Petula Dvorak: For Abused Children, Summer Is No Vacation

(Wendy Galietta - The Washington Post)
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By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I need another one of those freezer packs, to keep the peanut-free sandwiches cold in my children's lunch bags. The racing car backpack is nasty; my older son needs a new one. And name labels! I forgot that the little one is going to need them for all the jackets he's going to misplace in preschool.

Our family's back-to-school shopping list scrolled across my brain as I drove through Southeast Washington the other day, ready to watch the teachers at Anne Beers Elementary School roll through their back-to-school routine. The cinder block hallways smelled of lemon ammonia cleaner. Inside the classrooms, the teachers were stapling butcher paper to the walls, hanging alphabet chains above the chalkboards and moving desks around in a symphony of metal-on-tile screeches.

It was all so familiar and comforting until I followed the teachers to the cafeteria for a more chilling back-to-school ritual: a review of how to spot physical, sexual and mental abuse among their students.

"When you see that bruising, when the child flinches when anyone comes near him, don't bump it up to the principal. Make the report," Kinaya Sokoya, a licensed social worker who is now executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Children's Trust Fund, urged the teachers.

This is not the back-to-school I know. I think store sales, stiff new clothes, haircuts, immunization, the smell of paste and lunchboxes. Not child abuse.

But for some of our children, summer is a time when awful things happen to them -- when they go without meals, without baths, without supervised bedtimes. When schools are closed, the children's welts can heal before anyone notices. And only when they return to those shiny, linoleum-floored classrooms do they come across anyone who cares.

These kids "don't get summer vacation, a house at the beach. They don't go anywhere. They just sit in the house, being watched by the unemployed uncle who just got out of jail or the unsavory character who is around while school is out," said Jamila Larson, who spent five years as a social worker at a Southeast public school before she left last month, exhausted and emotionally drained, to run her own nonprofit agency that helps homeless children.

"They come back to school, and, finally, there is someone back in their lives who will listen to them," Larson said.

As disturbing as it was, what she and other social workers described to me made sense. When I was writing about Banita Jacks, the woman who killed her four daughters and was found living with their decaying bodies in the District last year, I looked at local trends in child abuse reporting. I was baffled by the consistent increase in child abuse reports in the fall months, sometimes by as much as 25 percent compared with the rest of the year.

"Oh, yeah, that's back to school," Mindy Good, the spokeswoman for the District's Child and Family Services Agency, told me.

In Montgomery County, social workers are so used to the onslaught that they take their vacations before Labor Day so they're all there for the rush.

"Oh, we see a big bump every year," said Agnes Leshner, director of Child Welfare Services for Montgomery. The calls to the child abuse hotline went up 56 percent in the fall last year, compared with the summer months, Leshner said.


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