Hiding Abuse

I’m blogging my I struggle with  a situation of abuse.   I haven’t yet decided what I will do.  One part of me says to hide my conflict, not to let anyone know I’m ashamed because the answer isn’t totally clear t me.  Here is what happened:

Today, Thursday, I learned at 1:30 pm that one of the teachers, on Wednesday, had forced food into one of the children with disabilities.  She instructed one of the older girls, whom we are training as a helper to special ed teachers, to hold open the child’s mouth with her fingers, and then the teacher pushed food into her mouth.  Her lip began to bleed where it was already dry and rough.   I’ll use the name of the little one, Sonali, because she is known to people who have visited.  Sonali is our youngest, is visually impaired, microcephalic, and delightful.  When she arrived she has terrible feeding problems, screamed when fed, and had esophageal spasms.  Calming her down was a long slow process.  Mostly she was only willing to eat if someone would tap her on her head or if she held something over her head.  She also preferred that someone be singing to her at the same time.  Well, all that has passed, but she is a fussy eater.

Six months ago we went to a public function with all the children.  I suddenly noticed one of our childcare workers holding Sonali flat on her lap and pouring in a drink.  I went over and stopped her.  When we got back home I fired her.  Yes, she had been trained.  In this case she was just not bothering.  It takes work to feed these children without endangering them due to choking.

So now back to what happened yesterday, what I learned today, and what I will do tomorrow.

1.  The teacher has been with us over a year.   I also learned today that one of the girls had seen her scratch Rani to get her to behave.  She hadn’t told me because she thought I wouldn’t believe her, and the teacher had said I’d approved of this, which I haven’t.  So what do I do about the teacher?  Can I replace her?  Will the next one be just as bad?  If I were reading this, my blood would be boiling and saying “fire her immediately,” and maybe I will.

2.  The supervising special educator was right there, but feeding another child.  I called her this evening.  She has no idea what I’m talking about.  Do I believe her?  No.

3. The staff member, officially my assistant, who observed it all  told the teacher and the girl she should not be doing that and then didn’t tell me until today.  Well actually, she came to me at 1:30 saying that she wanted to talk to me tomorrow.  I said that sounded like something I needed to hear now.  She looked toward yet another staff person who apparently already knew, and said she didn’t want all the teachers to be angry with her.  I said to tell me, so she told me the story as I’ve written it. 

4. The house supervisor she tried to tell yesterday, who said she didn’t want to hear any more and to go and tell me.  At that point the house supervisor felt her responsibility was over.

The Victims:

Sonali, who was force-fed.   

The older girl who is being trained to work with teachers.  She is doing this because of severe cognitive disabilities.  She is extremely vulnerable.  She has been in tears because she was part of something that wasn’t right and can’t sort out her place.

Spacial layout matters.  While all this was going on yesterday I was sitting in the next room, with the door open, about 25 feet from where all this was going on.    Our entire ground floor is only 900 sq. ft. and from my desk I can see most of the space.  I was sitting right here, and that’s what is also so creepy!  I’ve said from the first weeks here, that no one will tell me what is going on.  I pay them to tell me but they will not.  In this case, no one wanted to be blamed for telling.  Lost was the issue that a child’s life was put in danger and that the same teacher would be here today feeding her.

Is not telling me, a “factor” in whether I keep someone or is it a deal breaker?  That’s really the dilemma. 

I try to balance the emotional and practical aspects of what I do.  Emotionally, I just don’t want these people around me.  It upsets me to look at them and know there may be things they are hiding from me.  This is not first time for either of them.  They work for me but they are more worried about others being angry with me for telling.  This IS the culture I’m in.  I was asked recently if there was anyone her I trust totally, and I have to say no.  People tell me what they want me to know.  Some of that power comes because I don’t know Bengali, but today’s news was all in English and all the people involved are fluent in English. 

The internet is my connection to the world from here.  Joe Paterno was fired today for his inaction in the face of sex abuse.  What he did was a deal breaker.  So maybe that’s my answer.  I don’t have other coaches standing in the wings.  I’m just more on my own.  Maybe that’s better.  It is so horrible to have people working for me, knowing they won’t tell me.  It eats at me.  It makes me afraid to leave at all, as it is so bad even with me sitting here.

My children were in a special school a few years ago.  We would drop them at 9:30 and pick them up at 1 pm.  In the car they would start thrusting their tongues, what they do when they are thirsty, so we brought water and gave them water in the car.  Then one of our workers told me that the full bottle of water we took there was always full, so they weren’t getting water.  I saw the principal standing outside the day I learned this and I went to tell her, and she said, “I’ll look into it,” and walked away.  After we got home I called up the founder of the school, went to her flat, and told her I was taking the children out.  She said, “you are denying them education because of water?”  I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was, “Why would I let my children be with such a person that would deny water to them?”  What sort of person does this?  I’ve learned that this is common practice in all these schools because it minimizes the child’s need to urinate. 

This morning I was talking with the house supervisor because she is having problems about where to live and I’m concerned about her and was trying to find solutions.  But all this time she was not telling me about the situation of the teacher and Sonali.  In other words, I think I’m on some equal level of trust, concern, extending myself, and she is worried about teachers getting mad at her for telling me. 

I’m probably going on too much.  If I really post this instead of hitting delete, please notice the guts it takes to say these things out loud, and appreciate that I am certain I am not the only one with these conflicts.  I reach out so I am not so alone.  I also reach out so you, the reader who has faced such situations, can know you are not alone either.  It’s hard stuff, hard stuff to get right.  I think I know what I will do in the morning, but not there yet.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lindsey
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 22:07:03

    Michelle, this is just heartbreaking. I am so sorry that you keep having to deal with this again and again. It must be so frustrating and difficult to have staff covering for each other rather than sticking up for the children.

    I keep thinking that a solution would be to hire someone from elsewhere who has education and peds nursing experience. They could act as the head person and keep an eye on any other teachers working there while setting a good example. In an ideal world, I would love to just hop on a plane and come help you out… this would be a job I would find greatly rewarding.


    • Arun Debnath
      Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:39:01

      Lindsey, I share your sentiments and having visited Michelle in the summer I have the same wish for working for these wonderful children. It would have been the best job I could have ever wished! Michelle is simply doing a super-human job in a hellish and man-made environment. I only wish I could help Michelle in any pratical way.


  2. A. Tummalapalli
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:15:58

    I’m very sorry to know that she went against the rules, and force fed her. Who knows how long it has been happening. Let me tell you about something. When I was married to Chandra (now ex-husband) just after I had come home from India with Priya, who was exhibiting feeding issues, I caught him opening her bottle and POURING the milk into her mouth, all over her face and she was hard as a board…fighting against him and he was holding her down while doing this. It made me sick. My interfering (as he called it) was what lead to the end of our marriage. He was abusing my kids behind closed doors, around corners. He really didn’t see why Priya needed to take her time sucking on the bottle when he could just pour it into her mouth and get it over with. That lack of patience when dealing with children really scared me. But this wasn’t all, he was pinching her between the legs (near her girl privates) whenever she resisted. Basically, there was no trust between the two of them left. He didn’t recognize it. In my situation, I only had three children, and so I could care for them alone. In your situation, you have many kids with special needs. You will collapse if you try to do it alone.

    At this point, I would shadow her, observe her behavior with Sonali and the other children, and give her a warning. It’s not fair to fire her at this point without a warning. It is normal in Indian culture to force feed children. Many people there think the child will die if it isn’t feed by force. And since she has known feeding issues, this is even more the case. I had to deal with this in India. So, time to have a meeting with the teachers/helpers/assistants to REVIEW the rules by which they should work. Firing someone without giving warning is too radical. But meanwhile, observe and interfere when she is doing wrong. Gently interfere and remind her you are a doctor! Doctors carry weight in India. They are “gold” if you may say. Priya ate everything in her sight when she first came home, and then purged after overfilling her tummy. Then she refused to eat but only enough to keep her alive for the next 6 months. This was temporary, but I think force feeding was part of what she experienced in India, and it had an affect on her. I wish you well. And hugs for Sonali.


  3. Arun Debnath
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:25:46

    Michelle, my heart goes with you and also my Pranam [the utmost respect shown to someone special by touching his/her feet] to you not only for what you but how you do it. Being a fellow Indian and having visited your [non-religious] ashram I know the hellish circumstances and under what environment you’re bringing up those wonderful children. [I’m sure Mother Teresa on her own would have struggled the same way]. Any of my nice words won’t solve your real-life hard-core problem and dilemma and not being able to help you myself in any practical way I would borrow your own words and say, you try to “balance the emotional and practical aspects” of what you do.

    Another possible thoughts : [1] a huge number of gap-year students across the world come to India for voluntary work/training for a year. There are certainly dedicated people amongst them if you can find them. [2] there are women in India from different religious orders [who may not practise/promulgate religion at your place] who may work for the children with care and kindness, if you can find the right one. Again, the question of finding the right one !

    One thing you can be sure of is that there are people in this world [other than the children] who envy you for what you do for the helpless human beings. Love.

    Arun from London on this damp and dark afternoon.


  4. A. Tummalapalli
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:53:28

    Yes, Arun has good points here. (Hi Arun!) There has to be some organization who can send interns to work with you, supplying them every few months (3 -6 months). And he is right…we envy you, and honor you for helping people who were not being helped.


  5. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 18:00:29

    Hi Friends,
    This is just a quick response that I’ve made some staff changes. I’ll write about it when I get a chance. I’m starting a new math program with the girls this evening. I’m very excited about it. I’m very excited about moving them to English so I can teach! It’s what I’d planned to write about yesterday.

    Your collective support has been really meaningful for me. Thank you so much. I’ll blog more about this, but wanted to say thanks.



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November 2011
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