child, someone's brother or sister, someone's niece or nephew or grandchild, someone's friend. If those who knew the hell Chris was living in had spoken up soon enough, loudly enough, often enough, he might have been saved and an innocent person might be alive today. All of society bears some responsibility for youth violence and crime, and all of society must seek solutions.

Railing against the Young Offenders Act is not the answer. The brief which was recently presented to the federal Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs regarding Bill C37 (the Young Offenders Act), by the Canadian Teachers Federation, Canadian School Boards Association, Canadian Association of School Administrators and the Canadian Home and School and Parent-Teacher Federation is a positive document. It does not blame. It recommends positive, preventative actions. Let us hope that our legislators are listening!

You have power. You affect kids' lives every day. You can make such a difference to kids like Chris. Please don't write them off. Please, the next time a student is disruptive, rude, obnoxious, angry or didn't do his homework again, please remember Chris. Ask yourself, “Why is he behaving this way? Was she up all night listening to her parents fighting? Is he being abused? Has she been thrown out of the house?"

Yes, I know I'm asking you to be psychologists and social workers and mind-readers, and yes, I know you're over-worked and over-stressed and under-appreciated, and yes, I know your class sizes are far too large. But I also know that you care deeply about kids, or you would not have chosen teaching as your profession. We've often heard the African proverb that says, “it takes a whole village to raise a child." With the kinds of issues facing young people in today's society, it has never been more important for the whole “village" or “community" to do its part. It is appropriate that the theme for this conference is “Rediscovering Communities."

There are initiatives being undertaken by school systems to help “children at risk." But some kids will still fall through the cracks and the costs to them, their families, and society are far too high to be tolerated.

And what of Chris? He's in a correctional facility awaiting trial. He understands the seriousness of his crime. He's very sorry for what he did – though he knows that “sorry" doesn't erase what he did or bring a man back to life. He wrote to me recently to apologize for involving me and to ask me to forgive him, though he said he would understand if I couldn't. I wrote back that there was nothing for me to forgive him for. He always felt safe and welcome in my home, and felt that it was a place he could go to if he needed help. He never had very many places like that.

I often wonder if there wasn't something else I could have done for Chris over the years, if there might be just one thing I could have done that would have made enough difference in his life to change his fate. Maybe, maybe not, but I will do everything in my power to help other kids like him.

My kids know how troubled I am about this. They are indeed troubled too, dealing with conflicting feelings of abhorrence for the crime but concern for their friend. This has caused them to confront issues teenagers should not have to deal with. But in the midst of the turmoil they have grown. It meant a great deal to me when my younger son said, out of the blue, one day, “Mum, please don't feel guilty about Chris. You always did everything you could for him. You're probably the only person who did."

Let's all of us be sure that we can always say that we did everything we could for the kids who need us.

Anne White was the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations at the time of this speech.

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