Ever wonder why you don’t hear about child abuse until the kid’s dead?
After looking into a child-abuse tip that came into the AVA I decided to pass on writing about it for all the usual reasons, not the least of which is that I quote anonymous sources only under a narrow set of circumstances. In mulling it over, however, I decided that the process of shedding some much-needed light on this most elusive of charges was worth sharing. The events described here, according to the tipster, unfolded in one of Mendo’s coastal communities. The principals are: The grandfather, the grandson, the girl, the mother, the stepfather, and the county social worker in the Department of Family and Children’s Services, who spoke with the grandfather. Project Sanctuary played a bit part in its non-response to my call, even after leaving the message that I understood its privacy policies and only wanted to speak of the process used to evaluate cases like this when a minor calls them for help.
I called the grandfather, who had emailed the AVA with a brief description of the lay of the land as he saw it. He also left his phone number. A quick online check of his name showed him to be part of a multi-generational coastal clan, with deep roots in the county. I left him a voicemail and he called me back almost immediately. He was very emotional about the circumstances under which his grandson’s girlfriend had in his view abruptly been moved to the Bay Area. The grandfather told me that he has had custody of two of his own grandkids for nearly a decade and came across (to the extent that such nuances can be gleaned over the phone) as a kind of activist for minor children’s rights. Both the grandson and the girl are 16, so the overall tone of the thing also has a “Romeo and Juliet” aspect to it. (Remember being 16?) The grandfather was clearly furious that, in his view, nobody cared about the fate of the girl (“Nobody did a goddam thing for her”), who was allegedly forced to move to the Bay Area with her mother (who is from the Bay Area) and stepfather, who according to the grandfather physically abuses the girl, including beating her with a belt and “touching her ass,” though he fell short of alleging additional sexual improprieties beyond that. He did say that the girl had bruises on her back: the girl apparently told him that the stepfather was “aiming for her ass but she squirmed so he missed”). A quick online check of the stepfather revealed only one non-violent offense. The grandfather added that the biological father is out of the picture. He went on to say that he had written to the Governor, his congressman, and his county supervisor (“He’s too busy doing radio acts” to care about this), in addition to notifying area newspapers, law enforcement, and social services. That’s how this story ended up with the AVA, the enduring champion of hard cases and lost causes.
The grandfather seemed to take a lot of notes about his conversations with all the usual outfits involved in cases like this. With the girl’s scheduled departure south coming to a head, he said he was fearful that the mother and stepfather would show up any time at the local “safe place” where the girl was staying pending some hoped-for investigation into the abuse allegations. He said he told the girl “about 3,000 times to keep the door locked,” adding “Don’t let them get their hands on you or it will be the biggest pain the ass since the Civil War.” It was unclear, at least in my mind, as to how exactly this “safe place” was identified, and by whom. In any event, the girl was advised to “call the cops” if her mother showed up with the stepfather to forcibly move her. Which she apparently did, though not in enough time to allegedly head off “screaming into her phone” as she was being “dragged out the door.” As of this writing the girl is in the Bay Area with her mother and stepfather.
As to local officialdom, the grandfather said that the sheriff was “too late” to prevent the girl’s “abduction,” showing up after the horse had already left the barn, as it were. Someone at Project Sanctuary, according to the grandfather, said they would initiate a restraining order against the stepfather. The social worker, Chris (his real name), was very helpful, according to the grandfather, though nothing much seemed to come of it. When I called him he sounded earnest and very young but quickly became downright hostile even before I completed my first sentence explaining politely that I understood he couldn’t talk about individual cases but was looking instead for insight into the process of how FCS handles requests like this one. “We can’t speak to the media in any shape or form,” he self-righteously huffed before fobbing me off on his supervisor Tracy Miller (her real name), who naturally never bothered to call me back. If she had I would probably have fainted dead away with the shock of it and fallen off my computer chair. That department needs in the worst way to be torn asunder from stem to stern. Nobody there seems to have gotten the memo that the surest path to negative press, all the time, is to stonewall reporters and treat them like attacking barbarians. Just ask Exxon. Or Donald Trump. I’ve found that most people have a natural sympathy for those toiling in the bloody trenches of family law. Taking on a mantle of CIA-style secrecy kills that natural sympathy. New FCS leadership will hopefully take a hard look at this policy and let some light shine in; it kills the mold and banishes the shadows. It is possible to discuss how something works without compromising anyone’s much-touted privacy, which everyone knows doesn’t really exist in this day and age, anyway; and certainly no one wants to see a child harmed from reckless press exposure. Other departments and companies routinely manage to ethically walk this middle road to the benefit of everyone, including themselves. Maybe FCS could use some of its vast travel budget to visit one and learn all about it. Best-in-class training!
So the last piece of this saga was a call from the girl herself, now relocated in the Bay Area. The boyfriend’s grandfather must have given her my number. She thanked me profusely for “taking on her case” against her stepfather, who she said “physically, mentally, and emotionally” abuses her. She said that her mother told her that “she has no say” in where she lives. I told the girl I agreed to look into it but emphasized that I am a reporter, not a lawyer. A reporter, as it turns out, with little to report. I called the grandfather back and told him that I couldn’t get enough information to accurately tell the story. So here I am telling it anyway, but without the factual framework or corroboration needed to even thinly support a more detailed narrative. In family warfare, just like in the national kind, the first casualty is the truth.