Navigating the Justice System, Part One: Alone at 9 Years Old

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on January 18, 2014.

Trigger warning: discussion of child maltreatment and its consequences.

If this is the first Feminist in Spite of Them post you have read, please consider reading this either before or after.

When I was about 9, my parents were investigated by Children’s Aid. Social workers came out to talk to us. They met with us and found out that my parents spanked as punishment — which made sense since my parents had posted “The 21 Rules of This House” next to the dining room table. They came back a few times and spoke to each of us children. My parents homeschooled and they questioned whether we were getting an adequate education and whether abuse would be identified easily enough without regular contact with other people. One day they came with police cars and two police men and took most of us to the police station and interviewed us on video. My parents left the youngest with friends and came to the police station too but we didn’t see them all day.

I don’t know what my siblings said in their interviews, but I had always been taught to be very honest so I answered all their questions honestly, which was hard because I had also been carefully taught to not divulge family business to strangers. The information I gave outlined clearly that we were spanked, when we disobeyed or showed a bad attitude, with an object that was somewhat anthropomorphised in our home: “the rod”. My parents also practiced time-outs like shutting children outside in the evening for several hours for not eating all their dinner. I trusted that my parents were acting appropriately, since that is what they told me when they did it, so I presented it as fair and reasonable, and did not see a reason to hide anything. They told me what abuse was and asked if I was abused. I responded that technically we were because of the punishment methods but it was not abuse because it was Biblical. We were sent home with our parents. They asked my parents to promise to not spank and they were very resistant.

A while later, we went to court. I went to court three separate times. As far as I can remember, I went to family court one day, and then later on I testified two days at a higher or different level of court across the hall.

I don’t really understand the reasoning that led to this situation, but I was interrogated in court by the prosecutor in family court as a reluctant witness to my own parents’ abuse.  I testified that I loved my parents and I wanted to be spanked when I disobeyed. I wasn’t quite sure about that but that was what my parents and their lawyer and all their friends told me to say. Please note that I was sent home with my parents after court and although I spent a few days away from my parents they were able to choose were I went, and they chose a family friend who reinforced my parents’ beliefs. At least two of my brothers may have also testified in that court. I believe that my parents and their lawyer offered us up to testify, but I am not sure. Part of the reason I believe that I was there by the choice of my parents is because we did not receive any kind of victim witness counselling or preparation, and I don’t think that my parents could have declined on my behalf if I was there as a victim of their actions. They should have not been allowed to decline in any case.

I may as well have been alone the whole time. My parents were absorbed in their case, their lawyer treated me as a pawn, and anyone else involved were concerned that my parents might be punished for their actions. I am unclear on the outcome of that case, but my mother tells me that the judge threw that case out but that children’s services tried again from a different angle and that was why there was another prosecutor and case across the hall.

In that court, I was more reluctant to answer questions, things had changed for the worse at home since the first court and I was far more unhappy. We weren’t being schooled anymore, there was another new baby on the way, and there was more yelling and beating instead of rational spankings. I was not happy at home anymore. My father was sitting only a few feet in front of where I sat in the stand, and frowned every time I spoke. I had gotten in trouble for some things I had said in the first court, and my parents were so incensed by what two of my brothers said in the first court that they somehow made sure they did not testify again. My answers were inconsistent so the judge decided to bring out the taped interview taken at the police station that I mentioned earlier.

I was very afraid of what would happen if my father saw that video I had made at the police station outlining his punishment methods, and I knew I had to go home with him.

I protested persistently, begging the judge to not play the video, but I couldn’t tell him why, with my dad sitting a few feet away. I was removed from the courtroom by the bailiff. He was this hugely intimidating man and I was really afraid of him, but he was actually really nice and expressed his outrage about the whole thing, even though I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. He took me to a small room with my mom and a friend of hers.

The judge showed the video to the courtroom, and the bailiff brought me back when it was done. The judge asked me what my story was, if I wanted to stick to my very inconsistent story of a loving family, or if I stood by the police interview that outlined what legally qualified as abuse, depending on interpretation. I didn’t know what to do and I was very traumatized by the experience, to the point that I cannot remember how it ended and I got out of there. I am not sure if the judge decided to discount my testimony or if he took the whole scene as evidence of abuse.

The truth is, I was abused. I was told what to think and how to think it. I was a somewhat compliant child, but I witnessed my other siblings rebel with terrible consequences. I was afraid of what was going to happen all the time, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe sometimes.

Being put into a situation where I had to defend the actions of my own parents created a claustrophobic conflict for me.

Even before court, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t treated well. I had to give up my own wishes all the time even when it wasn’t reasonable, I had to help take care of younger children, I had to bargain for my own education as a child under ten. Periodically my parents’ beliefs completely changed and most of my possessions would be disposed of because they didn’t comply with the new beliefs.  I walked around with suicide notes in my pocket. We had to ride around in a big van with no windows and couldn’t see out, so I always thought we were going to die, and I was ok with that at 9 years old. Life was too hard and too long, and there was nothing good.

After court was over and my parents packed us out and secretly moved us to another province, everything got much worse. By moving away from the child protection case they moved away from all consequences and started over again in a more conservative church and a more isolated property. I blamed myself for not somehow making sure we got sent to foster care during the court episode, and I spent my pre-adolescent years as a self-harming desperate little adult in a child’s body.

For more reading on my parents’ beliefs, please click here.

There is an outrageous lack of support for children who are put in the position of navigating the justice system, and there is not a great deal of information on the consequences for the children. If you would like to add to the conversation in any way I welcome your comments.

Part Two >

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