I went to the hospital on an icy, wintry day as a courtesy to Cherokee County. Everyone wanted the justice center to respond to the ugliest cases, high profile, deaths, hideous sexual abuse. No one wants those cases, they stay with you, can change you permanently. This was an easy one, just documentation of having seen the injuries, then a report to the referring county. Meet the state standard of seeing the child.
I took a detective from child crisis with me as backup to help document what we were told was a shaken baby. No parents in evidence, just one very pale, fragile four month old child lying on the bed hooked to machines which breathed for her, plumped her with fluids, drained urine.
A tracery of blue veins outlined her swollen head and coalesced into immense bruises on her cheek, under her chin, left ear, the top of her tiny skull. Her eyes were surrounded with the darkest blue and red, contusions and blood pooling, a shock against that translucent skin. A bulge at the top of her head where her soft spot should have been spoke of a swollen brain and bad news for this infant.
I can't forget her skin, it was like silk, no pores, perfect, and exceedingly pale. Where it was not silk, it was scuffed and torn and reddened, but all of it softening in color even as we stayed with her, evidence of her slipping away, a tiny heart slowing, giving up. A huge purple bruise covered her belly and her right side, her belly button oddly white in the middle of that darkness, like the moon in a black night sky.
Her right leg was wrapped, all that could be done for the fracture there given her other injuries. Her arms, shoulders, back, belly, between her tiny thighs, all battered with bruises evident and still coming to the surface eight hours after she was found. Yellowing bruises and brown petechiae told us this massive trauma was not her first experience with pain and suffering.
I can't get the sight of her toes out of my brain, maybe never will. I see them right now as I'm writing this. The tips were like pearls, tiny and round; they were exquisite little toes with perfect pink nails and they were bitten nearly through.
It took us a few minutes to figure it out, lifting them one after the other, looking at the tops, at the undersides, then suddenly the line of imprints from an adult's teeth made sense and like an optical illusion, once in view could not be missed again, it was all we could see, all I ever see when I look at a child's feet. Tooth marks in a dying baby's skin.
I wonder if she felt any pain at that point. She never made a sound, never gave any indication of feeling our hands as we documented her injuries, putting black pen to white paper to make a word picture of the black bruises on that porcelain skin, such a futile effort and so hard because how can you write a scream?
How can you write "contusion 1.9 cm x 3 cm left knee" when the only conceivable response to this travesty is a moan of horror, a scream of grief, a murderous bellow of rage? There are no words for this beyond cliches. It's what cliches were made for, to put into words the unspeakable because the mind can't construct fresh sentences faced with something like this.
Mom said that she had always been able to revive the baby upon finding her unconscious at home after getting off work. Always had until tonight. A little cold water bath brought her around every time. She couldn't understand why this happened, her boyfriend was a good man.
Mom left this tiny and fragile infant in the care of her new boyfriend as punishment for his laziness. She was resentful at being the only one working, and figured he could babysit to help out. Each of the previous five times she had revived this child, she had exacted his promise never to hurt her again. She told no one, fearful her baby would be taken away, confident of his promises, having to work, feeling she had no other options but still, wanting to punish him for his failure.
As young men will, he got bored and restless. They were desperately poor and thus had no cable, no video games, he wasn't one to read. No money to go out, no real friends to come by with some beer. No car, nothing there besides a little meth and a little pot and a baby.
He was bored, frustrated, resentful. He amused himself with the baby. He threw her over his head and sometimes didn't catch her. He slammed her into the wall out of frustration. He held her under water to feel her struggle and fight. He choked her. He shook her in his rage, he violated her tiny vagina, he bit her labia and broke her leg, kicked her in the belly and ruptured her bowel, bruised her liver. He tickled her toes then nearly bit them off. He was bored, he said, a little angry being left with a child, but mainly bored.
I can only think that mom revived this baby five times, tried and failed this last time, but how many nights was this child left with a sadistic man and tortured in this way but not
to the point of unconsciousness. She had been having "funny bruises" for about a month, mom said. Bruises in odd places, like her back, her thighs. "Kids bruise easy, everyone in my family does." Kids bruise easily on shins and elbows because they walk and run and play, but infants don't bruise unless someone hurts them.
He's locked up now, got eight years for murdering this infant. Mom did no time except what will stay forever in her head, doing time, seeing herself as a victim of a system that has no understanding for her complicity in the death of a child. Doing time somewhere in her heart and soul for allowing the murder of her baby. He's doing eight years. Eight years for murder. Eight.
And I am doing time in a way, living a good life now, free of the need to deal with shit like this. But I can't get them out of my head or my heart. These tortured children remain with me though I no longer wake with a start, wondering if this one or that one survived the night, if I did the right thing in sending her home, if it was necessary to remove that group of five siblings, was there another choice, could I have done more? Could any of us have saved this baby before that last fatal night with that monster?
It's too much to think about and so I don't most days. It's big drama and it feels selfish to revisit those small battered bodies, the agony of it all, the hopelessness, revisiting my pain, my memories, the visions in my head when the babies are long since buried. My my my my my. It wasn't about me, but they are dead now for years and I have the memories and the memories won't leave me.
I work in my warehouse, sell my antiques, live on the superficial and pleasant level of helping well off people find nice things for their homes. There is no drama, no life or death questions, just home furnishings and friendly encounters with people who just have to have a new desk or chair or table.
And then it snows and the pure white of the snow reminds me of a battered infant on a winter day, of the other children maimed and tortured and killed by those who are supposed to love them, and I think there's a stain on this world evident if we just look closely enough.
Look at the sad, worn out eyes of the children in the grocery store, at that angry mother with the pinpoint pupils, the little boy with bruises on his neck, the girl with stringy hair and dead eyes making herself small to keep anyone from seeing. Look, please. They are everywhere. Tell me I'm not going mad and that you see them too.
Labels: child abuse, dead kids