My first job out of graduate school was working with children who had been severely neglected or abused. It was with a nonprofit that had a contract with the state child welfare system, meaning these were kids who had been removed from their homes. Sometimes their families were in court-ordered treatment in an attempt to get their children back; sometimes the kids had essentially been given up.

It was a heart-wrenching experience; knowing the statistics about child abuse is different than staring trauma in the face. I met a 9-year old girl who knew more about sex than I did. I saw kids who had literally had the hell beaten out of them. For months, I watched a severely neglected 10-year old boy eat an entire box of graham crackers during each of our therapy sessions; one of the happiest days of my young professional life was when he decided to save some for the following week because he finally trusted they (and I) would still be there.

I loved and I hated that job. More than once, I sat in my car and cried before I headed home. I was so angry; I once told a psychologist who worked with me that I not only supported the death penalty, I would personally volunteer to pull the switch.

I don’t think I would have survived if I hadn’t had a close group of mental health professionals working with me with whom I could rant, cry, worry and – occasionally – get drunk.

My Day in Court

About six months into my work, I was called to testify for the state, who was seeking to terminate a mother’s parental rights. I had evaluated and treated her four-year-old girl whose leg had been broken by her mother’s boyfriend. My little client wanted to go back home; I learned pretty quickly that children who are abused by their parents don’t stop loving them, they just stop loving themselves.

But it was pretty clear that this child couldn’t go home. The physical abuse wasn’t a one-time accident. The mom, whom I had never met, had not participated in the court-ordered treatment and was still living with the child abuser. I was almost looking forward to getting up on that stand and staring that mother down. In my mind, she had become a monster.

So, on that court date, I marched up to that witness chair, got sworn in, and gave my testimony. The mom’s attorney, a public defender, didn’t put up much of a fight. The mom didn’t say a word; she just stared blankly down at her hands.

The mom’s rights were terminated and the social workers began looking for an adoptive family. This was as it should have been. But the monster I was expecting? She turned out to be an 18-year-old, developmentally delayed teenager who had been born to a drug-addicted mother and an abusive pimp of a dad. Her worn-out public defender told me after the hearing that his client seemed to genuinely care about her daughter but had no idea how to be a parent and was completely dependent upon her abusive boyfriend. Maybe, he said, the 4-year-old would beat the odds and find a loving adoptive family that would break her family’s cycle of poverty and violence. He didn’t see much hope for her mom.

A View of Childhood from Behind Bars

Many years later, my own life came full circle and I found myself working in a medium-maximum security prison. Working with perpetrators instead of victims. Working with people who had robbed others of their money or their innocence or their sense of safety or – occasionally – their lives. A small minority had even hurt children like my 4-year-old client from years past.

But I also found that many of them had been that abused 4-year-old child. Time and again, when I would ask an inmate to describe his childhood, he would shrug and say, “Normal.” But when I asked about specific experiences, it quickly became clear to me that growing up had been anything but. Growing up in a gang, being left without food for days at a time, drinking alcohol with your parents at age 7, being beaten because a parent is high or in a bad mood – all of these seem normal if it’s all you’ve ever known. But children who grow up thinking this is what childhood is like are most likely to repeat it with their own children.

Life’s Lessons (For Now)

We are all responsible for what we do as adults no matter what happened to us as children. Seventy percent of abused and neglected children do not abuse or neglect their own children. Somewhere along the line, they are lucky enough or smart enough to realize that violence is not a normal or inevitable part of parenting no matter what role models they had. It’s a choice.

As for me, my view of the world has become a lot more complicated than it used to be, especially when it comes to violence. But because it is, there are so many places where we can make a difference when it comes to stopping the intergenerational cycle of child abuse; teaching parenting skills to prison inmates, supporting pregnant teenagers, volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, becoming a child advocate, teaching children to recognize abuse or neglect, reporting suspected misconduct to child welfare.

As President Ronald Reagan said, “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”