Summer 2014 – A Happy Childhood 

“The good old days are those days of childhood when someone else was responsible for your well-being.” – G. Keiller

This is the quote that I frequently use to start a lecture on child abuse and neglect.  Like no other profession, my job reminded me every day that for most of the children in our clinic the memories of childhood are desperate; no one has ever been concerned with their well-being or happiness.

Two toddlers were brought in the other night holding each other’s hands. Dirty and hungry with clothes hanging off their thin frames; too big for their little bodies and completely washed of color. With bare feet, they had been found alone in the middle of the night begging for food at the corner liquor store. The boy is four and his sister is two. Mother was passed out drunk on the floor of their apartment with their refrigerator empty and the house crawling with rodents and roaches. Where are those responsible for the well-being of these children?

At what point in time do we step up and say that this mother cannot provide a safe environment? Aside from the safety issue, which should be a given, who ensures an environment where these children can thrive and grow; receive not only the basic necessities of life, but true security, with perhaps a touch of gentleness and love. This is why Los Angeles County now has a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) looking into how the child welfare system must be changed in order to provide, at the very least, safety. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we have addressed the idea of thriving yet.

I truly appreciate what the BRC admits – we have a system that is broken and cannot seems to find its way. This must be realized before we can commit to a necessary overhaul of how we approach child protection. Bringing safety and security, as well as stability, to the lives of children is the essence of what the Violence Intervention Program is and why we exist. We are committed to taking everything we can from the BRC report to ensure that all at-risk children have what they need to not only survive, but to thrive as well.

In April, our 24-hour foster care center for teens opened, creating a safe haven with hot meals, a place to sleep, a shower, and games. Within a week, social workers, guards, and sheriff’s deputies all described an atmosphere different from anything these kids have experienced before; one of stability, security, compassion, and support. But this is only the beginning. Twenty-four hours of caring and concern does not translate into a lifetime of change. As one girl said, “please pray for me that I can find my way when I leave.”

We must continue to ask the right questions; “What can I do to help you? What do you need?” Only then will we discover the right answers. I am grateful to each one of you who has asked me these questions over the past few months. You are changing lives here and there is only more to come.

Winter 2013 – Washed

As in “I am washed up” or thrown away by social services, law enforcement, probation or our educational system.   This is a term used by youth currently living within the juvenile justice system; by those who are unable to find safe or secure placements within group or foster homes; by so many of the children who have “graduated” to living on the streets of Los Angeles.  They refer to themselves as Washed Up.  

Brian brought Scarlett to see me yesterday.   He has been washed a hundred times by the system; a system that was charged with changing the trajectory of his young life.   Now, 25 years old and a new father to a wonderful 21 month old daughter, he sits in my clinic and weeps.   In all the years that he has been passing through everything from social services to incarceration as a 13 year old; no other person has ever asked him “what can I do to help you?”   No one has asked what he needed when he was sleeping on the porch of his mother’s house because she did not want him; no one intervened to help him when he was raped by gang members, no one saw to it that he graduated from school or was even literate—no one wanted to ask–because they had no answers and he was just another of those “throw-away” kids.

So yesterday we asked the question, “What can we do to help you?”

“Do you really want to know?”  he countered. “Yes,” I said and he gave me a short list! Rent, food money, phone bill. But the real list

was much longer and includes help with literacy, school, and a better job to be able to ultimately support his daughter.  So our questions went back to how can we help him turn his life around—how do we get him to read and to get his GED, not to mention becoming computer literate.   As Brian sits there weeping, he looks up and says, “Please just help me find a way to protect her from becoming just like me.” Without his support, he is right; Scarlett will soon be part of the same system that washed him so long ago.  Just another statistic in a failed system that cannot or will not find a way to make change personal or permanent.

I promised him that I will make Scarlett my personal mission; daycare for her so he can go back to school; school for him; rent subsidy so he can establish himself in a better job, and probably the most important gift—regular mental health to finally come to grips with abuse, neglect, rape and being “washed.”

They say that childhood is the foundation for a productive and happy adult life. In this world of abuse and neglect that surrounds us here—so few have ever found that one person who made their happiness, security and safety important.   This has to change!

Summer 2013 – The Voyeur

Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged us to discover something, some principle, some issue or cause that we will be willing to stand for and not turn away…he said something will define our courage and will prevent us from becoming a “voyeur” in life, but rather a participant.

In March, at our 10th annual H.E.A.R.T. brunch at the Marciano’s in Beverly Hills, I spoke of H.E.A.R.T. members taking such a stand to support the children and the women of our clinic impacted by violence, neglect and poverty. The core belief of H.E.A.R.T. will always be that we will never accept watching from the sidelines—we will always roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.

At the brunch, I shared my experience with difficult stands on important issues. That morning, the Los Angeles Times was reporting on the vast sums of money spent by both the Catholic Church and LA Unified School District in the settlement of suits over their inability to protect their respective children from sexual abuse by priests and teachers. I clearly remember being labeled as a radical and a “advocate” for taking up the cause of the sexual abuse of children in the ‘80’s.   These labels hung around my neck at a time bemused with “over-reacting” and controversial interventions that might impact professionals such as teachers and priests. The irony of the headlines was not lost on me.

In the spirit of taking a stand, I take my hat off to the little 5 year old girl and an amazing 8 year old boy, who in the mid ‘80’s testified in court for days on end to describe ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher. They sat, unprotected, facing their abuser across a very narrow space and spoke the truth. Their parents sat quietly in the back of the courtroom praying for the sanity of their children.

These children and their families elected to be participants, not voyeurs, if their courage would somehow change things for every child that would follow them in the years to come. They chose to stand up for what they believed, regardless of being criticized or becoming labeled as a radical, an outlier, or because someone would be threatened by their courage.

Years later when I attended that 5 year old’s graduation from USC, she and I stood beside each other celebrating that triumphant moment for her and privately acknowledging our history together.

Regardless of the stigma that was then attached to anyone who believed that children were sexually abused—there was palpable courage in the air. You could feel it between your thumb and fingers when you rubbed them together.  There were few voyeurs at that table of life—-there are no voyeurs at the VIP; nor are there any in H.E.A.R.T.

Thank you for embracing with courage the needs of our families and for refusing to turn away, despite the truth in the fact that doing nothing is always easier.  H.E.A.R.T. has set a standard of support for families impacted by violence and abuse.  This standard of care remains a beacon others strive to reach. They are the true heart of the VIP and I am thankful for their devotion to our clients.

Winter 2012 – Edward

When the little boy sitting at the table of the new “Children’s Welcome Center” leaned over to the newcomer and explained “You can eat as much as you want to here!”  That the memories of my father and his childhood washed over me.

Edward Heppenstall was born in Sheffield England in 1901.  His father was the owner of a successful china, crystal and silverware store in town that catered to the knighted and wealthy.  My father attended private schools and was well loved and protected by this father.   One day, at age 8, he returned home from school to find that his father had died of an overdose of chloroform on the dining room table during surgery for a hernia.

Within weeks, the extended Heppenstall family moved in and took over both the shop and the house and my father, his sister and mother were forced to find shelter in the poor house.  Dad went to work to support them by stoking the open pit fires of the local steel mill, 12 hours per day; 6 days per week. He was only 9 years old.  His sister was sent to work as a domestic on a farm outside of the city.  She almost starved to death.

My dad worked in the steel mills until he was in his 20’s; he became the local boxing champion and general roustabout until he met a young man, a coworker, who  behaved differently, who was kind, thoughtful—- my dad saw that there was something so much more than the life that he was living.   At age 25 he took his equivalency examination and went to the university.  Although he had no formal education since age 9, by the time he had completed his education in the Universities of the Midwest and then USC, he had his PhD Phi Beta Kappa, and was remarkable to whomever he met.

He set a high standard for giving everyday of his life; but especially at the Holidays.  I remember a time when he did not buy shoes for himself for 12 years,  For Christmas, we gave to those who had nothing in the community—but we gave anonymously—-He said that by giving this way we gave to the parents and they could provide a Christmas for their children—thereby, we gave twice.

We drove down the long dusty drive to the ramshackle house, with the porch hanging off the front.  We quietly took the toys, food and even Christmas tree, and placed them on the porch, climbed back in the black ’49 Ford, we watched out the window as Dad knocked on the door and then quietly walked away.   As we drove back up the long drive, I could see the door open; the father stood silhouetted in the door and then gathered up the gifts.

There is such a joy in the giving to those who will not have enough to eat this year, or will miss gifts for their children. It is a tradition at the VIP that we too give to the parents and empower them to provide for their children.  This year there will be more than ever because we want to give Christmas to those children who are awaiting foster placement in our new Children’s Center.  Just like that little boy, it is my wish that every child we touch should be able to “eat as much as you want here.”

Fall 2012 – Time

“Why are you in such a hurry?”  the hospital administrator asked me on Wednesday.    This is hard to explain—but I have been in a hurry for a long time.    The best analogy I can think of is if your son or daughter is seriously ill, you are in a desperate hurry to find the right doctor with the right solution.  If they are diagnosed with cancer—you want the surgery/chemotherapy yesterday—you are not patiently waiting for months to pass to get the appointment. When it comes to certain things, we are or should be in a huge hurry. Period.

Peter is nine.  He is also African-American.  He has been bouncing from relative to relative since his mother abandoned him at age four.  His latest landing was with his paternal grandfather. He was admitted to the hospital last week when he threatened to kill himself at school.  More than Peter being a danger to himself, it is his family that is a danger to him….he just could not take the abuse any more. His thin little body is covered in welts, bruises and old scars.  Now, he languishes in our hospital because there is no place to put a nine year old black boy, despite his level of need, except in a mental hospital, and that I resist at all costs.   So as I check in on him this morning,—he wants out of the hospital—he looks up at me…”No one wants me!”   Sadly, based on the statistics, he is right.

Why am I in a hurry?  A group of clinicians, mental health and social workers met in my office two years ago and decided that we would work to fix this. For the past two years, we have been talking about building short-term, safe places for hard to place children who are pending placement after being detained away from their families and for those children who find themselves bouncing from placement to placement. These children would stay for up to four weeks and every effort would be made to find permanent homes for the children who are the hardest to place.

I am in a hurry because I know that when a child is removed from their home, regardless of the abuse or neglect, it is lonely and frightening.  We now have the space in our new Clinic to create a 23-hour warm, welcoming environment where our professional staff and volunteers focus on the unique needs of each and every child. I am in a hurry to raise the funds and coordinate the logistics to get this area open and keep these children away from nights spent on cots in social workers’ offices without appropriate food, comfort or care.

It seems easy to look the other way when it is not your child suffering.  But I listen to the stories from the children who remember the terror of sleepless nights spent in offices, not homes, and of the loneliness and fear with no one there to hold them, comfort them and tell them that everything will be alright. It has been two years worth of Peters with nowhere for them to go and no one to care for them when they are at their most vulnerable.

The past two years represents thousands of lost children.  I am in a hurry to make certain that there are not thousands more.

Spring 2012 – Defining Safety

Maria, age 7, is the only living child of the Ortiz family who reside out in Cudahy. At the time her parents immigrated to Southern California, her mother had gone through several miscarriages back in El Salvador. So when Maria was born, at LAC+USC Medical Center, she became the center of their universe. Bright and cheerful, she thrived in kindergarten. Every day her mother would wait patiently at the school gate to bring her home at noon while her father worked two jobs to make it possible for mom to be at home.

Then in first grade, their world turned upside down. Maria began screaming at night, did not want to go to school in the morning, clung to her father and mother, ate obsessively, and was clearly depressed. They sought help from the school psychologist who said that it would all pass once she adjusted to first grade. They went to the pediatrician for a diagnosis for the vaginal discharge the little girl was having. He said it was from bubble baths and nylon underwear. They all talked around Maria, but no one spoke to her.

It was late September during her second grade year when the principal and the school psychologist came to the Ortiz home one afternoon. “We have come to discuss what may have happened to Maria last year in Mr. Brown’s class.” At the mention of his name, Maria ran crying to her room and hid in her closet. Finally after ten years of children being abused and threatened in that first grade classroom, one child told what had happened and was believed.

For years, I believed that children were safer when they started school. There was an extra pair of eyes watching out for them, and these “mandated reporters” would help us find the children who were being abused and neglected early on so we could intervene to protect and treat them. However, after the past several weeks watching the headlines unfold in Los Angeles, I am at a loss to define safety. The tradition of trust and support from one’s teacher has been forever tainted. The fact that the abuse of children in one teacher’s classroom has gone unreported for 23 years is a frightening thought.

I have read the information that some in this system feel is appropriate and sufficient to provide to the parents of the hundreds of children who have passed through the third grade at Miramonte Elementary School. I have written my own response. It only highlights the essential need for all of us to take the time to talk with our children, to explain to them now what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior by adults, and to listen to our children – all the way to the end of their sentences. We need to believe our children, respect what they say, and take action to redefine school as a place of learning, encouragement, and safety. After all, we are charged with the responsibility of keeping our children, and all children, safe.

Fall 2011 – What Do You Want?

Recently, I sat around the lunch table with friends who I have shared my life with for considerable years. “Now that we have everything that we need,” they asked each other, “What do you want?” I felt tears coming to my eyes as my friends spoke of seeing their children more often, or a safari to Africa, or a month in Hawaii. Others were looking to buy a vacation home away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles or to downsize into a condominium with less work. All of these were excellent goals, but I could not help but ask myself that question in light of the families and their children who come to my clinic every morning.

“What do you need? How can I help you?” These are the questions we ask everyone every day. The doctors, the therapists, the case managers, the receptionists. Everyone asks at least one person each day what they need. Not what they want, but just what they need. “I need clothes to go to school.” “I need a new wheelchair.” “I need food.” “Can you help me with my rent so we don’t end up on the street?”

David has been confined to a wheelchair since he started to walk. He was born with club feet and has never been offered curative surgery. Because he can’t walk, he has never been to school. He was sent to the VIP when his mother tried to enroll him in school, and the teachers finally discovered that he had never been to school. He was born in Los Angeles. He has been seen a number of times in free clinics, and been immunized and treated for his childhood illnesses. But, he has never been to school. No one ever asked, no one ever noticed. He is 16 and he does not read, nor does he know the alphabet. I asked him, “What do you want?” He said, “I want to run, read and go to school!”

Perhaps the question that needs to be asked of all of us – one with more importance – is, “What can you give?” I left lunch with a catch in my throat and tears of gratefulness in my eyes for this job where no one ever asks me “What do you want?”, but I am blessed with a chance every day to ask “What do you need?”

How can I give? There is a profound and deep feeling of joy that propels me into the clinic halls each morning.  Yes there is the sadness of children lost, abandoned, forgotten and abused. But there is always the reward of changing the trajectory of their story.

Summer 2011 – Can We Afford to Remain Silent?

A two year old died last month. She came to our clinic two years ago when she was born addicted to the recreational drugs her mother used while she was pregnant. She found safe haven in foster care where she thrived for almost two years. She was bright, verbal and full of life when she was returned to her biological parents six months ago. And then they starved and beat her until she died shortly after her second birthday. She was the ultimate invisible child – too young for school and forgotten by a system that was too busy to visit her.

Then there is the eleven year old who has spent almost her entire life battling diabetes and is in our hospital because her disease is out of control. Her mother (also a diabetic) does not have enough money to fill two prescriptions for insulin, so she has been sharing her insulin with her daughter. But they have not been testing the young girl’s blood sugar because they can’t afford supplies. The Department of Children and Family Services is asking us if this is medical neglect and suggesting this child be removed from her mother’s care.

Two very different stories!  Jennifer, age two, is exactly the child for whom our clinic was established.  Sending her home without oversight and required attendance in specialty clinics and participation in mental health services to parents with a history of multiple reports for domestic violence and child abuse, without assuring they were attending drug rehab services and ongoing parenting classes, doomed her six months before her death. On the other hand, Jessica, age 11, and her mother both need access to health care that provides them with medications and supplies without making the whole family go hungry. She needs to stay home with guaranteed access to health care that includes all the financial support her family needs to keep her safe and healthy.

These are interesting times! The system charged with protecting children (women and the elderly, as well) is overtaxed and underfunded. If we send children home quickly, we do not have to fund foster care or assign a social worker. Hospital administrators turn and look to me to find private funds to meet the needs of children and families. Can I hire additional staff to answer phones and triage patients? Do we have the money to pay for transportation, housing, clothes and food for families? Can I find a grant to buy car seats for families with young infants and children? How about insulin and blood glucose strips?

No wonder the government says that the number of child abuse reports are declining!  They are not declining because children are suddenly free of abuse and neglect. They are declining because we are not doing our jobs. There is no energy or will left to fight the battles. It is in the icy political towers of “Cheap Grace” where those in power decide to ignore the very young, old and poor that the fate of these children is determined. The message to the doctors, teachers, police officers, social workers and yes even neighbors is to remember these children are not like your children. They are poor, skinny, dirty and possibly even immigrants. So please remain silent. Do not get involved. Look the other way. Do not speak up and ask the hard questions. There are no resources to fund the answers!

Spring 2011 

Recently, my daughter-in-law sent me an email with a link to a story by a Washington, D.C. blogger in which he discusses the suicide note of a highly intelligent and gifted young man who was sexually abused as a child and could never escape the darkness and pain that enveloped him. I wept as I read the note and about the young man’s darkness, that it permeated every corner of his life, sleeping or waking, working or attempting personal relationships. “I’ve never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me,” the note said. He describes alcohol and drugs as an escape; his need to try and prove that he was worthy, but nothing made a “dent in his depression.”

His attempts at personal relationships failed. He fell in love, but realized, “that I could never have just her, without the darkness being part of all of our interactions.” The note goes on to describe failed therapy, loss of confidence in therapists who were more like voyeurs at the spectacle of his pain; who could not keep his secrets and who offered no solace, no solutions. “I’m just a broken, miserable shell of a human being. Being molested has defined me as a person and shaped me as a human being and it has made me the monster I am.”

Years ago I learned it was never enough to merely make a diagnosis that abuse had occurred. It is our responsibility to change the trajectory towards darkness that so often envelopes those who live with family violence, sexual assault and abuse. This is the core value of the VIP as it has grown. It means asking children the right questions and listening all the way to the end of the sentence; it means finding a way and the means to provide the support they need to succeed. It means more than referring them to therapy; it means making certain that they get the right therapy. It also means standing up to a system that often follows the path of least resistance when it comes to advocating for children. The most vulnerable have no voice and learn quickly that no one is listening.

For those of you who are not in this clinic and perhaps have a hard time understanding the sheer weight of the abuse and neglect of children and of listening to their small voices describe the most appalling assaults let me tell you that this job is overwhelming. It would be easy to hide behind the volume of children (850 in November) and claim exhaustion or submerge myself in medical research. Both of these ideas are tempting, but my mantra is clear: each and every child requires not only a diagnosis but an intervention to guide their feet on a path of healing that leads towards a life without this darkness.

So I renew my pledge to make each individual child a personal priority. I can tell you that without the resources your support brings into this clinic I would personally walk away. Being able to provide the important details of living that we so often take for granted is essential. Being able to provide mental health services that are not voyeuristic and perfunctory, but state of the art and personal is essential. Providing educational support and mentoring creates the self-esteem that has been ripped away from these children.

I would have liked to have had a chance 23 years ago to be that individual in the life of a small boy in whom he could put his trust and who could help him find a path away from all this darkness. I can only take what I learn from his story and apply it to the lives of the children who do find their way into VIP and hope that there will never come a time when it is easier to look away.

Fall 2010 – Real Medicine

I realized late Friday that we are all so blessed to have shelter and food. Not only do we have these blessings but we assume that we will always have at least the bare essentials for our families. Friday, I was reminded how this downturn in our economy has impacted our clinical practice.

Friday the sky opened and rained abused children. Clinics, emergency departments, inpatient wards, burn units – we could not run fast enough. Coming back from seeing a 17 year old who had tried to kill herself over a recent sexual assault, I picked up a couple of charts, a brother and a sister who had been reported by her school psychologist after the girl told her that she and her brother had been beaten with a belt.

April, the sister, is 15 and she is depressed. Her family left their three-bedroom house in San Bernardino and moved to Pomona into a small two bedroom apartment. She is lonely without any friends at her new school, and her father had become enraged at her for piercing her belly button and this led to the belt. While I am talking with her, Sebastian is in another room with my medical students creating a list of things that he is good at, things he wants to be good at, answering the question if Dr. Heger is magic what would you want her to do for you?

The picture begins to emerge. Loss of home, the move into an apartment, leaving all their valuable possessions behind, i.e. computer, bike, etc. “It’s ok not to have a computer,” he says. “But if you are magic I would like to have my old friends back.”

Then the mother and father! Mother was in an automobile accident and is unable to use her right arm and can’t work. Father builds fences, but there is no work. He writes a paragraph for me explaining how frustrated he is with his inability to provide food and proper shelter for his family. This frustration has played out in the family with sadness and now with violence. He writes in Spanish, and I finally read it as they leave the building heading for the bus stop. I send my students sprinting after them when I read the sentence, “All the money I have to feed my family is in my wallet…ten dollars.”

Those amazing food cards that you send us over the year – what a difference they make! Not only did the family leave with enough gift cards to eat for this month, but my students saw what medicine is really about. It is not just in the diagnosis, but it is looking for a real cause, a real answer and a potential cure. There was abuse, sadness, depression and a sense of hopelessness, but instead of a social worker coming and taking their children away we have connected the mother with physical therapy, recycled a computer for Sebastian, found therapy for April. And when a social worker does visit it will be to offer food assistance, not to take away their children.

Summer 2010 – The Book Club

He sits silent in the back of the classroom; invisible, embarrassed and hoping that no one will notice him, call on him or ask him a question. His clothes are ill-fitting and dirty and hang loose on his body. He walks slowly home knowing that when he arrives there will be nothing but the noise of his parents drinking and fighting. His sisters try to blend into the background so they, like him, will not become a target. There is little to eat and no place to study. When I ask him what he wants….”A safe place to keep my books and learn.”

There is an amazing book club happening in East Los Angeles. The members are choosing to read rather than stand on street corners or “tag” the overpasses that cross the freeways and train tracks outlining our community. The challenge of reading is transforming the lives of boys/men who are at risk for violence and gang membership.

A few years ago I was visited by a community-based organization that was interested in our participating in an anti-violence campaign for East Los Angeles. They wondered about the effectiveness of a billboard campaign i.e. “strike the first blow for peace” in your community.

This obviously is not working. If slogans were the answer to violence and poverty we would invest in slogans and wall space and forget reading and youth development. My recommendation was, and still is, teach children, families, mothers to read. Whether it is East Los Angeles, Harlem or West Africa, literacy is power and stops violence.

Our recent survey of the high schools in East Los Angles, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Park found that almost 20% of 15 year olds can’t read. These were the children born to this community, who have been exposed to English since birth and have attended our schools since age five. We also discovered that children who are afraid, depressed or suffering from PTSD are failing in school.

I have attended the high school graduations of our children who are the first in their families to finish school. Often the ceremony is ringed with police; students segregated behind steel fences; everyone on the alert for potential clashes between rival groups. I watch these kids, our patients, clients, students swagger to the podium. They know it is cool to be smart and educated; they know that it is cooler to be in college than in a gang.

I think we have underestimated our children living in this triangle of poverty. We see them as stereotypical tattooed boys wearing baggy pants and oversized shirts. I am amazed at their commitment. I had misjudged them. I thought they would be afraid of being called a nerd, afraid of being labeled as different, but no it is a badge of honor to read and succeed.

We love offering up tutors, mentors, a place to study to our children in East Los Angeles. Our VIP “billboard” offers literacy and books, peace and safety, and ultimately the opportunity to become a success.

Spring 2010 – Native Child

There was a moment in the opening ceremony of the International Congress on Child Abuse in Brisbane, Australia, that reminded me that it is always personal and always about the child. The prep school choral group was delightful, sang in harmony and were all dressed in navy blue and white with crisp shirts and navy blazers; the string quartet were similarly clad and in tune. Then out of the shadows of the dark stage, a father, mother and three children emerged carrying their ancient drums and stringed instruments. Their clothes were made from pounded bark and were held around their waists with ropes made from reeds. They broke into the primitive rhythms and sounds of hundreds of years of Aboriginal music.

The youngest child stood a bit to the side. She was too young to really participate in this spontaneous concert, but was making awkward attempts at singing and dancing with her brother and sister until the reeds wound round her waist began to unravel and she clasped her dress to her chest. The audience looked away not wanting to participate in her embarrassment. I watched their discomfort and the innocence of this little girl, and I was reminded of my charge to make each day about at least one child. Here was that child, alone, standing there clasping her dress to her body, huge eyes in a dusky face, afraid and five thousand adults averting their eyes.

I had been invited to close the International Congress. This largest of gatherings of child abuse experts lasts one week, and during that week I sat through 50 different lectures, small, medium and large, and felt overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of abused women and children whose statistics were organized in multicolored excel spreadsheets all giving the same story. Millions of women are raped and abused every year around the world, too many for us to take personally, so many that we can excuse ourselves… from caring.

For me the statistics soon blurred into a weight the size of the world which sat uncomfortably on my shoulder. If I were to look at the sheer numbers of children that we are seeing in our clinic I would stumble. And there are days when I do stumble, and I leave long after dark and drive home with profound sadness. But tonight I was reminded that it is critical to run out on that stage and lift that child up and celebrate who she is. We can always find a reason to look away. Tonight, Megan called to tell me about a young woman she had admitted to the ICU. Only nineteen, close to death from a heroin overdose, her body covered in the tracks of addiction and a long history of cutting, and a message to all of us written in indelible marking pen – “please don’t rape me.”

Is this where all the children have gone that we failed to take personally? I feel overwhelmed by the fact that this might be true.  For this 19 year old, no one stopped, reached out and grabbed her out of that cesspool of her life. They were too busy or embarrassed by her life. Of course it is always easier to look away from the darkness, to never lift that rock and look underneath. But I remember all those eyes in Brisbane that looked away. We need to take it straight on – no looking away for us.

Fall 2009 – Walk Proud

Years ago when this program was in its’ infancy I was asked to give a talk about the program, but to please “avoid any sad stories of child abuse.” I was stymied by this challenge because I wasn’t certain I knew any happy stories of child abuse. But since then I have seen many.

Norma is coming by today. She has been promoted to senior clerk in the Department of Health Services, and she is on her way to an interview for a promotion. It was December 1997, when I first met Norma. The sheriff brought her in from the East LA projects after she had been assaulted. She was 13. She was too disfigured to take her hand away from her face, and she never smiled. It was clear that her abuse was something that could not be undone, but the smiling we could deal with. So, four years later, after much plastic and dental surgery, she waltzed into our clinic with a smile on her face looking to buy her first prom dress.

Chantha was 16 when I met her for the first time. She was in the hospital with serious injuries after trying to kill herself by jumping in front of a fast-moving truck. She had been attacked on a Cambodian outing to Perris Lake and her culture required her to kill herself rather than dishonor her family. She came home to live with my family. Her first nights were filled with screams and memories of the killing fields of Cambodia. After six months she returned home to Bellflower where she completed high school and married her high school sweetheart. Her wedding was in a park in San Pedro; I was tentative about going because I had such a hard time with her family and getting them to accept her which was what she really needed – to be loved by them. I felt awkward and out of place until she turned and thanked me for her life. She has two growing girls now, and has a wonderful husband and job. As she reminds me, she is my daughter.

Norma and I went shopping for her prom dress. Glendale Galleria held a vast array of possibilities. She found the most expensive prom dress in the store, and I hesitated, not wanting to be a “Disney” mom, then relented remembering that this was a once in lifetime event. When her mother finally kicked her out of the house because she wanted to go to college, the only thing she went back for was her dress. She worked for us, paying her rent to live and go to school. Norma and her husband have a home in Fontana. They have three beautiful children. She has come a long way from the projects. She comes here bearing the gift of love and a laugh that will fill this place with joy.

These are my stories of joy and glad tidings. As Chantha said in her email today, “I have no shame in what happened in the past. I walk proud everyday that I am alive and I have survived.”

At this time of year I wish the same for all of us – that we walk proud and that we bless the chance we have to open that door of safety and hope for those who need it the most.

Summer 2009 – Alice

Each day we are presented with countless opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others; a chance to be memorable to at least one person. Instead, however many times we resolve to do this, we rush past that partially open door of opportunity to attend to the routine chores of life.

But it is important to stop and push open that door and take a look around. I used to think that by this point in my career the major battles in the war against child abuse, neglect, and domestic violence would have been won. The battles rage on though, and I am now willing to settle for one child at a time, one woman, one cab ride to a safe place, one apartment for a struggling family, one reading tutor for a boy whose family kept him from going to school, one guitar lesson for a traumatized little girl longing to find a way to express her sorrow, fear, humiliation and secret hope for a better day to come.

For each of us, just a moment may be enough to be memorable. Years ago I was in Hong Kong to testify. A young Chinese girl, Alice, had been sent to me in a case of sexual abuse at a private school on Victoria Island in Hong Kong. A British teacher had carefully groomed this 13-year-old to be his sex slave and had viciously misused her over several years until her family moved her to Los Angeles. I had been consulted by federal agents on behalf of the Hong Kong Police Department.

She had been and continued to be a difficult patient. Angry and brain-washed by this teacher, she refused ongoing care in Los Angeles and was defiant and challenging in every way. So after a long flight to Hong Kong, and waiting for days in my hotel room, I was finally prepared to take the stand. My flight was scheduled to leave that afternoon so I arrived at the modern multi-floored courthouse early. I sat behind Alice and her parents. They seemed to lean away from their tortured daughter as her abuser finally pleaded guilty to diminished charges and then vilified his victim claiming she was a “seductive minx” and was responsible for her own abuse. Alice seemed to disappear into her chair as her parents moved further away from her. Her tormentor was sentenced to one year in prison, and we all exited the courtroom.

She stood alone in the large marble foyer. Her parents standing to the side and the legal officials moving quickly around her and out the door, she seemed frozen. My driver was urging me to hurry to catch my plane, but I could not leave her so alone. I paused and put my arms around her to reassure her that what he had said was all lies and that she was amazing, beautiful, and smart; that she could take this moment to grow and become whoever she wanted and that I would be there for her. I left, and went back to Los Angeles with a complete sense of failure.

Ten years had passed when the letter came. Alice was a graduate student at UCLA, expecting her first child, married, happy and successful. She wrote to remind me of those five minutes in a far away cold place, to thank me for coming into her room and furnishing it with a sense of her future.

We can all find a way to invest in the future of these women and children. I realize that we are all impacted by financial down times – no one can afford to shoulder the burden of turning someone’s life around alone – but we can form teams to be memorable in the life of one child. I never like to ask for help at home or at work, but I am asking now for your support, asking you to join our team so that we can walk through all those half-opened doors and furnish these children’s rooms with a sense of hope for the future.

Spring 2009 – Raising Our Voices

Mary walked into the emergency room hoping someone would help her, understand her fear, her hurt, and her worry and work with her to find a way out. An older woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Mary came to the ER this time seeking treatment for the injuries she had received when her adult daughter had beaten her.

But this must have been a bad day in the ER because instead of recognizing the signs of domestic violence, the hospital staff interpreted her Parkinson’s symptoms as signs of either mental illness or intoxication. They said she was emotional, combative, and erratic. They admitted her to the Psychiatric ward and placed her on a hold.

The next day, the doctors in the VIP Adult Protection Team, who work with disabled and dependent adults who have been abused, learned about Mary and immediately recognized the signs of abuse. They called for one of the Advocates from our 24-Hour Domestic Violence Response Team. Soon, Sarah, a longtime Advocate who was horrified to hear that an abuse victim had been subjected to more trauma by the hospital, was talking to Mary, sifting through the confusion and getting to the realities of her circumstances. Sarah helped Mary get out of the Psych ward, be released from the hospital, locate transportation and shelter, and figure out a plan to stay safe.

Sarah also took the initiative to conduct an impromptu training for the health care workers in the Psych ER on domestic violence symptoms. They were all very apologetic over the way Mary had been treated and dismayed by how little they knew about domestic violence and how much they had overlooked in this case. Sarah’s experience and the actions she took remind all of us at the VIP that we can never stop talking about domestic violence, training new doctors and nurses to recognize the signs, and advocating for those who need a voice amidst all the chaos.

Fall 2008 – Choice

Myra reluctantly walks up the ramp to the VIP clinic. She is embarrassed to be here, to be seeking help. But the pain has become so severe that she can no longer ignore it. At 15, her parents arranged her marriage to a cousin working in Los Angeles. He smuggled her across the U.S. border, and now at 23 she has three children and a husband who is anally raping her every day. How does she leave? Can she refuse this indignity? What will happen to her children if she reports the abuse and beatings? Her culture tells her she belongs to this man. Her church tells her to obey her husband. She asks us, “What choice do I have?”

Rosa hasn’t been to school for three years. Her mother and stepfather keep her home to take care of her younger siblings, to cook and clean while they go to work. At twelve years old she has more responsibility than girls twice her age, but now she sits in our clinic 16 weeks pregnant by her stepfather who has been raping her for three years. Does a twelve year old know to go to the police to complain about rape? If she chooses to run, what will happen to her younger sisters? Does she know about our social system and that, hopefully, they will protect them from more abuse? At only twelve does she have the choice to terminate this pregnancy?

At 56, Maria has escaped death at the hands of her husband numerous times. Once she spent several months in intensive care and inpatient wards at the County hospital after he beat her with a claw hammer. He served a few years for attempted murder, but is back on the streets. He climbs through the back window of her small house in Bell and threatens to kill the children sleeping nearby if she makes a sound. She survives. The children survive. But the damage to her body and her mind will take skill and time to heal. She asks me to tell no one. She is ashamed, embarrassed and chooses to take the abuse rather than put her children at risk. Her choice is limited by poverty, family and church.

Women in every branch of the U.S. armed services are experiencing a staggering number of sexual assaults. They come home with stories of how the only protection they are given from rape by their fellow soldiers is a little tin whistle. It is frightening and outrageous to learn that we are training vulnerable women, fighting far from home, that all they need to do to stay safe is “just say no”, or blow a whistle, or develop a buddy system so they are never alone. If they are raped they are asked not to report it. If they do report it they are identified as the problem. In a country where this is their chosen work, do they have a choice?

I listen to stories from women and children of all ages. One thing is clear – my patients, like so many others, do not have choices. If you are eight and being raped by your stepfather do you understand how to leave, how to get help? If you are here without papers or language and you are being beaten and raped who tells you that you have a choice? If you are pregnant as a result of a sexual assault can you choose not to have the child? Or if you have the courage to seek justice for being raped should you have to pay to have the evidence gathered?

The wave of children, women, boys, elderly, disabled who are invisible, without a voice washes over our clinics. We spend every day trying to restore dignity and to help them heal. Recently, I wondered how I am to do my job if my choices are taken away. To punish a woman for being assaulted by someone bigger, stronger and more powerful seems medieval and barbaric. In a perfect world every child’s wish to be safe and loved would be honored… women would be held in such high esteem that attacking them would be unthinkable… the elderly would be revered and protected. In the interim, while I wait for this world to evolve, I need choices.

Summer 2008 – Going Home: One Child’s Story

The story made the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Three-year-old Bryce was the only eye-witness to the murder of his mother, Julia, who was found stabbed to death at the hands of Bryce’s father on the bathroom floor of their Whittier apartment. Neighbors called the police after hearing a violent argument between father and mother that ended with Julia’s cries for help in the early morning hours. The police followed Bryce’s footprints into the parking lot where they found him cold, bloody and calling for his mother who would never again answer him.

Bryce may have been left all alone in Los Angeles, but in Thailand he had a family that loved him, missed him, and wanted desperately to care for him. H.E.A.R.T. was able to send Bryce and his Thai-speaking therapist, Chheng (a new hero at the VIP), to Thailand to return him to the care of his maternal grandparents.

Chheng checked in from Bangkok, Thailand, to tell us of their progress: “We had a smooth flight to Bangkok. Bryce played games and slept on the plane. We met his family at the Bangkok airport and it was a tearful reunion. The family all tied white strings around Bryce’s wrists (a cultural and symbolic gesture of protection and blessing.) He remembered most of his family but would not speak to them in Thai. So, I drove the five hours outside of Bangkok into the countryside where Bryce’s family lives. They make their living growing rice and farming. There I found an entire family in mourning for the loss of their daughter, their sister. Bryce’s grandmother had said good-bye to her daughter nine months earlier, never imagining that this was their last visit with one another and that she was returning to Los Angeles to be murdered by her husband. The family is struggling with Bryce’s nightmares and his aggressive, agitated behaviors. He wakes up at night calling for his mother. I believe that there is a lot of hope for Bryce because we know this family loves him and will take good care of him and help him in any way they can.”

“I hope through this story you can catch a glimpse of what you’ve done for Bryce and his family. At the VIP, we hear so many horrible stories of atrocities, and we may question if we can really make a difference. But as Mother Theresa said, ‘We can do no great things, only small things with great love.’”

A final note from Chheng upon her safe return to the VIP: “As a child survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields, I have often wondered about the world’s silence during the genocide. So it has been amazing to see this investment in one small boy. My heart is full of gratitude to you for sending me. Bryce’s family thanked us incessantly for helping him. I wish you could have been there with me. Thank you for this unforgettable experience and for changing the life of a little boy and the family who loves him.”

There is more, but the main message to all of you who always support the important details of caring for one child can be summed up in two lines, “Your unique gift of understanding, generosity and loving kindness is powerful medicine for all of us.  Thank you.”

Yes, thank you for sending the clear message to all of the VIP staff that, “We care about you. Go and do the most that you can for this child. Not just the expected. Do the unexpected.”

Spring 2008 – New Shoes

I wonder about their hair cut.  Maybe it is cut this short in order to avoid the cost of having it “trimmed” more than twice a year. Maybe it had to be cut because of lice; I don’t know, and the uniformed police offer couldn’t tell me.  The three brothers are quietly sitting in our waiting room; all with shaved heads; navy blue shirts and khaki pants.  Their shoes are so ragged that I can actually see the outline of their toes pressing against the front of their tennis shoes. The police brought them to the clinic after Geoffrey wandered into the 77th Division police station and asked to be adopted.  It is mid December and I am thinking about the Holidays, toys, family and food, but seeing three small boys, shaved heads, hungry and scared, suddenly brings me back to reality.

Three weeks ago Geoffrey and his two brothers were living with their “mom,” Dora, who had been his guardian since he was five years old.  Then social services removed all three of them because of abuse and neglect.

“Why were you living with Dora?”  I asked.

“Because before Dora we did not have food; there were rats and cockroaches everywhere and the men that were friends of my mother’s were doing bad things to us!”

“So why were you running to the police station?”

“Last week social services took us away from Dora because one of her kids fell down and hurt himself.  They put us with this other family and they don’t speak English, and we can’t go outside because of the all trashed cars and junk in the yard.  I decided that I needed to find help.”  At age ten this little boy walked across Compton to the 77th Division of the LAPD.

So I called Dora, and we waited.  An hour went by, and then this tall, grand African-American woman swept into the clinic and clasped all three boys to her chest, and wept.  “They are my heart….!”   From her bag emerged three pairs of brand new tennis shoes—she had been saving them for Christmas—but now was a better time to celebrate.

Five years ago the Department of Social Services placed the three little tow-headed boys in her home; they had become her heart.   She was now their guardian, but when a new foster child had fallen and hit his head in her home, all the boys were removed and placed elsewhere.  Broken and defeated, these little boys did not know what to do.  Geoffrey, who was ten at the time, overcame his fear and walked to the police station to request asylum.  They police were enchanted.

So was I.  When asked about Christmas and what he wanted, this little boy, with no hair and a brand new pair of shoes, said: “I would like to be able to give people what they need most to make them happy.”  “And what is that?” I asked.  “To be loved,” he answered as he inched closer to Dora.

Later that week I listened to friends describe shopping sprees, buying Holiday gifts for their children—which included a long list of video games, designer jeans or jewelry—I could only see a pair of new shoes and a little boy who wishes that all of you find love.

Fall 2007 – Coming Home

Laura is the reason that we need a shower, clean clothes, shampoo and a toothbrush.  Twelve years ago she was dragged into an abandoned warehouse, and then gang-raped and assaulted with the intent to kill.  She fled naked into the night.  When I arrived at the Emergency Room she was sitting alone on a metal chair, covered with two hospital gowns, wearing one front to back and the other back to front.  Her feet were bleeding and both the police and the medical personnel stood aside, afraid of getting too close to her.  I wrapped her in a blanket, put hospital slippers on her feet and walked her to the trailer.  She was the first to benefit from the new bathroom and shower.  She emerged a new person; no longer shunned by police and staff.

It was only the week before that we had opened our trailer park.  We moved our tiny trailer to the corner of Mission Road and Zonal Avenue in East Los Angeles.  The hospital craftsmen came in on their weekends to build us a bathroom with a shower, new exam rooms and space to store clean clothes and supplies for our sexual assault victims and abandoned children.  For twelve years I have celebrated my trailer, grateful to be able to offer a sanctuary to women and children impacted by assault and abuse.

For more than 20 years the VIP medical clinics have been homeless.  We have moved from a small bathroom-sized room to a triple-wide trailer, then to a triple-wide trailer plus a FEMA trailer, and finally we moved into a space across North Mission Road, where, with your support, we built this campus of advocacy services for children and families impacted by violence.  But we have never been able to find a permanent hospital-based, consolidated clinic space for the medical evaluation and treatment of the more than 12,000 patients we see each year.

I am exited to announce that the medical clinic “trailer park” is finally in its closing stages.  In March 2008, the LAC+USC Medical Center will move into a new replacement hospital and has agreed to offer the VIP a permanent home for its medical clinic.  This clinic will provide direct medical services for children, women, families and elders impacted by violence.  The space is neither new nor beautiful, but it is solid good space with real plaster walls, a concrete foundation and terrazzo floors.

I feel that my dream for VIP is nearing completion. The S. Mark Taper Foundation Family Advocacy Center and The Santana House will continue to anchor a corner of the medical center providing support services, counseling, family and child advocacy, as well as mentoring and educational access.  The renovated medical clinic will anchor the other corner of LAC+USC Medical Center with the prospect of adequate waiting rooms, examination and interview rooms, showers for sexual assault victims and on-site offices for our providers.

This new medical/forensic clinic will be the first “Forensic Urgent Care Center in the United States.  Of course, we will need to renovate this space to make it welcoming and healing for abused and neglected children.  We need to create a separate sexual assault center with showers and private waiting rooms for rape victims, and build a handicap accessible space for the elders and disabled adults abandoned or abused by caretakers.

I need your help in raising the money necessary to complete the VIP.  Frankly, I thought this day would never come.  I had given up hope of ever finding a real home for all of the VIP programs.  Perhaps it should be the responsibility of the government, the bureaucracy of the County, State or Federal government to build a haven for victims of violence; for children abandoned; elders discarded; but after more than twenty years I realize that their voices are too hard to hear and it is our responsibility to put any righteous indignation away and “recognize that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken…and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless you do them” (Frederick Buechner).  It is with tears in my eyes that I tell you that we are within inches of doing exactly that.

Summer 2007 – Grace

I have written and spoken often about “Cheap Grace” or the idea that from the relative safety of our wealth and status we give lip service to helping those who have little or nothing.  The idea of real grace fascinates me; compassionate kindness given generously without conditions or expecting anything in return, given to loved ones, colleagues, friends and strangers.

But Grace has taken on a new image.  Grace is just three and has spent her entire life in an orphanage in Ethiopia.  Three weeks ago along with her new “sister” Meron of 7 months, she was adopted by Kidest and her husband Tsenga.  The compassionate kindness of so many of you has transformed their home in Pasadena into a child’s paradise.  Today they came to visit.

All I could see today was this amazing three-year-old.  How apt it is that they have named her Grace.  I can no longer find the child that was abandoned in an orphanage in Addis Ababa.  She is alive with joy.  She hugs her new mother and father constantly reminding them that they are loved.  She wants to know when she can start school and she is learning English so fast that she is able to remind us that she is “Grace.”   Clearly clothes do not make the child, but Maria you should see your daughters’ hand me downs on this gorgeous child.  We all stood here with tears in our eyes.

The H.E.A.R.T. Alert went out last month and immediately Kidest had a crib, bed, stroller, car seats, clothes and a new backyard play set—enough to create the instant home that both girls so desperately needed.

No Cheap Grace here!!  Everything given eagerly and freely and with kindness as we welcome these children to their future.  No one gave grudgingly; no one asked what was in it for them; no one wanted credit or thanks—they just wanted to be part of the real grace that was taking place in the VIP.

In this world where we see hundreds of children every month who are neglected, abandoned, abused or raped in the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, it is a long cold drink from a mountain spring to see a child saved.  We celebrate Grace and her sister Meron because we know that they have reached their destination—safety.

Some days are harder to celebrate because we are less certain of outcomes, safety and our ability to turn a child’s life around.  But I will take today and tuck the image away of Grace with curls like a halo surrounding her brown face tucking her hand into her father’s, smiling shyly at all of us and breaking my heart.

To all of you who dug into closets and garages; hired gardeners to disassemble play structures and drove to East Los Angeles–thank you for your kindness and generosity—it has made a powerful statement.  You must realize that there is darkness here—that everyday we strive to see the light through the sadness—today was a gift of profound light.

Spring 2007 – Dusk

Growing up I always had to be in the house by nightfall.  Night was the time when danger came out of the shadows.  But the lights of our small house on Sierra Vista beckoned, promising safety, a warm meal and my mother’s embrace.

I realize that as night falls here in East Los Angeles home is not always the safe place to be.    For many children home is a place where danger lives; they stay on the streets until the last possible minute afraid of those who should be responsible for their safety.  The youth in our new Youth Action Center, tell us that all they want is a real and safe place to study; someplace where they can keep their books and know that they will be there the next day: a desk, perhaps even a computer, and equally important someone who encourages them to achieve and find their strengths

I am reminded by Garrison Keilor’s definition of  childhood as “a time when someone else is responsible for our well-being, our happiness.”  This was certainly true of my own childhood; but for most of our patients childhood is a passage they survive. Fear dominates many of our children’s lives.  I try to imagine what it must be like to live with that fear.  What goes on inside the mind of a child isolated in fear?

I worry that we put off on children the responsibility for their own well-being.   Let us be careful when we question them with the “why’s” from the safety of our homes.  We ask Why didn’t she tell someone?  Or Why didn’t he run from his kidnapper? Or Why didn’t he tell before about the terror of sexual abuse at the hands of his priest.  But we are judging children from our adult minds; minds that know the police will not arrest us if we report abuse, Minds that know our own children are loved no matter what they told us.  Minds that should hopefully understand that a child should not be blamed for the evil that has befallen them!    For so many children the days are colored by fear and this fear makes them silent.

I stand on the stair landing on the back of the Taper Center looking out at dusk as it falls over East Los Angeles. The lights are burning brightly in the Santana House where the local teen council is gathering.   The Pizza delivery man is walking up the path through the courtyard.  Children are laughing downstairs in anticipation of their dinner.  The waiting room is now full of families.  Children are waiting in line to get into the Sanders Family Learning Center.  There all the computers are occupied and the younger children are gathered around the table reading or working on projects.  The back door is open and I can hear the sound of the basketball hitting the rim and bouncing off.  The back gate bangs shut with a loud clang and small feet are running up the walk accompanied by  the melody of their Spanish exchanged like a chorus to a song.

Perhaps without realizing it, we have transformed this small corner of Los Angeles into a safe place; a home, a place where children can become everything that is possible.   Years ago I said that what I wanted for these children were the same things I wanted for my own children.  Slowly we are getting there.   I love the sound of laughter—it makes this small corner of the City safe.

Fall 2006 – Gemma

“I am here because my step-dad and uncle raped me.  They have been doing this for the last four years.  My real dad died, was killed in jail.”   Just another routine early morning conversation with nine-year-old Martin!  “One time I couldn’t walk!”  I tried to tell my mom but she just rolls her eyes and does nothing…finally I told my teacher.”

Five-year-old Raymond was dragged into his bedroom by his uncle. His father left him home with his uncle when he went to the hospital to pick up his mother and new-born brother.

Jorge was sold for a refrigerator!  The wealthy benefactor descended into his little village in Costa Rica bearing a roll of hundred dollar bills searching for a seven-year-old boy.  It took almost a year before a maid in this rich man’s home could not stand to be party to the abuse and the police were called.

“Aren’t we overreacting to child abuse?” I was asked two weeks ago by a dinner guest.   “The media sensationalize these stories out of proportion to what is really happening to children.”

Sensationalize? Last month we evaluated more than 600 children.  These are the hundreds of “sensational” stories that you will never hear.  After twenty years, I have learned to see abuse “through the eyes of a child.”  Often, their stories are so desperate, so vivid and true!  Incredible, dark stories, yet never sensationalized, never paraded into the media, mostly left hidden out of sight of publicity that would make them into an object of pity.

“Gemma” is a new book written by Meg Tilly.  It is so hard to read I had to put it down and walk out of the house to breath in fresh air and look at the sky.  Meg has captured the torture of being the child, the victim, so vividly it felt like I was being crushed under the weight of all the remembered stories of sexual violence perpetrated on children.  Some reviewers of this book have walked away unable to deal with the vivid details of sexual perversion and abuse.  Others have labeled the book pornographic.  But I have never read anything that so captures the desperate, sad stories of children.

Perhaps the challenge for all of us is to step outside our comfort zone and consider the reality of the darkness that envelopes the abused child.  Consider that too often little boys abused and abandoned grow into the monsters that corral girls into classrooms where they act on their own nightmares and sexual fantasies by sexually abusing and killing innocent children.  If you are tempted to walk away from the images of the children we see everyday remember that brave 13- year-old in Pennsylvania who asked to be killed first in hopes that it would assuage her killer’s blood lust and he would spare the rest.

I wept over these children and I weep for the boys who remain invisible in a world filled with sexual violence. This violence that forever changes them. “Please do not tell us sad stories of abuse. We are weary of those stories,” a journalist told me one evening when I was getting ready to talk about VIP.  I wish that I could remember the happy or funny stories of abuse.  There certainly have not been any recently.

Too often we forget the boys.   The sensational stories are usually about the girls.  Girls are much easier for us to see as “victims.”   Boys are too macho.  But for that very reason we need to watch, listen and react to their abuse and never say “Oh, be a big boy and get over it.” As we have seen this month—they don’t.

Summer 2006 – Kristina

Look at me….I was once beautiful!”  A cold, starved, beaten disfigured ten-year-old said to me eight years ago.  Carried into the clinic by the Burbank Police, she clung to the neck of her rescuer clutching a picture of herself taken years before the abuse started.  For five years, she had been locked away from the world and regularly beaten until she had no nose; scars marked her face, arms and legs; she was bald across the crown of her head. She was finally rescued when a neighbor saw her run bloodied into the street to buy a bag of chips from an ice cream vendor.  She was sent to stay at the old Maclaren Children’s Center; refusing a bed to sleep on the familiar floor and was carried crying to her new home—terrified she would be starved and again beaten.

The VIP is about much more than providing a medical examination or sending a report to the court.  Kristina is a perfect example!   It took almost four years to put her family behind bars for abuse and torture.  It took almost that long to complete the series of plastic surgeries that restored her face, rebuilt a nose and removed the scar tissue from her arms, legs and scalp.  She was our first test case of using private funds to buy hospital and operating room time to provide much-needed plastic surgery.  There have been many more to follow in her footsteps.

She returns regularly to check in with me.  Occasionally she has complaints like–“all the cheerleaders can braid their hair, but I can’t because I still have the scars.”  But mostly it is the good stuff— to bring me reports of her progress in high school where she is careful to maintain her 4.0 grade point average—she is the top student in foster care in all of Los Angeles County.   Her mother tells me she is simply “a radiant teenager.”

She wants to go to college. I never envisioned this new challenge when I first saw her.  I wondered if she would survive in this world, so battered emotionally and physically.  She is fortunate that she found a permanent home with her guardians, for she will not “emancipate” from foster care onto the streets like so many of our children.   But there is little money for college.

She came to our clinic starved and shivering and stole all of our hearts.  She comes back a radiant young woman. Her smile could break your heart—it does ours.  Just look at you Kristina—you are so beautiful—more beautiful than you know.

Spring 2006 – Magic

“I love dogs, anything that has to do with dogs, except for them getting tortured.  I hate that… I love paintings of dogs, but the thing I love most are Faires (sic). I wish that everything I got had Faires….Plus I want people to support me and help me get through this with my family.”

Rachel needs magic, a fairy, a mother.   This 12-year-old has been rattling around in foster care since she was four years old.   Five children born to an alcoholic mother placed with Lisa, a well-meaning single parent, eight years ago.   The two oldest were already so damaged they should have been placed in group homes—far away from their siblings.

Lisa meant well.  They all learned to call her mother and for the youngest she was the only mother he remembers.   What Lisa never knew was that the oldest boys were born alcohol-exposed and angry, and that for the past five years one held the sisters and brother down while the other one raped them.  Soon everyone’s behavior was out of control.   Lisa sent them to a psychiatrist who gave them more and more medications and then finally she threw them away. She sent them back telling them that they could not call her mom anymore but should call her Lisa.

Rachel began to softly cry— “I want to see Lisa…..”    Can you feel that pain—imagine that you are twelve and come home from school to see a strange car at the curb and your mother says, “I am no longer your mom,” and she sends you away with strangers.

Rachel is the middle child, a bright little girl with a ready smile and dark curly hair.   Her psychiatrist has labeled her severely emotionally disturbed.  The school system has responded by putting her in special education.    But I find her engaging and interesting.  As I often do, I ask “What do you like to do?  What are you good at?  If I was magic what would you want me to give you?”

(Italicize) “I like to write; I like to collect stuffed animals; I love to listen to music; I like to go shopping; I like language arts and social studies; I love to draw and paint—”

She desperately needs someone…someone who can help heal her family.  I am alone in the room.  So, she turns and holds on to me.  I sign her up for medical and mental health services in our CATC clinic.  I ask that she be assigned a mentor and a tutor.   The easy stuff like art materials for her to paint and draw are simple requests.  But are we strong enough to pull her out of a diagnosis of psychiatric illness and educational handicaps?  Perhaps, but only if we can find a safe harbor for Rachel and her brother and sister!

If I was magic…Trust me, I need some magic.  I need a transfusion of magic—I need an entire pod of fairies to hover over Rachel and make certain that no one is tempted to ever throw her away again.

Fall 2005 – A Time to Celebrate Kindness

How can I explain this to you—to give you insight into this place where I work and yes even some days struggle to make a difference? I love this wonderful space of the S. Mark Taper Foundation Family Advocacy Center.  The trees are taller; the landscaping is filled in and compliments the building. The waiting room is filled with families and children; the learning center packed to overflowing. All is well in this space.

I walk across the street to the medical and forensic clinic. There the dark stories originate; stories of abuse, rape, neglect and anger. Children afraid to fall asleep because of people finding their bed!  Stories of acts of kindness turned into violation. Stories of drug and alcohol addiction and children born addicted to both! These are the throwaway children of our society who finally find space here. Amazing children born to psychotic mothers who left them to starve!  Home invasions; murder; the elderly locked away in silence so a son, a daughter can steal their welfare money; stories of survival that flew in the face of the evil that surrounded them! The darkness is so profound.

Recently I had to refuse to watch the news. When reports started to come in of women and children raped in New Orleans while trying to find safety—I had to turn off the news. I have spent twenty years of my life trying to remain clinical about man’s inhumanity to man. This clinical, scientific approach to forensic assessments and medical diagnosis allows me to remain sane in a world of evil and sadness. The fact that VIP has built a powerful support base to reach in and change lives is the light in that dark space. So my path into darkness must be marked by acts of kindness to show me the way out.

So I weep whenever I see an act of kindness. I have come to expect evil—it is an everyday occurrence here. When you responded to my email asking for help for a family left abandoned this gives me another day here; when I can give a child a toy; a rape victim new clothes; when a family has beds to sleep on; food to prepare and a sense of the future; I feel that I have found the path out.

The days are shorter and the nights colder. For some of us this means a warm coat and thicker socks. It means that the holidays are coming and we will gather together to give thanks and share love. For many of my families this is a time of yearning and sadness.  A time when they know only too well what they need to feel safe and cared for. A time when they realize that they are the “have-nots.”

I am determined to renew my own spirit; to skirt the darkness. This year I have decided to celebrate unselfish kindness.  I need nothing more.

Summer 2005 – Invisible Children

The lead news story last night was the death of a four-year-old girl. When a young child is murdered we are sad, dismayed and even outraged.    Angela had just moved into her new neighborhood.   “The family looked fine”, the neighbors said when interviewed, but Angela was never allowed to come outside to play.  Too young for school she was invisible to everyone except family and possibly her pediatrician, uncles, aunts and grandparents.

There are thousands of invisible children, hidden away behind closed doors never to interact with teachers or neighbors.  They often remain invisible even after they start school.  They are the children who sit in the back of the room; well-behaved, never volunteering and speaking only when spoken to.   They have learned to stay invisible! This makes abuse less likely.

Years ago a little boy died in our emergency room.  He was only eight.  His teacher commented that he could not remember what he looked like because he was so quiet.  He came to school hoping to be noticed; hoping that someone would realize that his clothes did not fit, that he was always hungry and cold, and that his black eyes were not accidents.  But he blended into the background – gray, colorless clothes, pale, and too weak and tired to give the teacher any reason to notice.  So he collapsed on the playground and died in the emergency room.  His stepfather confessed to “disciplining” him that morning. His stomach was ruptured; his abdomen bruised.

Lance at age three, was also invisible.  But he was only invisible to the system that had promised to protect him.  He was never invisible to his grandmother or his aunt.  They knew that his violent drug-addicted father was dangerous to Lance.  When he visited his grandmother, she documented the bruises; she took him to the emergency room asking, no begging, for help.  The pediatricians in the emergency room would not look beyond the single injury to a pattern of injuries.  They did not want to get involved.  The judge sent him back to his father.

So yesterday Angela finally became visible. Too visible for us!  A tall, thin, gorgeous four-year-old girl lay dead on the cold steel table of the coroner’s office.

When was the moment that someone should have asked the hard question about abuse?  Today, we want to know who her doctor was. Why was abuse not reported before she was killed?  Where was her extended family?  Why did this family abruptly move out of their old neighborhood?  It makes me wonder about other children who are hidden away behind the pulled curtains, children who are disposable and will hardly be missed.  How can we find them if society is too frightened to get involved?  Did someone suspect abuse but was too afraid to get involved?  Do we notice the children around us?

The news report of Angela’s death noted that Social Services hope to prevent the death of children in the future through establishing specialized clinics for children in foster care.   I am gratified that our Community-Based Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC) is the first of these clinics to be operational. It has been ten years in coming.   If CATC had existed 10 years ago—perhaps Lance would have survived.  If Angela had been our patient, perhaps yesterday would not have started in the cold of the coroner’s basement.

Spring 2005 – Defining Sexual Assault

“These crimes are beyond definition, particularly the attack on a 13-year-old girl who was walking home from school. She was snatched off the street like a bag of oranges. I apologize to her and the other victims on behalf of all men. I want each victim to know that this rapist will pay for every act committed against them. He will never be paroled. Every crime visited on their lives will be punished – but their individual work, their lives, should not be stained by this man.”  (Judge at sentencing)

Patty is an honor student and athlete. Her life is forever changed. Can we erase the memory of being dragged into a car, tied up on the floorboard, blindfolded and repeatedly raped? Her mother spoke at the sentencing, “I am speaking for my daughter-she is still afraid. She cannot go anywhere alone because of her fear. She slept on the floor of our bedroom for three months after you terrorized her. She is so afraid that she cannot be left alone. You took away her freedom.” Another victim of his, only 15 at the time of the attack, came to court and told him that he had ruined her life. She had to drop out of school and was under psychiatric care. She could not go anywhere alone and was afraid to go out after dark even if someone was with her. I wonder if when it is time for them to leave home for college, will they be able to go? Can the snapshots of the attack fade with time, or will they hover just below consciousness to be resurrected with a smell, a sound or image?

At the time of the examination, we did not know that we were part of a serial rapist investigation. Our nurse practitioner Julie saw Patty and I saw his last victim. But the DNA evidence from our two cases linked him and led to his conviction. This is a new era of forensic evidence. In the past there were times when evidence collection seemed incidental. Today we see the rewards as more and more DNA cases are investigated and serial rapists and murderers are arrested and convicted.

But should we define sexual assault by forensic and clinical evidence of assault? These are important parts of the investigation and prosecution. But rape should not only be defined by the consequences to the rapist. It should be defined by what we give to the victims. Rape requires that we provide expensive medicine to prevent HIV and other infections. Injuries need to be assessed, repaired and followed until they are healed. Pregnancy prevented! And after we have attended to all these medical issues-we need to give our resources to healing the soul and restoring that spirit, a joy of living that has been stolen and as the judge stated, removing the “stain” on their lives.

I am embarrassed to tell you that I think society is so frightened by the prospect of that 13-year-old walking home from school that we look away. We hope that someone else will take care of her and that we will not have to be responsible. The legal system seems stressed by the challenges of prosecuting rape cases. I remember the DA telling me years ago that he preferred “dead victims” because then someone was certain that something bad had happened. Unfortunately VIP is asked to provide follow-up treatment (both medical and psychological) for more and more women and girls who were seen elsewhere, had evidence taken and were sent home in a cab.

I admit that I grew weary of the political battles associated with advocating for rape victims. But Patty brings it back to me-I am relieved that her rapist is in prison for life, I know it is impossible to free her completely from her dark memories. But maybe I will feel more powerful if we again enter the fray and fight for what is the best care for every woman or child impacted by violence and sexual assault.

Winter 2004

I was afraid of what I might learn in Brisbane, Australia last month.  An international perspective of child abuse and neglect can overwhelm me.  We live in times of war, poverty, starvation and increasing populations of women and children who have been discarded—thrown away!

The International Society on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) had chosen me to give the closing lecture, the C. Henry Kempe Lecture.  This lecture is given every two years to honor the pediatrician who had the courage to entertain the diagnosis of a “battered child” when presented with overwhelming evidence that children were being assaulted and killed by caretakers.

Not only was I intimidated by the challenge of making the lecture a fitting tribute to Dr. Kempe, but am overwhelmed by the sheer weight of abuse and neglect of children around the world. After 20 years of hoping that things would change in East Los Angeles, I was leery of hearing that things had gotten worse everywhere else in the world where children are a commodity, sold as sex slaves, sent to war at ages 10 – 12 and die by the millions through the neglect of their governments who cannot see any inherent value in women or children.

So when  I arrived the beautiful city of Brisbane I was determined to listen carefully to every lecture; glance away when the images became to terrifying and try to focus on what was possible for me to do—each day, back home in East Los Angeles.  The city was welcoming.  There were the perfunctory welcoming speeches from the local politicians; troops of school children from the local private middle school sang and played.  The hall was dark and I was lulled by the sight of the good life being lived by the Europeans who, like us, came to a foreign land and built a wealthy society.

But then there she was!   This gorgeous compelling aboriginal child!  No more than five or six she came on stage with her family—the men in loin clothes, the women in tie-dyed dresses anchored to their thin bodies by only a bark belt.   Her dark face was painted white and her arms decorated with tribal markings.  Their singing and dancing was spontaneous, non-choreographed with simplicity as if they were performing around the fires of the outback.   Her dress was too big, and she struggled to pull it over her tiny body—with little success—but she danced on—smiled at us—and stole our hearts.  There was uneasiness in the audience—a concern that this child was somehow being exploited or should be pitied.  There was a whisper of “someone go fix her dress.”    Regardless of any murmurs or scattered laughter—she pressed on.

I had to turn away when they showed the statistics that over 30 million women and girls had been sold into sexual slavery in Southeast Asia over the past decade.  The images of children as child laborers and soldiers fighting in Africa, Bosnia and the Middle East were terrifying. But as long as I could stay focused on one child at a time – I was fine.

One child at a time!!  So important for us to remember as we celebrate 20 years in East Los Angeles!  20 years – way too long to be here – celebrating is probably not the right word.   But we celebrate that the VIP has grown in so many directions – children, elders, foster children, sexual assault victims and victims of domestic violence.   Our numbers have not diminished – but more importantly how we care for them has grown and improved.   We begin to see our graduates coming back with degrees, jobs, families and homes.   We are working on ways to intercept abuse before it destroys lives.   We will celebrate the individual child.

When I closed the conference with my lecture—I asked each participant to remember a small aboriginal child.  That it was possible that we would all leave Brisbane depressed by what was not happening for children and women around the world.  But we could go back to Europe, to the US or to Africa and Asia with a sense of hope if we took home the image of that small child and remembered to take our work one child at a time.

Fall 2004 – Equal share or equal chance?

What are entitlements? What are luxuries and what are the necessities of life?  What constitutes an adequate childhood?  Our society has never embraced the concept of equal share—i.e. the entitlement to be given a share of our country’s largesse.  However we do, at least with our words, embrace the concept of equal chance.

I was asked to see Bernice and Tony last week.  They were admitted to the hospital from our emergency department after a referral from social services.  The Child Abuse Hotline had received an anonymous call.  A woman was living in her car with her two children.  Bernice is nine. Tony is four.  She has two black eyes, a broken right arm (in the early stages of healing without benefit of medical care) and both kids have at least one hundred “loop” marks, both old and new, that cover their entire bodies.  Their clothes are filthy and ill-fitted.    Bernice is tenacious of her story—she broke her own arm and blackened her own eyes and “please do not send me back to my grandmother’s.”

There have been numerous child abuse reports on these children.  Most recently, the children were removed from placement with their grandmother and returned to their mother. At the time that they were returned to their mother she was living in an apartment—-but soon was evicted and has been living with her boyfriend and two children in a car.  The grandmother’s house was a place filled with drugs and abuse.  There, they were whipped constantly and Bernice was sold to a continuum of “grandma’s friends” who came to have sex with her.   She now has a sexually transmitted disease—one that she will have for life.

What are the entitlements for a childhood?  Bernice has finally admitted that her mother beat her and broke her arm—but it was better than grandma’s! They are in foster care.  But what share are they entitled to have?   Should they be guaranteed one home for the both of them—a place where food, clothing and school are provided without abuse.  Does their fair share include living free from the fear that they will be sent back to a life of abuse.

Shawn is 16 years old. Two years ago he survived a vicious attack on his entire family.  Now they are living on the edge of financial disaster.  There will be no new clothes for school this fall unless he finds a job.   Where does a teenage boy without experience find a part time job?  How can he do this without appropriate clothing and support?   This is hard for any child, but for Shawn it is almost impossible to get this chance. He has promised himself a few new clothes for school—so he won’t look so different from all the others.    He has promised his mother that it will not cost her the money they need for food and rent.

I want Shawn to be entitled to have a chance for self-esteem.   Shawn now has a part time job.  He stands taller as he comes to his first job and the money he earns will be his to spend.   I guess I took too much for granted.   My childhood was filled with more than my share of love and safety.  My children had every chance and much, much more.  One teacher asked me about my oldest…”is it possible to have too much self-esteem?”   He was seven!

What are entitlements? What shares or chances should be guaranteed?  A home without violence with a clean bed to sleep in safely each night.  Clothing—not great new clothes—but just new enough not to look pale and washed out, colorless hand-me-downs picked from the cartons at a church or school.  Just a few small things that should be part of growing up secure.  Is it only a luxury, granted to a privileged few, to grow up with the knowledge that there is at least one someone who loves you without condition?

Summer 2004

A gorgeous baby girl born to Gina and Michael McConnell can be visited everyday via the screensavers on our office computers.  Ava, born just two weeks ago has a glorious childhood and future ahead.  This raised the question in my mind–doesn’t every child deserve a chance to the same childhood as Ava?  Shouldn’t every child be a screen saver??? Or, is there a time to give up?

The FBI called last week.  They had a 14-year-old reported kidnapped from her father in Texas. FBI agents located her in a Sylmar motel where she was traveling in the company of a 56-year-old man.  She was detained by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and he was arrested by LAPD. The FBI made the appointment with me.

Jesse is tall for her age, lanky  and quite beautiful.  She is angry with Elvira at the front desk and when Kala tries to talk to her in the waiting room she becomes mute.  By the time I take her into my office, she is resigned.

“I know you are angry to be here! But I need to talk with you for a while and then you can help me decide what we need to do for you.”  So begins a conversation with this child-woman.  I ask her what she wants and where she wants to be.  She needs her stuff from the motel and she wants to be sent home to her father in Texas. “Where is your mother?” “I don’t know!!”  No address, no cell phone, no idea—no school since age 8, wandering across the face of America with a band of Gypsies, sold by her father to a man old enough to be her grandfather.   All this I learned after calling Texas and talking to the FBI agent assigned to her case.   Her father reported her kidnapped when the man he sold her to did not pay him what was owed.

She sat there crying, sad, lost–but unable to tell the truth or to even have any insight into what was missing from her life; school, her own room, birthdays, parties and knowing where her next meal was coming from.  I described to her what I thought was important.  Could she imagine what it would be like to be cared for by that one person who loved her enough to want her to be safe?  No, that was not part of her memory bank.  She had no idea what I meant.  So we did the labs that we needed, the physical that she probably never had before and made an appointment to come back the next week.   But last night she ran. Once placed in a foster home near civilization–she was gone in the wind.

The question of where is she now–and what does she have to do to survive—haunts us.  But is it not too late??? She has never experienced childhood; she does not know how to embrace or welcome something that is so foreign. She will continue moving across America with her tribe who sees her as a commodity to be sold.

I have seen other children who have never experienced childhood.  They have no memory of a time when they were not sold, beaten or raped.  There was a family of five boys–all fire-starters by the age of 6–who had graduated to killing small animals in their neighborhood.   How do you place them???  Or the 7-year-old who had been sold to pedophiles for as long as he could remember; his bedroom the trunk of his father’s car.  He did not know how to interact with anyone unless it was sexual.   DCFS tried to place him with his aunt–but he killed her dog and she sent him back.

But Jesse seemed different.  I hope that she tucked away in her mind something of what we spoke.  The idea of her own importance, of school, of staying in one place, of her own room, of being able to control just some small part of her life.   But I will never know—she may have come to us too late—if we had a chance it would have been when she was 7.

I have finally learned to push these “boats” out into the river—I hope that I toss in a couple of paddles and a map.  But watching them catch the current and round the bend, out of sight, my heart sinks.

Spring 2004 – Building a Safety Net

I am coming up on twenty years since I came back to USC. Twenty years of trying to find a better way of protecting children. I thought that if I worked hard, eventually I would not have a job. I believed that we would stop children from being abused, sexually assaulted or abandoned.

As the years passed I became more of a realist and moved to expand our services, realizing that accurate, scientific evaluations were also a form of prevention. The program expanded with services for adult victims of violence and sexual assault. Over the past couple of years I have found myself in the basement of the coroner’s office helping with the autopsies of children and women who have been assaulted.

For me the worst is the pain of child abuse. There are always children that make us cry. Andrea is one of them. Her ribs and hip bones protrude. Her clothes hang limp from her shoulders. Her face is a map of overlapping, multicolored bruises. Her hair is matted over a wound that is now infected. There are scars that circle her wrists and ankles where she was handcuffed to her bed. Her eyes are glued to the floor. She stands apart, alone. She looks cold and we wrap a blanket around her. We stand together surrounding her, getting warmth from our closeness; some of us in tears.

Now, two weeks have passed and Andrea is back. The familiar pain is missing. She smiles and the bruises have faded to a faint reminder. She has gained weight and holds tightly to her foster mother’s hand. She no longer stands like a shadow against the wall. She has learned to play and to be spontaneous with others rather than waiting for permission to move, eat or talk. “Do I have to go back there? Don’t send me back!” We all want no to be the answer. We want her pain to become unfamiliar.

The question continues to weigh on my mind: Why do we stay attached to the people who give us the most pain? Andrea had to be pried out of the arms of her abusive family when the police came to rescue her from years of torment. Charlene was trained to hide from social workers and police when they came to investigate reports that a child was kept locked in a closet. Tina continues to come to the emergency room with black eyes and broken bones and then returns to her abuser the next day. Mrs. Rodriguez protects her son who repeatedly sends her to our hospital with injuries. They embrace what I call “familiar pain.”

I realized long ago that the way to pry people away from familiar pain is to give them a taste of a pain-free experience. In order to stop abuse, we must be the guides to this strange new world of peace and safety. In order to effect change, we need to build a safety net of new programs with powerful partners.

For years I have worried about foster children; women without power to leave abusive partners; and the abandoned elderly. We are taking the first step in building a safety net. As always, first the children!

This month we are putting the finishing touches on a new clinic for foster care children. Eventually services will include children who are at risk when they return home and then we will expand the service to include adolescents who are bouncing back and forth between juvenile halls and group homes, but spending most of their time on the streets.

I am counting on this space to be the window into a world where children are allowed  to have a childhood; a place where someone else is responsible for safety and the essentials of living and maybe even where there is someone who will take Andrea’s hand and guide her toward a life free of pain.

Winter 2003 – A Season of Giving

Some gifts are passed on and give over and over again.  I learned this lesson from my father when I was a small child.  My office is named for my dad.  Ted Heppenstall—what an amazing man!

At age 11, after the death of his father he was forced to assume the support of his family by becoming a child laborer in the steel mills of Sheffield England. He worked six days a week 12 hours each day stoking open pit smelting fires.  For a small boy of 11, walking through the blackened iron gates of the mill towards the fiery inferno must have been like walking into hell.

When at age 23, he emerged he came with a fire in his belly! A desire, a passion, to make a difference with his life!  This was the father that I adored as a child.  This is a man that I never heard say an unkind word or do a selfish deed.

We were poor!  My dad worked two jobs and tilled our backyard growing vegetables and fruits to feed my mother, brother and myself.  He could laugh and I remember him best with that wonderful smile that could warm the darkest corners of my soul.

Christmas with my dad meant giving not receiving.   It meant taking boxes of food, clothing and everything necessary to decorate a tree, including the tree, to families that were going to miss Christmas. It was late one evening when my Dad loaded the toys, food and us in the car.   We drove out of town and turned down an isolated dirt road to a shanty of a house.  The house looked abandoned except for a single light in the front window and a dilapidated old car parked to the side.

My dad knocked on the door and then quickly climbed into the car and drove back to our home.  He explained that by giving to these parents we were empowering them to provide Christmas to their children. We were giving twice.

“Astrid, remember that by giving someone the ability to give or to reach their own goals that you give something important, lasting. Giving without seeking praise, acknowledgement or credit is real giving.”   My dad lived his life never seeking credit or thanks.  I discovered at his funeral that he had given more than I ever realized. Time, support, encouragement, love and yes, much of his meager resources!

It is clear that this job affords us the chance to receive much more than we will ever give.   We are the “richest people in the world” because we can come to this wonderful new place and help the children, our patients, to reach their goals and to achieve success and even greatness.  We are given the gift of watching them survive and yes, even thrive. How amazing is this!!!

We are certainly blessed by the support of so many of you. You give us the ability to give food, clothing, housing, transportation and yes even Christmas to families who have nothing and look forward to the Holidays with fear and depression.

You are giving a gift that continues as it passes through us, to them and then on to their families and then on through the coming year building a sense of well-being and esteem.  These are the gifts of real value that come at this time of year.

I want to thank so many for the gift of this home we now have.  The gift of permanency that continues to give decades into the future!  This is now a place where bureaucrats and “funders” alike see the real potential for making a difference in this community.   A permanent home that now attracts the yea-sayers rather than the nay-sayers!   We thought that this was just a structure—but it is so much more—it is a magnet that draws in enthusiasm and support from those who we need as partners.   Thank you for the best Holiday gift of all—a real future.

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