A Little Girl I Could Not Help

Many years ago, I was sitting in a library when a girl about 8 years old began to describe how her father, who she said was a police officer, beat her. I gentle prodded her to give me details around her name and address, but she could only give me her first name and the elementary school she attended. She then changed the subject as the woman she was with called for her, and they left.

I wrote down all the details I learned, and I sat for minute wondering what the next step was. The young girl had said that because her father was a police officer, the police wouldn’t help. (I’m not accusing the police of this. I’m merely repeating her words.) I didn’t want to confront the woman with her because I didn’t know if I could get the little girl immediate help. I worried that, if I spoke to the woman, the little girl could get beaten for telling me and maybe would never get or take another chance to tell someone.

I decided to call Child Protective Services and give them all the information thinking: How many girls with this name go to this particular elementary school and have police officer dads? I was told that I did not have enough information for CPS to investigate. I was given no alternatives.

I never ran into the little girl again.

I think about her often even though the school does not exist anymore. I pray for her even though I can only recall her face and not her name.

I ask myself what I could have done different.

I’m not even sure why I’m posting this story here. Perhaps, I want to be told what I should have done so I can get it right next time. Perhaps, I want to be told I did the right thing already. Perhaps, someone, who knows her today and is wondering if something is going on at home, will read this and ask.

Many years ago, I was sitting in a library trying to do the next right thing and thinking it was enough. It was not. And I hate having forgotten her name.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

26 thoughts to “A Little Girl I Could Not Help”

  1. But you listened to her, allowed her to talk about her abuse. Maybe your conversation gave her the courage to do more to fight for herself. Maybe your concerned ear and kindness were enough to inspire her bravery. Maybe she did find the help she needed… all because one stranger in a library listened to her.

  2. Woman, you did more than most people would do. I understand why you’re having the hard feelings you’re having. I imagine most of us would, too. You did send some positive, hopeful energy out into her world, and I like to think that counts for something, even if I’m not 100% sure. Not sure if my reply helps at all, but it’s what came to mind.

    1. I don’t expect anyone’s comment to be anything more than their comment. The story is what it is no matter what people think of it.

      Oh and I’m not 100% sure either. But thank you.

  3. I think you did everything that you could and that could be expected. Not everyone can be saved, unfortunately. It’s got to be hard to live with that, like survivors’ guilt. I don’t know what else to say. You’re a good person and you tried to help her.

  4. At least you did something! Even if they did not have enough information to investigate they should have documented your call and concerns. Perhaps after several more calls like your own they were able to investigate and help keep the child safe. Teachers and school personnel are mandated reporters so if she told anyone there an investigation should have been started!

  5. Oh, dear. I don’t know that you could have done anything differently. What a horribly sad situation. You are a good woman who tried to help, and I’m going to imagine that if she told you, a stranger in a library, she probably found someone closer to help her. Let go of your guilt. Or if you can’t, maybe you could volunteer for SCAN as a way to help you heal (and others).

  6. You did so much more than many people would have done. You listened, you cared enough to take notes and to make the call. If only ever child had someone that could be there like that for them.

  7. You did so much more than many people would have done. You listened, you cared enough to take notes and to make the call. If only ever child had someone that could be there like that for them.

  8. What a sad story. I have had random things like that happen and then thought of it years later, wondering if I should have done something differently. I agree with the other commenter, if she told you, a random stranger, my guess is that she found other people to tell.

    But even if she did get help, who knows if she got anything that was better. We have such a broken system.

  9. A few years ago, I was like that little girl.
    And I’m telling you that you did all you could do. The girl may not know what you did, but I’m sure that if she ever found out, she would be so grateful that a stranger cared enough to do that.
    Hopefully she eventually gave someone all the information they needed to get her a better life.

  10. I have actually had the exact same experience. I never thought to call CPS; as a teacher myself, I called the school and spoke with a guidance counselor there.

  11. the only other conceivable thing that I could think of is if you would have called the school and gave them the information. I am sure they would have been able to narrow down who it was by her first name and her dad’s occupation. And schools, by law, have to report.

    But I think that if she told you, she must have told someone else…eventually. by listening, you showed her that there are other people who will listen too.

  12. As a teacher, and being involved with several students that needed a call to CPS, I am astounded at just how much is necessary for an investigation. It frustrates me. I feel like as a society, government, etc. we should be able to take a child’s story and run with it to investigate the slightest hint that it is valid. If we don’t protect our children, who ARE we?

  13. I am studying to be a teacher and I had to take Virginia-required online child abuse prevention training a few weeks ago. It was so sad. I have no idea what I would have done in your situation. I hope that if she told you, she told someone else too. I wish I had more to say. *hug*

  14. I’m sorry you feel so haunted by this memory. In most elementary schools, there exists a school counselor or school social worker. Even a teacher can be a good start. If this would happen again, encourage the child to tell a trusted school adult. They are mandated reporters. You tried, Alex. It truly was a heartfelt and honest attempt to help. Be hopeful.

  15. This post broke my heart. I had a similar experience several years back, at a local department store. I witnessed a woman beating her child in the back of a dressing room with a plastic hanger. Not being a parent myself, I had no idea whether to intervene or not. In the end, I walked out and reported what I’d witnessed to a store manager. I have no idea if any further action was taken, and I’ve regretted ever since not taking a more active role in helping that little boy.

    I think, though, that in both our circumstances, we did what we could with the information we had available to us at the time. I have no doubt in my mind that if that little girl had told you more, you would’ve done more. You did the best you could with what you had. And we can hope that, by listening, you gave her the strength to tell someone else who was in a better position to help her than you were at the time.

    Thanks for sharing, Alex. I hope this post brings you some peace of mind after all this time.

  16. This post breaks my heart. What a difficult situation you were in. I can only imagine how troubling it must be for you. You did the right thing by attempting to help this little girl. And perhaps you gave her the courage and strength to talk to someone else like a teacher or family friend or pastor.

  17. I like the idea of going to the school. They are, as someone mentioned, mandated reporters. If they are aware of abuse, it is illegal for them not to report it. The would have known her by her name, dad’s occupation most likely. I would have only thought to do this now that I’m a court appointed advocate. A few months ago, I would have done just as you had. And you did a lot. I hope that little girl kept talking and found help. xox

  18. i can’t tell you what you should have done, other than what you did. i have a family member whose husband is physically abusive. he’s knocked out her teeth, he’s terrorized her and her mother in front of their kids. one day a couple of years ago, he went after his wife and her mother, and his then-9-year-old son got a knife from the kitchen and threatened him with it, in defense of his mother and grandmother. this abuse has gone on for years, and my family member has resolutely refused all attempts at help from outsiders, but this story was the last straw for my mother. she called children’s services anonymously and reported the incident. someone came to the house, asked a couple of questions, and that was it. no action was taken on a report that a 9-year-old boy pulled a knife on his father to protect his mother and grandmother. i don’t know how much more you can do than that–my mom never told our relative that she made this call, she’s afraid they’d never speak to her again and then she wouldn’t even know what was going on. it does seem like the abuse has lessened since then, but maybe my mom just isn’t hearing about it anymore. i don’t want to see these kids in a foster home, but i also don’t want to find out one day that their father killed their mother, or them. and i don’t want to think about what kinds of men the girls will grow up to love, or what kinds of men the boys will become.

  19. I think the fact that this little girl instinctively felt she could trust you with her story speaks volumes about the kind of person you are…

    She didn’t ask for anything; but she knew you would hear her.

    And your retelling of this situation now may make someone think, speak, act.

    So her trust was well-founded and her suffering not in vain.

  20. I’m a new reader (as in today, found you from The Bloggess, and have now spent 4 hours reading, but I digress). I wanted to quickly add that I believe you were there for a reason. I am a therapist, and my goal for a first meeting with a new client is to deserve a second meeting. That’s just a fancy way of saying listen and BE there. You did that. And like Mrs. MidAtlantic said, maybe you were her practice conversation. Now that she’s said those words out loud to a safe stranger, maybe she can say them to someone who can intervene more directly. She tested the waters and found that an adult will listen, will believe, will care. Sometimes that’s all you CAN do.

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