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'Why I had to turn my abusive son in to police'

What happens when parents are the victims, not the perpetrators?

We hear a lot about child abuse, but rarely about parents who are the victims at the hands of their kids. Lara Sierra meets a mother who has been physically assaulted by her son, but has plucked up the courage to report him to the police and share her story about what led her to go against the grain, overcome the embarrassment and shame and turn him in – in the belief that continuing to protect him would only cause more harm.

On reaching the top of a dark, concrete stairwell, a door opens and a huge dog jumps forward, barking with its hackles up. She holds his collar and eyes me wearily.

Inside the apartment, the dog settles and pads over to the sofa, still watching us carefully. In this dramatic opening scene, I expect her to look battered and bruised, emotionally beaten and withdrawn. But she does not fit the profile. She is polite, eloquent and well-dressed. She does not look like a victim of abuse. They rarely do.

“I have two sons,” Audrey* begins, once we are sat at the table. “They are 23 and 19, from two different fathers. I was a single mother with my first son, Sam*, and felt a lot of shame from falling pregnant unmarried. Three years later, I got married. There are five years between my firstborn and my younger son, Chris*.

Audrey speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, briskly listing the information, with her notes placed in front of her. In any other interview, I would introduce a bit of small talk to help her relax, but then I remember why we are here. I look at the dog still watching me from the sofa.

“We were a happy family to begin with, and Sam was happy to have a brother. But things started to go wrong in the marriage. When the children were only three and eight, I decided I wanted to separate. My husband took this badly and he started to become violent. I had to leave the matrimonial home immediately. I moved home with my family and spent the next two years in and out of court because of the domestic violence I had suffered.”

And the children? “They were young and they didn’t really understand, but it was very hard on the kids because they were exposed to all the violence and harsh words. It was a horrible time in their lives. For Sam, it was harder because this man wasn’t even his father.

“I was working full time as I had been left with nothing. After two years, I saved enough money, finally, to buy a house for myself and the boys.

We moved close to a football ground, which was great for them and I had the full support of my family throughout.

“I tried to do everything I could to raise them in the right way, but unfortunately, Chris’s father continued harassing us during this time. He would find out where we were and come to the kid’s football club, for example, to call me names. He would harass me in front of my friends. He had moved on, yes, but he was still very bitter that I had wanted to separate.”

The father had access to Chris three times a week and would make Audrey’s life difficult, cancelling or changing plans at the last minute, which would spoil any plans she had made with Sam.

“Sam got on OK; he did well academically even when they changed school and he never gave me much trouble. But from the age of around 12, Chris had problems at school; he was always causing trouble, always being called in by the headmaster for disrupting the teachers and the other kids.

“His father was probably saying things about me and my family to him, telling him things about why I wanted to separate, but I always tried to give the children a happy home,” Audrey insists.

One time, when Chris was 13, I was told he had brought a flick knife onto the school bus. When I questioned him, he said there was bullying on the bus and that he was just trying to protect himself. He was just coming up with excuses. I explained to him that these were things a child wouldn’t normally do; I told him that if he felt threatened, he needed to come and talk to me or his teachers. You don’t use violence!”

Aged around 16, he became even worse, Audrey recalls. “I tried to encourage him as I encouraged his brother; I raised them both in the same way, never favouring one over the other.

“At parents’ days, teachers would always tell me he’s really intelligent, but just doesn’t care. He was always lying, never handing in homework even though I always asked if he had any.

His father and I would go separately to parents’ days, so we never communicated about his bad behaviour except when I told him.

It had been agreed with the school that the headmaster would call both his father and I separately when anything happened.

“Sam would try and talk to him, telling him he’d end up in trouble if he kept doing this. He started having contact with his own father from the age of 14, but he lived overseas, so they were never that close, although he did take an interest in him and helped him financially.”

Audrey’s younger son also got help from his father, although it was more in the form of spoiling him with the latest gadgets, laptops and phones. Whatever he wanted, he gave him.

“I assume he did it to get Chris on his side, but it didn’t work; I tried telling him it was not what Chris needed and that he needed a father figure, but he persisted,” Audrey continues.

It was when he was 15 that Chris was diagnosed with anger management problems. I would go with him to his sessions with the child psychologist. He was put on medication, but only took it for three months and then refused. He said that he was OK; that he was normal. I didn’t want to force him, and the psychologist agreed with me.

“I was hoping that being involved in sports would help with his anger; he would sometimes go to the gym or play football, but he was never that focused or determined.

Chris’s behaviour continued to worsen. At around 16, he attacked his brother with a knife. They were having an argument, they became aggressive and suddenly Chris went for a knife. Between us, we managed to hold him down and I called the police. I don’t know if he had ever witnessed a knife being used other than in films, so I don’t know why he did it…

“The behaviour just kept getting worse. He always defied my rules. I was not a strict mother. In fact, I was very lenient and always wanted to be a mother and a friend and try to be understanding,” she admits.

“Raising children is a constant challenge as we are always judged by our kids no matter how hard we try.” Audrey started to hear that Chris was going to Paceville, and when she told him he was too young, he’d say it was OK because he knew someone at the door. She would hear that he’d end up in a fist fight and he’d throw it back in her face, saying: “Well, I’m just like my father.”

She says she always tried to teach him that these things aren’t normal and that he can’t behave like that. Sam, in the meantime, graduated from university and now lives abroad… But Chris failed his O levels, except for a couple, and said he wanted to quit school. Audrey was encouraging, suggesting he got a job if he didn’t want to continue studying, and saying it was a good way to meet people and learn about business.

Through a friend, he got a job at a coffee shop and, to begin with, he was very proud of himself. The supervisor was very happy and praised him. But, unfortunately, he messed up as he was always late for his shift, so after the third warning, his employment was terminated. He was also retaking his O levels, but again, he didn’t get the grades.

“This was a year-and-a-half ago. At around this time, I decided to sell my house, which took a long time, and as you can see, our new place is still a building site. We’ve only been living here a few weeks and we lived in rental properties during the moving process. The last place was in Sliema, which only had two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette and a shower. But it served its purpose.

“Chris still didn’t want to work or study, no matter how much I encouraged him by finding jobs through friends, or finding courses for him to follow. He just wouldn’t listen to me. He shut everyone out of his life, his friends, his family and even his dad for a while. His father used to think it was my fault and that I was influencing him, but that was not the case at all. He offered Chris work at his own company, but he refused, saying he wanted to be independent.”

When he turned 18, a year ago, Chris wanted to throw a huge party unsupervised at a big empty house.

His father and I both said no, and that a party needs supervision. We were worried about alcohol, drugs and bullying. And that’s when it got really bad. He really took it against us that we wouldn’t let him throw this party.

“Ever since, he completely ignored me; he acted like I didn’t exist and only spoke to me when he wanted money. I continued giving him pocket money until I spoke to the child psychologist who said I’ve got to be cruel to be kind, so I stopped.

“Next, about six months ago, he started wanting to drive my car even though he had no licence. He said he wanted to go for a drive in the middle of the night, and I don’t think it was to see friends. It didn’t seem like he was communicating with his friends and I believe he was very isolated. His life was about vegging on the sofa, maybe taking the dog out, going for a jog, or a swim, but not communicating with anybody.

“I noticed he was watching videos of motivational speakers and then I realised they were about different religions, Judaism, Buddhism… As a parent, you would worry…

“He started raising his hands to me when I kept refusing to let him use the car without a licence. I started sleeping in my car a few streets away to stop him from using it. I was pushed, slapped and thrown to the floor by him. I was grabbed by the neck and had a lighter flicked in my face.”

Audrey reported him to the police, who gave him a warning; they told him off for hitting her and for trying to steal her car. His mother offered to pay for his driving lessons so that she could then legally let him take her car, but he refused.

“I continued trying to encourage him, leaving letters for him to read and little notes, but they were all ignored… except for when he needed money. But then he was stealing money from my wallet anyway, and I tried to keep as little on me as possible.

“I started telling him that we would soon be moving to our new place so that he had something to look forward to.

I tried to get him enthusiastic about it, asking him to look at furnishings with me, but he was totally disinterested.

“My closest friends and family knew that he was raising his hands to me.

I told his father, but at this point, Chris was completely refusing to see him.

I allowed his father into the home a few times to see him, but Chris would physically throw him out of the door, give me a couple of punches, push me against the wall and say: ‘I told you I don’t want to see my father!’

“I had his cousins and uncles asking to see him, but nothing came out of it, and I even communicated with some of his closest friends, who messaged him in vain.”

Audrey says she also offered to pay for him to go to therapy and explained that she had been to therapy herself, but he made fun of her and told her she was crazy and that she was the one who needed therapy.

“He called me a bitch, the worst mother in the world and said he wished I was dead. My father died 10 years ago, and he would throw this in my face too. These were the types of words that came out of his mouth when I was just trying to encourage him to get back on his feet.

“I would tell him that he was only 18 and that these were meant to be the best years of his life. I wanted to make him realise that he was wasting his time.

“As a child, he had always been very popular among his friends and cousins and he was quite a leader. There were always kids in our house; my friends used to joke that it was like a club. They’d be playing games, PlayStation, and having sleepovers. I never said no to anything unless I strongly disagreed with it, and then I would always try to give them reasons why I disagreed,” Audrey points out.

It was on approaching his 18th birthday that Chris just decided to shut absolutely everybody out. Audrey tried asking if it was her, a friend, a girlfriend… She asked him every question possible, but he never communicated why he was doing this to them and to himself. She found she was covering up a lot for his behaviour.

“Then, one Friday in July, I came home from watching the World Cup with my friends at 11.30pm. I went into my room, he came in, took some money from my wallet, walked out and I locked the door.

“While living in Sliema, we had an interconnecting door and I always lived in fear that he would attack me, which he would often do when I wouldn’t give him my car key. He would wake me up, disregarding the fact that I had to work the next day, then bash, bully, or threaten me when I refused to give him the key.

“But in our new place, I could finally lock the door. On that Friday, he knocked at the door and I opened it.

He said: ‘I want your car key.’ I told him: ‘You know I will never give it to you. I have told you several times, get yourself driving lessons and then you can legally have my car.’

“He started saying that I was an idiot and that I had no idea how many times he’d taken my car in the middle of the night. My heart was racing.

He started pushing me, shoving me, pulling my hair. Then he got a lighter and started flicking it in my face and tried to set fire to my curtains.”

Was he sober? “Yes, he’d just been around the corner to get a kebab. He said he just wanted to go for a drive to eat his kebab with a view. I told him there’s a beautiful view of Mdina just around the corner that he could walk to.

“He started gagging me with his hands around my neck; then he flicked the lighter onto my chest and burnt me. I was crying and I just didn’t know what to do.

“I kept trying to move away from him, going around the bed. He was throwing stuff out of the cupboards and then he left the room and I locked the door. He said: ‘I can beat the door down whenever I want to come in.’ But fortunately, he didn’t try. I heard him watching TV throughout the night. I could barely close my eyes.

“In the morning, I heard him making breakfast and playing with the dog, so I had a quick shower in the bathroom connected to my room. Next, I could hear peace and quiet, so I poked my head, saw his key on the table and saw that he was closed off in his room.

“I grabbed a bag and sneaked out to a friend’s house, who I had been texting throughout the night. She had insisted that I go straight to her house. I told her I couldn’t keep living like this. I am threatened in my own home, sleeping in my car, or locking myself in my room. I just keep protecting him, but that time, he burnt me with a lighter; tomorrow he could use a knife, or worse.”

Audrey’s friend agreed that going to the police was the wisest thing she could do. Once there, the police said that if a child burns his own mother then they had to take action.

“I told them they needed to get him professional help. After being sent to the polyclinic for a medical certificate, I waited with my friend and they called me as soon as they were on their way to arrest him. I waited outside the building and we went in together, four policemen and I.” Chris was sitting on the sofa watching the England match. He said to his mother: ‘What’s this?’ She didn’t say anything. One of the policemen said: ‘Chris, get dressed; you’re coming with us.’

Audrey’s emotions finally get the better of her and her voice breaks into sobs. “Seeing my own son being led away by the police was the last thing I ever imagined. He just got dressed and walked out with them.

“Two hours later, I got a call from the police station asking me to bring him a bag as he was being sent to the lock-up that evening. He would be arraigned in court the next morning. The next day, I went to the police station and they informed me that he would be taken to the juvenile rehabilitation centre.

“I told them I didn’t want him out on bail, whatever happens; he needed to stay in a rehabilitation centre and receive professional help. As a threatened mother, I cannot have him in my own home and professional help is what is best for him right now.”

Audrey pauses again. “At the moment, he is refusing to see either myself or his father. They have said it is a form of anger that he is currently going through. I can go and deposit some things, food and clothes and so on, but I cannot see him.”

She sighs before beginning again.

“I want to share my story because I know a lot of parents go through this abuse from their children, physically or verbally. As much as we love our kids and want to protect them, doing nothing can be doing more harm than good.

“I kept on protecting him, thinking things would get better, but instead they just got worse. Chris was refusing help and it could have resulted in worse behaviour such as drink, drugs, or other forms of violence. I know I did the best thing for him and I do not feel ashamed.

“We hear a lot about child abuse, but parent abuse is very much unheard of. It is very hard for parents to give their children up to the authorities as they are too embarrassed or ashamed. They think that by not doing so, they are protecting their kids.

“Yet it can get to a point when even the kids know that their parents are no longer able to help them… The only solution then is to seek outside help.

It’s not about shame; it’s about seeking what is best to help our kids. We as parents need to help our children; not protect them even when they are breaking the law.”

Audrey takes another deep breath.

“I never wanted to see my son behind bars. But by doing this, I believe I am giving him a second chance to be accepted back into society. I don’t feel ashamed. It just hurts… especially now that I know he does not want to talk to me. But I do feel that with all the professional help he receives, he will come out a better person.”

The police requested Audrey’s evidence in court and she has had to appear as a witness in the case against her own son. It wasn’t the easiest of experiences.

“Entering the law courts, my legs were shaking. I had a friend with me, who was there to support me. We waited for quite some time and every minute seemed like an hour. I felt like I was in a trance, thinking this was just a bad dream. Knowing that soon I was going to see my son appearing in court accompanied by the police made me feel weak and sick…

“My son walked into the courtroom looking smart in a suit and very composed, unlike me, as I burst into a cry and my body was shaking all over. I had to give my evidence about the night my son threatened me, hit me, gagged me and burnt me. I had to hold on to the stand while giving evidence… Tears were rolling down my face and my voice cracked with that feeling of knowing that what I was doing was for the love of my son…”

The dog comes back, anxiously standing between us. He really is a large dog and he is in a highly protective state. I consider myself to be a dog person, but this one is making me nervous. I tentatively reach my hand out to stroke him. Audrey looks at him, sadly.

“I got this dog five years ago. It was because Chris really wanted one. Even though I didn’t have the time or money to look after it, I agreed, and his father helped to finance it. I really thought it would help, having an animal to look after, who respects him and looks up to him. I thought having that responsibility may motivate him. I really did try my best.”

The dog turns to her, nuzzling into her leg. “Of course, I’ve made my mistakes,” she continues. “As parents, we always face these battles and challenges. I tried to give them the life they wanted despite being raised in a broken home. I made the sacrifices. I took on students in summer and winter so they could go on a school trip, or we could go on a family holiday.

“Next week, my eldest son is coming on holiday to Malta, in fact. This is the first time in a while that he will be staying with me.” The tears begin to fall once more. “Recently, he’s been staying elsewhere when he visits because he’s been worried about what may happen if he’s in the same house as his brother.”

Audrey does not cry when she discusses the beatings, the threats, or the burns that she has suffered, nor about the broken home, or violence she endured from her ex-husband. She cries only when she speaks about her children.

Without a doubt, she is risking a lot by telling this story. She risks judgement and exposure in a country where every face is recognisable. What’s more, she risks her son being vilified as a monster.

Audrey’s young son is incarcerated, merely days out of childhood, and our response to her story will define his portrayal to the outside world. So, for this reason, it is important to hold judgement.

His mother, through sharing her story, is giving us the opportunity to listen, so that we will not judge, but help. And in doing so, she will encourage others to come out from the shadow of their shame and begin to tell their stories too.

So, what are Audrey’s hopes for the future? “Chris is co-operating well at the rehabilitation centre,” she says with optimism. “Every day, I pray that he is making the best out of this rehab experience. I have some contacts who work closely with the unit and are keeping me informed of his progress… I have been calling every day, and I’m told they are giving him tasks to do. They even have sports facilities.

“I know his rehabilitation is going to take time and this won’t be a quick fix. This is not a short-term solution. Once Chris has come around, they can help him find a job. He is my son, and I am hopeful for him.”

*Names have been changed to protect the persons’ identities.

 

The Science: How Children Respond to Domestic Violence

[Extracted from a document by The Royal College of Psychiatrists, London]

“Younger children may become anxious. They may complain of tummy aches or start to wet their bed. They may find it difficult to sleep, have temper tantrums and start to behave as if they are much younger than they are. They may also find it difficult to separate from their abused parent when they start nursery or school.

Older children react differently. Boys seem to express their distress much more outwardly, for example, by becoming aggressive and disobedient. Sometimes, they start to use violence to try and solve problems and may copy the behaviour they see within the family. Older boys may play truant and start to use alcohol or drugs [both of which are a common way of trying to block out disturbing experiences and memories].

Girls are more likely to keep their distress inside. They may become withdrawn from other people and become anxious or depressed. They may think badly of themselves and complain

of vague physical symptoms. They are more likely to have an eating disorder, or to harm themselves by taking overdoses or cutting themselves. They are also more likely to choose an abusive partner themselves.

Children of any age can develop symptoms of what is called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. They may get nightmares, flashbacks, become very jumpy, and have headaches and physical pains.

Children dealing with domestic violence and abuse often do badly at school. Their frightening experiences at home make it difficult to concentrate in school, and if they are worried about their abused parent, they may refuse to go to school.”

 

Call Supportline 179 if you need help or advice on emotional or physical abuse, abuse over the internet or neglect.

This article first appeared in Pink magazine. Get your copy with The Sunday Times of Malta. 

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