Hope lay in a tightly up curled foetal position in the corner of the darkened room. If she kept very still, she may not be noticed. Maybe even become invisible. In her childlike innocence that’s what she hoped for anyway. It was so quiet right now. For a moment at least she felt safe. Light was just beginning to peek in through the dirty window panes. She knew that whoever was in the house would be sleeping. There had been a lot of noise and partying all through the night. From past experience she also knew that when they woke up they would most likely be angry. That she would get into trouble. She tried very hard to think what she might have done wrong this time. It was always the way. She was told she’d been naughty and had to be punished. But try as she might she could not think what it could be. Perhaps she had forgotten to flush the toilet. Yes, that must be it. At least she would know what it was so next time she could make sure she remembered. What Hope didn’t understand is why she was the only one to get into trouble for not flushing the toilet when she knew most of the others didn’t either. Perhaps they got into trouble too and she just didn’t know.
Hope’s world was one of eternal vigilance. She had learned to expect the unexpected. Stillness and quiet were times of peace for her although she never allowed herself to completely relax. The slightest noise put her into a state of high alert. Particular smells and noises acted as cues for her. She knew they were often a prelude to something horrible. That she would be hurt. At other times they were precursors to unexpected tenderness. For Hope that was worse as it left her even more confused. She was not used to being shown kindness. It usually meant that something bad would soon follow very suddenly and unexpectedly.
These were the times when the monsters came out. There would be shouting and banging. Sometimes hitting and throwing. Hope took great care to keep out of the way when the big people started acting bad. That didn’t always stop the bad things from happening to her though. Someone would suddenly remember she was around and start looking for her. Eventually they would find her. There would be more yelling and screaming. She might get picked up and thrown at the wall or out the door. Or locked in a cupboard and forgotten about. Hope’s three year old little body was covered in scratches, bruises, cuts and scars.
Even worse happened sometimes when the scary black shadows came into her bed at night. She tried not to think about that. They hurt her in ways she could not describe. The soft, tender inside bits of her. It made her feel dirty but she didn’t know why. At those times Hope had learned to leave herself behind. That’s how she thought of it. She would float at the top, near the ceiling, watching what was happening below. Like watching a scary monster movie. When the movie was over and the monster had left, she would return to herself. Whimpering softly, she would try to comfort herself hoping the pain would go away. It never did. Crying and sobbing loudly always brought them back. Then they would yell at her and hit her, telling her to stop that awful racket.
The house in which she lived was a dilapidated rental property at the poorer end of town. Dirty and unkempt, piles of rubbish and discarded food littered the floors. It was always like that, no matter where they lived. To Hope it seemed they were always moving to somewhere different. But for her the only difference was the location. They had moved to this new place a few short weeks ago. People seemed to come and go all the time regardless of where they lived. Hope never knew who was around. Most of them were people she did not know. You couldn’t really call it a home but in her short life it was all she had ever known. For her it was normal. There was no love or laughter, peace or safety. Least of all for Hope. She was not allowed to play with other children. Or talk to strangers.
Hope couldn’t remember a time when she was not hungry. There were no regular meals. She scavenged what she could when no-one was looking. Old crusty bits of left over pizza and other fast foods. Sometimes someone remembered Hope was around, laughed and carelessly tossed some food her way. She had learned to fend for herself. Hope was a survivor. Resilient. Resourceful.
Hope had a secret. A very important, special one. She had a friend. Someone who was kind and caring. Smiled and said hello as she walked by. Sometimes Hope thought she saw a little tear in the corner of her eye and wondered if she too had bad things happen to her. But she was too scared to ask. In her heart she hoped not. Her friend had taken to leaving her little parcels of food in a secret hiding place. One day she had noticed Hope watching her eat a sandwich as she strolled along the footpath. Asked if she was hungry, Hope had nodded her head. Her friend gave her the rest of the sandwich. Hope snatched it quickly and ran away to hide. It was the most delicious thing she had ever eaten! The next time Hope saw her, she quietly told her that every day she would leave her a little treat and showed her the hiding place. It was to be their special secret. Hope smiled shyly and nodded her head, too scared to speak in case she was dreaming it. But sure enough, the very next day when she had a look, there was a little bag with another sandwich in it. Such delicious foods Hope found. Things she didn’t even know existed. Sometimes these treats were all the food she had for the day. Hope wished with all her heart that they would never leave this place. She made sure no-one ever saw her talk to her friend or eat the food that was left for her.
It was only a few weeks later that Hope’s house was visited by some stern looking grown ups dressed all fancy. There was a lot of yelling and crying. This scared her, so she curled up in the corner of the room. They said Hope had to stay in the room. That they wanted to talk to her too. She didn’t know what to do. They were strangers. Hope’s mum told her she had to do as the strangers said. Hope tried her hardest to make herself invisible but that didn’t work. The grown up strangers asked Hope lots of questions. She was confused and scared so all she could do was nod and shake her head. Some of the things they asked she didn’t even understand. But they were kind to her. Smiled and told her she was safe. That they wanted to take her to a doctor. Hope looked at her mum. She had never been taken to a doctor unless she was really badly hurt. Mum didn’t like her to be looked at. So Hope was very surprised when she agreed. Not just agreed, she was allowed to go with them all by herself.
The lady doctor was so kind and gentle. Hope liked her a lot. There were nurses too. They were friendly and made her laugh and giggle while she had a lovely warm bubble bath and had her hair washed. Then they dressed her in nice, new clean clothes. Best of all, they gave her a great big glass of cold milk, a sandwich and chocolates! After all these wonderful treats, Hope was taken back to the doctor. She was to go and live somewhere new, they told her. With people who would look after her. Not hurt her. Where she would be safe and loved. Her mother would come and visit, they said. But never again would she have to be afraid or go hungry.
After all this had been explained to Hope the door opened. To her horror it was her secret friend. Gasping, she put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide open in fear. They knew about her special friend! What would happen now? Suddenly, Hope was very, very scared. However, her friend held out her hand to Hope and asked if she would like to go and live with her. Tears were streaming down her friend’s face as she smiled at Hope. Everyone was smiling and crying it seemed. All Hope could do was nod her head. It had been the mostest special day ever.
Hope’s story is not a true one. Nor is it based on any stories or experiences in which I have been involved. As best I could, I have written it intentionally mainly from a child’s perspective to highlight issues of child abuse. Neither does it explore the systems issues and responses that are in place to deal with children like Hope. However, the sad reality is that there are many Hopes out there. And the other sad reality is that children do fall through the cracks. And die as a result. There have been several such high profile cases of that happening right here in my home state of South Australia. It simply is not good enough. Unlike adults, the Hopes of the world are vulnerable, innocent victims. The exploitation, physical, emotional and sexual abuse of minors is never OK.
The Australian statistics paint a stark picture. This is data for the most common types of substantiated reports of harm in Australia for the year 2013-2014
Physical abuse 7,096
Sexual abuse 5,581
“In Australia, state and territory governments have the statutory responsibility for protecting children from child abuse and neglect. Having separate jurisdictions (ie. different in each state) can result in some children ‘falling through the cracks’. This recognition has seen the development of a National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.”
It must also be said that the data presented here is incomplete as there are a range of situations and demographics not collected for these reports. That being said, it still paints a grim picture. And numbers are rising.
Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated harm types in Australia in 2013-14
Reference: The data presented is a summary of the data provided in Child Protection Australia 2013-14 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2015).
It is my sincere wish that we individually, collectively, and as nations can turn this situation around so that every Hope is cherished. Having children is a privilege. As adults we have a mandate and a responsibility to nurture, care, nourish, protect and love each precious Hope.
© Raili Tanska
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