I told my ex-husband that it was insane to have a three-year-old walk a 5K, especially in 98-degree heat. The summer of 2013 was one of the hottest in Indiana history, yet he was determined to have Saige participate. He worked for the organization who was sponsoring the walk and the event fell on his visitation weekend. I offered to keep her, or trade days, but my concern was quickly dismissed. “She’ll be fine,” he scoffed.
But she wasn’t fine. Not by a long shot.
As soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew she was in danger. She was near catatonic. Her face, usually a cool, peanut-butter brown, was bright, splotchy and red. “Saige? Baby?” She didn’t even respond.
I could hear my ex-husband screaming in the background; he sounded so faint, like a dream. “You’re over-reacting, as usual!” His nasally voice sounded muffled, barely there. I had tunnel vision, yanking my daughter out of his arms, running to my car and strapping her limp body in the car seat before screeching off. We were racing to the hospital. I tried to troubleshoot, called 9-1-1, frantically yelled in the phone. “This is Kelly Edwards! I’m in a white Nissan Altima, speeding north on Meridian Street to the nearest hospital! My three-year-old daughter is hurt. I won’t stop if an officer tries to pull me over!” I hung up quickly. Almost there, Kelly. Be fast, be safe. I whispered to myself and prayed quietly to God for the rest of the way. Please, God, save Saige.
Saige had been out-of-sorts before, after visits with her father. These visits were new. She barely knew this man who she was, now, forced to spend weekends with. When she was five months old, I divorced him, left with the clothes on both of our backs. He was physically abusive to me and I didn’t want to give him the chance to be that way with her. I never asked for child support and he never showed any interest in being in her life.
Fast forward two and a half years: I receive legal paperwork with motions stating I have been denying him visitations. My lawyer said that the best thing to do was to comply with the court. We hired a parenting coordinator to schedule the visits. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I was wrong. The first two visits definitely gave me clues: Saige was withdrawn, seemed overly hungry and sleepy. I dismissed it as an adjustment period, but I should have listened to my gut.
My sweet baby girl was unconscious before we reached the doors. I didn’t think to take her out, just grabbed the whole car seat, lifted it into the air like it was a feather. Fueled by adrenaline and mama bear power, I screamed as I ran her through the ER doors. “Help! Someone help my baby!”
I thank God every day for the hospital staff that pumped fluids and nutrients into her body, got her temperature down and revived her. An ultrasound revealed that her stomach was completely empty. After hours of care, she was alert enough to tell her nurse that her daddy never feeds her when she’s with him. Ever. Even when she cries and says her stomach hurts. She said her daddy made her walk with the grownups in the sun, even when she said her legs were tired. No water. “You didn’t earn it,” he said when she asked.
Saige began revealing the horror she went through on her weekends with her father. He called her names, hit her with whatever was lying around. Held her head underwater in the tub until she coughed and vomited, telling her, “I could kill you if I wanted to.”
My brave three-year-old told them that. She was no longer afraid.
The hospital staff called the Department of Children Services. Saige told them everything she told the hospital staff. A protective order was put in place and upheld in the court, despite my ex-husband’s denial. My baby girl was safe from her father and his abuse. Still, a dark cloud of guilt and shame hovered over me for years. How could I miss the signs of abuse? Why didn’t Saige tell me? What kind of mother was I not to save her sooner?
I reassure myself daily that I didn’t know what I was looking for. I’m in a support group for parents of abused children and I’ve learned so much. In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, I want to share some warning signs of abuse, in hopes that we can save children like my Saige.
Children suffering from neglect may:
- Seem overly hungry often
- Have poor growth or weight gain
- Steal or hide food
- Have visible dirt on their body
- Have severe body odor/poor hygiene
- Have dirty, tattered or ill-fitted clothes
- Lack of appropriate clothing for the season changes (no warm clothes in the winter, wear sweaters or sweatshirts in the summer)
- Have illnesses or injuries that go untreated
Children suffering from sexual abuse may:
- Have difficulty walking or sitting some days (may be sporadic)
- Obsess over genital area (constantly touching or talking about it)
- Engage in inappropriate role-playing
- Have a premature understanding of sex
- Have frequent urine accidents, past the age of potty-training
- Avoid removing clothes in front of parents to change or bathe
Children suffering from physical abuse may have:
- Visible bruises, marks or burns
- Unexplained injuries
- Injuries that do not match the explanation
- Marks or injuries appearing in time patterns (every other weekend, certain days of the week)
Children suffering from emotional abuse may have:
- Delayed or inappropriate emotional development
- Little self-confidence, low self-esteem
- Socially withdrawn
- Loss of previously acquired developmental skills
- Bursts of sadness or anger, seemingly unprovoked
Children suffering from any type of abuse may:
- Be withdrawn, fearful or have extreme behavior
- Miss school or child care frequently
- Seem “on edge,” as though preparing for something bad to happen
- Appear overly concerned for siblings
- Desperately seek affection
- Have sudden difficulties in school
- Express fear about going home
- Startle easily
- Have illnesses or injuries that go untreated
- Resume behaviors they have outgrown, such as thumb-sucking
- Have nightmares or fear of being alone at night
- Have excessive worry or fearfulness
Abusers may be parents or caretakers who:
- Show little concern for the child
- Appear unable to recognize the physical or emotional distress of the child
- Blame the child for the problems
- Consistently belittle the child
- Expect the child to provide them with attention and care
- Seem jealous of other adults who get attention from the child
- Use harsh physical discipline
- Severely limit the child’s contact with others
- Offer conflicting or unconvincing explanation for a child’s injuries or none at all
When Saige revealed that she was being abused, the hospital staff remained calm. She confided in them because they made her feel comfortable. They let her know that she wasn’t to blame, listened earnestly and responded conversationally.
If you suspect a child is being abused, please call Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (800-422-4453). If you are in Indiana, you may call the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556, available 24 hours, 7 days a week. Trust your gut instinct; you may be saving a child like Saige.