At St. Mark's grammar school in either 7th or 8th grade, my classmates and I were studying from a sociology book, learning how the changing seasons and annual holidays could mean different things to different children. One child might anticipate the coming of winter as a time for sledding or skating, the book told us, while another might dread the oncoming winter as a time of freezing cold nights when he could see his breath inside his home due to lack of heat. Similarly, one child might anticipate Christmas with joy while another might view it with fear of an abusive parent who always drank too much on Christmas Eve and took to slapping the children about. The book had a photograph of an abused child staring dully into the camera with sad eyes surrounded by swollen blackness. That photo left an indelible imprint on me. Living in a big city neighborhood, I could relate to the idea of a relative getting a little tipsy and falling into the Christmas tree or stumbling down the street singing Jingle Bells, but never until I saw that photo did the thought of an adult beating a child ever enter my mind.
Sadly, in the Probate and Family Court employees frequently need to steel themselves to the abuse people inflict on each other and on their children. We become like emergency room physicians: “all business”, do your job, don’t get emotional.” In some cases, we could understand how the abuse had happened, not that it ever should have or ever was excusable, but how it could happen. Parents beset by bills that could not be paid, facing eviction, with no family support and little to no help from state services, lost control and struck their children. More troubling and incomprehensible was abuse by adults who “lost it” on a regular basis, over long periods of time, with various children. Family members in these households tiptoed through their days never knowing what would trigger the next outburst or how severe the next beating would be. Then, there were horrific cases when the abuse actually could be explained but only by understanding it as an act of genuine evil.
Reflecting on the troubles that are brought to court day after day, year after year, I found myself thankful to have worked with such dedicated co-workers who gave so much of themselves, cared so deeply, and tried so hard.