Columns 2013

Childhood cruelty can lead to adults who abuse

Every once in a while we get a bird into Bird TLC whose story causes me to shudder. I understand the every day vicissitudes of life as a wild creature. Other creatures prey on you. Your misfortune is their dinner. Your successful fight for food might mean another doesn’t get enough. Life in the wild is certainly not a Disney movie. Bears and deer don’t sing and frolic together.

But this past week we admitted a baby gull with a swollen leg. His leg was swollen because he was rescued from a boy who was beating his leg with a stick. The first thought that crossed my mind when I heard this was that I hoped I never ran into that boy when he became a man.

Boys being boys only goes so far. Even the most boisterous stop short of deliberate cruelty. Unless, of course, their experience in life is that they have been treated as something to be used, abused and tossed aside. Then the lesson they learn is that if you are stronger, you hurt the weaker and never feel compassion or compunction. Not every child abused turns out to be an abuser, but the majority of those who abuse have abuse in their past.

The little gull is going to be ok because a whole lot of people who find life a precious gift will care for him until his leg is better and he can fend for himself. We are aware that the life we return him to is precarious at best, but the point is not to pretend that we are sending him back into some paradise but that we are sending him back to his natural world to live his life. 

I wonder if that little boy who was beating the gull will get the same chance. Will there be caring people around him who see the tendency to meanness and who will explain to him why wanton cruelty to any creature is wrong? Will there be anyone to notice if his meanness is a product of a home life in which cruelty is the order of the day? Or will he somehow survive a childhood filled with abuse and when he’s an adult become an abuser who horrifies us with his actions?

The story of the former foster family from Bethel is making headlines around the state and causing many to wonder how the abuse could have gone on for so long. Peter Tony’s stepdaughters told their mother of the abuse. She brought it to the Office of Children’s Services but nothing seemingly was done. That nothing included the mother staying with the abuser until her death. That nothing included the mother being complicit in obtaining a foster care license and bringing other children into that home. That nothing included having a day care center despite the mother’s knowledge that her husband had, at a minimum, some questionable issues relating to young girls.

This was not only a system failure. At some point others need to take some responsibility. One of his stepdaughters came forward to carry that burden; to expose the secret that was one of the reasons two of her sisters committed suicide. Did their mother ever have an inkling that her husband’s actions might have been directly responsible for her daughters’ deaths?

Girls who have been abused most often turn to drink, drugs and unsafe lives. Boys tend to become abusers themselves. Maybe it has something to do with the difference in the male and female psyche. The female’s shame turns inward and destroys her. The male’s shame turns outward in an expression of anger as he tries to destroy others, much the same way he was destroyed.

The woman who came forward to stop her stepfather’s abuse is a very brave person. The little girl’s family who followed through with the police when they found out that his abuse was probably widespread and affecting others should also be commended for not only standing up for their daughter, but for saving other girls in the future from the abuse.

As for that little boy who beat on a baby bird, I hope someone intervenes in whatever is happening to him before he grows into a man for whom giving pain to others is the only way to dull the pain in him.