The Effects of Silence: Unheard Outcries of Child Sexual AbuseBy Chelsey Clammer
October 18, 2017
“I have a secret,” David said. Then, silence. No secret spilled. Not for another three months.
Next, his outbursts, explosions of anger. Throwing glass on the floor, acting up at home, punches thrown, and goes to preschool with the same attitude—rage snapping at random. But he still couldn’t say what he had to say, and even if he did, would anyone listen? Children are to be seen, not heard. Though actions, of course, speak louder than words. When a four-year-old throws his puppy across the backyard, it’s hard not to hear how he needs to speak.
Though there’s the fact of that antiquated thought, a belief born and raised in the Victorian era, one that has sustained centuries of adherence: Children should be seen, not heard.
In other words, this ageist slogan is saying that children are inherently unruly. Disruptive. Each one of them. And rude. Absolutely. They run around restaurants and twirl around stores, cartwheel down aisles breaking every social more, every code of conduct we’ve put in place to police our interactions. Kids are inconsiderate and cause breakables to crash to the floor, because they insist on seeing with their hands, not with their eyes.
But we were all children at one point—have all experienced the ways in which kids are shushed. We all know how it feels to be seen as just a kid who gets on adults’ nerves, especially when shouting just to be heard. So what’s a kid to do if he needs to speak up? Speak out? What’s a kid to do when an adult sees him with more than just his eyes and then he’s told not to tattle—or else? Violence is suspended in the onslaught of his silence. What about when that adult doesn’t know how to keep his hands to himself?
A child is told to speak up about abuse, even though he’s instructed not to be heard. This is where a new type of listening comes in. The boy finds his voice through his body, his movements incited by his anxiety rising. See that bizarre and troublesome behavior? Something had to have happened.
And something had to have led up to that moment when the puppy left David’s hands and soared across the length of their backyard. Prior to this telling gesture, Emma had been concerned about her four-year-old son’s behavior. “David had been saying that he and my ex had secrets together. He had been breaking glass all over the house and was having severe separation anxiety that kept escalating.” But David still wouldn’t tell. Without her son speaking up about his secrets—his mind knotted in indecision about what was safe to say, what wasn’t, what would happen if his secrets were spoken—the only clues Emma could listen to were those expressed through his actions. “He was having severe nightmares, couldn’t sleep alone, and was peeing on himself,” she explains. It was obvious that David had something to say but didn’t know how to say it, or perhaps was too frightened to tell. As her son continued to act out—dragging his older sister, Hannah, across the floor and punching her tooth out—Emma put her son in therapy. Still, only his actions spoke.
And then he threw the dog and then Hannah screamed and Emma ran out to the backyard and asked him what was going on. “He said he didn’t want to tell me,” Emma explains. “After sitting in timeout and crying silently, he then said, ‘Okay, I really have to tell you something.’ I told him no, that he needed to tell his therapist. Then he said, ‘No Momma, I really have to tell you something.’”
What do you do when your four-year-old son tells you that your ex-boyfriend took him into the bathroom?
“And then what happened?” Emma asked David.
What do you say when your four-year-old son tells you that your ex-boyfriend then peed on him?
“And then what happened? Emma asked again.
What do you do with this response: “Why was his pee white, Momma?”
“And then what happened?” Emma kept going, not answering her son’s question, not wanting to risk his talking to stop. “And then what happened?” Emma asked and asked and asked until her son said definitively, “And then I went out and played.”
In that moment, Emma hugged David, told him nothing was his fault.
Now, two years later, her son’s words are still burned into her brain. “I tried to get in touch with his therapist and my lawyer,” Emma says. “We knew something had been wrong, but I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t know what to do.”
Because, yes, what do you do when your son finally speaks, when you at last know that what happened next was a sexual assault?
* * *
In his article, “Seen and Not Heard,” David Wilson explains, “We don’t listen to child victims or how they have tried to overcome abuse because we don’t listen to children….We want our children as passive, quiet, grateful, designer accessories to suit our needs and to reflect well on our sense of self.”[i]
Who wants their sense of self to be bogged down by someone else’s trauma? No one. Enter the trauma- and truth-avoidant trilogy: ignore, deny, and deflect.
“Right from the very beginning, people doubted me and accused me of coaching my kids to say these things,” Emma explains. “Law enforcement has refused to explore the case in any way. They aren’t listening.”
By acknowledging a child’s outcry, by listening when a kid says he was sexually assaulted, by believing that a mother is protecting and not coaching her children, we put ourselves in the position where we have to not only listen and respond, but also recognize a frightening and sickening fact: we are a species that rapes and abuses our offspring.
So disregard stranger danger.
We keep it all in the family now.
David is the middle child of the family. He and Hannah have the same donor father, but Esther, his younger half-sister, was an unplanned result from what should have been a rebound relationship. And although Emma only dated the man for five months—which, taking his abusive tendencies and bizarre behavior into account, was, in hindsight, five months too many—she was already in the process of separating herself from this man when she found out she was pregnant.
With blue-green eyes and fuller lips, Esther’s physical features aren’t shared with her two older siblings. She gets it from her father, who is also the person who will rape her. In 2014, a year after Esther is born, the man is “kind enough” to agree to babysit Emma’s kids one summer while she’s at work, which is when he starts sexually assaulting his daughter and her siblings. This is when David’s behavior first started to decline. How he’d frequently scream and cry when Emma had to leave in the morning. By the end of the summer, Emma started to separate herself as much as possible from Esther’s father, who seemed to be the source of every problem. A court-ordered visitation schedule had been in place for a while, and now Emma made sure it was followed. Within the next year, David began to have PTSD episodes during the supervised visitations until it was abundantly clear that something was going on—though what?—and his therapist gave dire warnings that he needed to never attend another visitation, because he was being traumatized each time he went. More PTSD episodes occurred, including that one climatic afternoon when David threw his puppy across the backyard.
From the moment of that first outcry, Emma sought out ways to keep her kids safe—but no one has yet to deliver their services and support. Child Protective Services questioned the kids, “but it wasn’t until I took them to the Child Advocacy Center that they were actually interviewed about trauma,” says Emma. This act is representative of all of Emma’s actions and interactions: When dealing with under-staffed and under-funded state and government organizations and departments, you have to become your own advocate for any initiative to be taken. Unless you have a degree in child trauma, you will be uncertain as to if you are taking the right steps at the right time—if you are doing the right thing in the right way.
“You play all of the events over and over and over in your head because you’re a mother,” Emma says. “I ask myself what I could have done differently. I did everything I was told to do—I put them in therapy and didn’t influence their opinions or memories. I want to understand how it is that a kid can make a very clear outcry from the very beginning, and nothing has happened that actually protects him.”
From this lack of protection, Emma did the best thing she could to ensure her children’s safety: she applied to and received a job offer at an Ivy League college.
Once they were safe and states away from David’s abuser, Esther then made her first outcry about how The Monster hurt her. Esther’s outcry: he touched her private parts while she was in a hotel room with him during his first 8-hour unsupervised visit. In their new home state, Emma continued to fight for her children. She immediately set up meetings with the college’s safety administrator, and an advocate who got each child set up with a therapist. She also sought out a number of organizations and state departments to help her navigate different social services. Within four months, though, the safe haven was stolen from the family. Because although The Monster made exactly ZERO attempts to see his daughter during those four months, he then started to stomp his foot and demand for visitation rights because how else is he supposed to be able to assault his daughter if she’s in a different state? Emma and her children were court-ordered back to Texas.
She returned because she had to, because her “choices” were Texas or a jail in Texas. Even though she would be jobless and homeless, even though she knew The Monster would abuse her daughter, even though multiple professionals made multiple reports about the horrors of this man, he continued to have unfettered access to his daughter, and Emma still had to move her family back.
Upon return, The Monster was awarded bi-weekly, 48-hour unsupervised visitations with his daughter.
But how is that possible? Why would that happen?
Simple: a judge insisted Emma was still lying about the sexual abuse and refused to hear or acknowledge any new evidence.
In his article about the court system’s mistreatment of protective mothers, Barry Goldstein says that, “courts disbelieve 94% of child sexual abuse reports….this means in a majority of domestic violence custody cases the courts are sending children to live with dangerous abusers and rapists.”[ii]
Emma became part of the 94%.
* * *
It’s a weekend when Esther gets to stay home with her mom and siblings. She’s lying on the long cushion that sits on the window sill in Gauge, a yarn store in Austin. Esther’s a few months shy of being four years old, a few months and one day shy of making another outcry. But first: yarn. Emma’s looking around. David’s playing on his tablet. Hannah is doing the same. Esther lays supine on her back, holding two stuffed animals from the basket full of puppets and plush animals the yarn store has for just this reason. Mom needs some quiet time to shop in the peacefully hushed yarn store. Kids need to play.
Esther is laying down, a story mumbling out of her lips. No one really hears what she’s saying because she’s three and hops around topics without any logic. Plus, her tongue is still practicing the fine art of pronunciation, which can make comprehending her statements a challenge.
But she’s saying something about The Monster. Something about how The Monster can’t hurt her. Something about keeping The Monster happy. Even if you don’t hear her, you can see how her actions explain everything.
Grasping a ladybug finger puppet around its abdomen in one little-kid hand, and the end of an octopus’s tentacle in the other, Esther apparently knows what to do when you have a hole and something cylindrical. Insert mass into abyss. She does this. Now her voice turns inward a bit more as she continues to talk about The Monster, about how she knows how to put a smile on his face. Even with this obvious statement, the way that Esther plays with the puppets is exponentially more loquacious than the combined shards of her fractured sentences.
These, too, are actions that Emma not only hears, but addresses to keep her kids as safe as she can. From David’s first PTSD episode in April 2015, to Esther’s most recent outcry in August 2017, Emma has relentlessly acted to protect her children. She’s a proactive, caring, protective mother who wants to engage with anything and anyone who will relieve her family’s lives of this madness.
Therapists, psychiatrists, ER visits, rape kits, CPS reports and visits, reports filed, more outcries reported, forensics interviews, computer forensics analysts, private detectives, three lawyers, countless calls to advocacy centers, lab tests, NGOs sought out, visits to police stations, a move across the country, a move back across the country, and time time time time spent on figuring out which route will lead to her children’s safety.
She has been doing this for the past two years.
Yet Esther is forced to see The Monster every two weeks
And every two weeks The Monster forces himself upon Esther.
After all of these actions and outcries, how is it that this situation persists, that a four-year-old is forced into unsupervised visits with the man who she is currently and consistently making outcries about, and how every time she has to go she screams and screams that she doesn’t want to?
Because no one wants to hear about something so atrocious, let alone believe it. And God forbid somebody do anything about it.
“For decades,” Goldstein writes, “protective mothers have been complaining that family courts are tilted to favor abusive fathers and that they face corruption. Court officials have tended to respond defensively and dismissed the domestic violence victims as disgruntled litigants.”
Which is to say that there is another perspective on the matter of the protective mother. She’s not an advocate, but a vindictive lunatic.
“All of law enforcement doesn’t believe anything that I’m saying,” Emma explains. “Wood County said that it doesn’t make sense that my daughter would say one thing happened to her one day, and then say something different the next day. That’s not because she’s lying. It’s because she’s four years old. And, most likely, she’s talking about multiple events. She’s not lying, she’s describing experiences—plural. Plus, she’s too young to know time. Everything to her is yesterday.”
But Esther’s bruises on her leg, the dark purple-greens that are the perfect shape of an adult hand, are easy enough to see. The green-yellow, sticky substance that can only be described as semen that discharged from this three-year-old’s vagina and into her diaper is easy enough to see, too. These are the signs of abuse that no one is listening to.
The body keeps records of these moments, these incidents of stolen innocence.
The therapist who has worked most with the kids can testify to the abuse they endure. She can tell you how you can’t coach a child into playing at PTSD. You can’t teach a kid how to get that look in his eyes that says he’s gone. A trigger leading to dissociation. You can’t teach a child how to act like he’s having a flashback. You just can’t teach that type of terror.
Goldstein reports that, “evaluators, judges and lawyers without the specific training in domestic violence [that] they need tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports. This is not based on valid research, but rather the stereotype of the woman scorned or the angry woman.” What this means, is that our society needs specific training to listen to (and, if we’re lucky, validate) what a woman has to say.
Here’s the flow of logic: Children are to be seen, not heard. A woman’s place is in the home. And now that we’re keeping it all in the family, silence has started to strangle the truth.
Society doesn’t want to see the truths that mothers speak because no one wants to hear about how in more than 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrators are family members or people close to the family. Because if we ignore what’s being said, then we don’t have to face what’s being done. The court is dead-set on protecting a father’s right to his child, regardless of the fact that no child can defend herself at age four, nor does she know how to call 9-1-1. And this isn’t even to mention what happens when the child doesn’t want to go, what happens when those who don’t want her to go have to watch her handed over to her abuser for regular visitations. The victimization of this situation ripples out, its effects terrorize the rest of the family.
All because we can’t take a woman’s word for it.
The results: inadequate services, missed opportunities, evidence just sitting there untouched, more lies than facts, and an incredible lack of follow-up. None of this is helpful. All of this is because we dismiss a mother’s distress. Goldstein explains that, “The courts were routinely treating mothers as if they were not credible but…scientific findings [support] other research that found protective mothers rarely make deliberate false complaints.” With stereotypes and sexist judgements against them, a mother can never do anything right.
“Anyway I react,” says Emma, “is going to be wrong. If I sob, I’m called hysterical and uncooperative. If I stay cool, I’m suspected of lying because I’m not showing any emotion. I can’t do anything right.”
Yet she keeps fighting for her children’s right for safety.
A mother’s work is never done.
Note: Over two years later and David’s story has yet to change. Each detail remains the same.
Note: Esther makes new outcries after she returns from every unsupervised visit with The Monster.
From all of this, questions, of course, emerge. Why does a three-year-old not have an intact hymen? Why would Emma put her kids through hell, lose her job, live in impoverished conditions and even go so far as to rape her own children—as one detective claimed—just for a little bit of money? Why are people willing to believe that a mother would rape her own children for money and not believe that a man is a pedophile when, as Goldstein explains, “several studies established that mothers involved in contested custody make false reports less than 2% of the time.”
There’s a high cost for the court system being wrong 98% of the time.
Emma knows this, has 26 months’ worth of first-hand experience.
The high cost for the court system being wrong in Emma’s experience, as of this writing:
• Therapy for three children because of how one man touched them and is still touching one of them: $6000
• Legal matters to gain full custody and restrict The Monster’s access to the child he is sexually abusing: $30,000
• Moving to a different state to keep children safe from The Monster, then moving back because The Monster says so: $3000
• New computer to replace the one that contains evidence of child sexual abuse and child pornography: $2000
• Therapy dog for the children to alleviate PTSD symptoms (Note: the dog had to be left behind when the family was court-ordered back to Texas): $2000
• Lost furniture and clothing and household goods and toys due to the two moves across the country and the children’s destructive behaviors when experiencing flashbacks: $10,000
• Flights for court hearings and unsupervised visits for The Monster: $4000
• Lost wages and career advancement opportunities when Emma was forced to quit her job and move back to Texas: $35,000 (minimum)
• Medical: $5000
• Travel costs for therapy and psychiatry as well as time off from work: God only knows
• Hiring private investigators, getting lab tests done, etc.: $4000 and then some
Minimum total cost and counting: $101,000
Being vindictive sure is costly.
* * *
When will this insanity end? When will the victims stop being victimized again and again? And at what cost? Not just financial, but spiritual, too.
“People constantly questioning my kids doesn’t change their story, but it has changed the way they interact with people,” Emma explains. “David still has to tell people over and over again what happened—even today, three years later. By now, he has said it all so many times that he’s just kind of numb to it. One CPS worker even commented that she found it disturbing that the kids could talk about it like they talk about playing on the playground.”
Now, as The Monster still has rights, Emma has discovered that her life is structured around a 14-day cycle. How every fourteen days Esther is subjected to spend 48 hours alone with her abuser.
Esther leaves. Forty-eight hours later, Esther returns, not unharmed.
Set the clock. Twelve days to go. Twelve days to find evidence or talk to the right person in the right department with the right experience and right connections that will help Esther to stay home—hopefully forever.
If not, then begin the 48-hour countdown.
Every-other Sunday, Esther returns home with more stories to tell. Such as one about a knife. How The Monster pressed it against her vagina. When Emma hears this, she reports it to the detective the next day. Here’s what the detective had to say: “Well she said he had his clothes on and it only happened once.”
Here’s what Emma had to say: “I don’t care. It shouldn’t have happened at all.”
Which is true.
Esther’s burden, her trauma now clearly seen and clearly heard.
That was a month ago. And still, every twelve days Esther is forced to go, regardless of what she screams about, sobs over.
“We don’t listen to child victims or how they have tried to overcome abuse because we don’t listen to children,” David Wilson says. “Not only do we think they should be ‘seen and not heard,’ but they are also increasingly disliked, scapegoated and hated by an adult world that has turned young people into the human equivalent of dangerous dogs.”
It’s a world that has put these young people in the grasp of dangerous hands and the violence of silence. Because, really, we shouldn’t have to wait for a boy to fling a puppy just so he can be heard.
The names of the children in this article have been changed for their protection.
[i] David Wilson, “Seen and Not Heard,” The Guardian, January 12, 2004.
[ii] Barry Goldstein, “Widely Anticipated Article Confirms Court Mistreatment of Protective Mothers.” Stop Abuse Campaign, July 19, 2017.
Jesus. This is the most heartbreaking piece I’ve ever read. Beyond frustrating. Powerful writing. Powerful message.
Horrifying. I would be tempted to kill. Also sickening to know it’s happening in droves right now.
Sickening, and sadly, not surprising.
I live in Texas, and have seen the lip service Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature have given to improving CPS. That itself is enough of an issue, let alone courts in this state ignoring clear signs of abuse, in many cases because elected district judges are sheep-dipped in Religious Right mentality on family issues.
my god! this is horrible. it makes you understand why some parents (usually mothers) go underground with their kids. it must be beyond awful for the mother and her children.
Can we make progress against the bias of such judges, now that the world is learning how many seemingly praiseworthy men, in many fields and industries, sexually harass and assault their less-powerful associates and underlings?