The law vs. the heart

She is 10-years-old, with stringy blond hair, pale skin, and dark circles under her eyes. Sara, the name I'll use to protect her privacy, sits in a circle of her sixth-grade classmates.

As a psychologist with pre-teens and adolescents, I'm listening to them share stories of their lives. As they talk about their families and home problems, Sara quietly weeps.

"Last week Dad pushed my sister down a hill in the snow," Sara offers. "She hit her head on a tree. But my sister doesn't complain. She acts as if nothing happens when Dad beats her."

"And you, Sara, what do you do?"

"My stomach hurt me for days when he hit me there. I couldn't go to school. But then I have to stay home. Mom is at work, and he is always around. I can't come out of my room. I'm so afraid."

When I see Sara alone, she tells her stories of abuse in more detail. The trust I'm building with her is new and fragile. I need to spend more time to know with more certainty how to best help her.

But in my state, I'm required to report within 48 hours any suspected abuse both to the school principal and to Child Protective Services (CPS). I know in my heart that once these truths come to light, the repercussions could send the child into an even deeper depression. If I decide not to file, I'd be breaking the law.

Though most people who work with children often face this dilemma, this is the first time for me after five years of working with adolescents.

If I do file, Sara's father could retaliate against her. She would be taken from my care and would certainly blame me for exposing her. Which puts Sara more at risk - reporting her case, or remaining silent? I'm torn.

I see Sara again, and tell her I have to report her father's abuse to the principal. She begins to waffle, her trust in me draining. The stories change. She says her dad didn't really hit her, and the trouble had been long ago, not recent. Has she been crying wolf all along and simply needing to build trust in some adult? Or is she retracting her stories based on fear of her dad's reactions? I don't know what to believe. I just know I want Sara protected. But I also feel I'm betraying her. I know that although CPS has caring individuals on its staff, the investigation is injurious to the children it is trying to protect.

I place the call to CPS in the principal's office. An official voice puts me on hold. After I'm shuffled through several departments, someone begins to document my report. My voice is barely above a whisper and shakes as I answer a female who sounds both detached and exhausted.

"Age of child?" "Is the father at home?" "Dates of incidents of abuse?" The questions drag on.

I'm also required to call Sara's mother. She's furious at me.

During the next three weeks, CPS takes no action. I sleep little, with images of Sara home alone with her father. After CPS interviews Sara at school, she will no longer meet with me, and I'll never know what goes on during those weeks.

Now, many months later, I watch Sara walk the school hall, avoiding me. I long to put my arms around her and tell her, "I am so sorry. I just want you to be safe."

Alice Miller, the best-selling author of child-development books, has said the presence of one caring adult in an abused child's life is of enormous importance. For a short time I was that caring adult in Sara's life. Because of a choice I made, I lost her.

If I knew then what I know now, I'd have defied the 48-hour law and given our relationship more time for her to build trust in me. Both Sara and I must now live with the consequences of my decision.

* Anne Mize is a psychologist in private practice in the state of Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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