“Right, let’s get back to work. You can stop smiling now, fun time is over,” Sylvia said briskly when I rejoined her in the office, but her eyes were twinkling.
“Thank you so much, Sylvia. I really appreciate your support and your input,” I said once again.
“Don’t thank me so much. I had my own selfish reasons for wanting you to stay on. Couldn’t lose such a good worker now, could I?”
I laughed. “Whatever!”
“Ready for some work?” Sylvia started pulling out a blue file.
“Bring it on!” I said, sitting down in my chair, “I’m aalll for the work!”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve seen it. This is a tricky issue. It’s about Sandra.”
I sobered immediately at the mention of Sandra. I had had a few more sessions with her after my first one and each time I’d managed to chip away more of her defenses. The story was clear now. She was definitely going through trauma and abuse and we had to step on it. We needed to take action.
“What should we do about her?” I asked.
“Call CPU (child protection unit) at the police station first…”
We followed the plan Sylvia outlined. I was so angry with Sandra’s parents that I wanted to storm over there and give them a piece of my mind, then take Sandra away from that hellhole. Sylvia bluntly told me to trash that idea right away and clear my mind of any emotion.
“We don’t need emotions when dealing with delicate issues. It will mess everything up,” she told me, “and we definitely can’t approach her parents or family. That will mess things up even more. All we do is refer, Faz. The police and social workers will do the rest.”
I huffed, less than pleased by that, but grudgingly agreed. We first called the CPU who sent a team to assess the situation. Sandra cowered behind me when they arrived and flatly refused to go to the hospital for a medical assessment. The female officer spent around thirty minutes trying to convince her, to no avail. She wouldn’t even let the men come near her. Finally I had to step in.
“If you’ll can excuse me for a bit, I’d like to have a chat with Sandra.”
The woman looked at Sylvia who nodded at her. I took Sandra’s hand and led her to an empty classroom nearby.
“Sandra, darling, they just want the doctor to check you. That’s all. Then we’ll come back here.”
“I don’t want to go,” she whispered, drawing back.
“It’s just for a little while. Then you’ll come back, sweety.”
“No! I won’t go!” Sandra screamed suddenly. I dropped to my knees in front of her and grasped her shoulders gently.
“I’ll come with you. Okay?”
Sandra stared at me with fearful eyes but she was silent this time. Taking that as a positive I took her hand and led her back to the team.
“She’s agreed…providing I accompany her.”
The team exchanged glances with each other then agreed. Sandra clutched my hand tightly all the way there. She would not let go of me even when the doctor came out to take her in. She hid behind me, refusing to come out.
“Can I accompany her, doctor?” I asked, “it’s the only way she’ll come.”
The doctor looked at me curiously. “Who are you, Miss?”
“Sandra’s therapist,” I replied.
“Okay. You may come along.”
We followed him to a small private room. I stood next to her and held her hand while the doctor spoke to her. Luckily he had more success with her.
“I’m just going to check you, okay?” He said kindly, “I want to make sure you’re okay. If anything is hurting tell me and I will give you medicine for it. Okay?”
She nodded mutely.
The doctor started feeling his way gently around her body, starting with her arms, over her shoulders, and down her abdomen. When he reached her ribs she gasped and flinched.
“What is it, sweety? Is it hurting you?”
She gave a small nod.
“Can you show me where, please? I would like to see where it’s hurting.”
She pointed to her right side.
“Okay. Can I lift your dress so I can see it?”
Sandra looked at me, wide-eyed. I nodded reassuringly at her and she slowly stood up, lifted her dress to her waist then sat down again. Slowly she hitched up her dress and I bit my lip hard to stop the gasp that threatened to escape. A large bluish-purplish bruise marred her right side, just underneath the ribcage.
“What happened here, dear?” The doctor asked.
Sandra looked at me again and I nodded. “Tell us what happened, sweety.”
“M-my mum k-kicked me,” she whispered.
My eyes met the doctor’s, both pairs swirling with anger. I clenched my fists and willed myself to calm down.
The doctor checked the rest of her body but apart from a few scratches and knicks on her legs she was fine. The bruise was the worst of her injuries. The doctor fetched a balm and applied it on her bruise then led us out of there again. He held me back when we were walking out. “What happened?” He mouthed.
I couldn’t mouth back of course and I didn’t want Sandra to overhear me so I stepped back slightly so I was behind the doctor. “Abuse,” I murmured close to his ear.
A brief nod of his head indicated that he had heard me. I followed him back to the team where he handed over his report to them then we headed back to the school.
“Are you gonna pay a visit to her parents?” I asked the female officer.
“I think we may have to. The charges seem rather severe.”
“They definitely are!” I declared emphatically.
The police officers left after receiving their information and I spent the next hour with Sandra and Sylvia, congratulating her on cooperating so well. She was hating all this extra attention and I knew this wasn’t the end of it. We were still expecting a visit from the social workers.
The social worker, a middle aged woman named Rose arrived a couple of days later. We had the form ready to refer to her and I immediately went to fetch Sandra. As expected she eyed the visitor suspiciously then stuck to my side. Rose wanted to talk to her privately but she refused to let me leave the room so I sat with her while Rose questioned her gently. Rose was actually glad I was there by the end because so many times Sandra clamped up and refused to answer, only grudgingly replying when I coaxed her to.
“This is bad,” Rose murmured when she was done, “I definitely need to pay her parents a visit.”
“You definitely do,” I agreed. Her parents couldn’t get away with this kind of behaviour. I was only worried about Sandra. I hoped she didn’t get caught in it’s backlash. She didn’t deserve to suffer more than she already had.
We received updates both from the police station and Rose in the following weeks. To my intense relief things worked out really well for Sandra. Rose kept a close eye on Sandra and her family situation and when things didn’t improve she removed Sandra from that toxic household with the intention of placing her in foster care if no other family member was willing to take care of her. Despite being abused and traumatised Sandra didn’t want to leave her family, solely because that was the only place she had known her entire life, the only “home” to her. My heart broke when she cried to go home to her mummy again…even if her mummy was beating the hell out of her for opening her mouth and spilling the dirty family secrets to outsiders. I knew she couldn’t go back there…The problem was how to explain it to her.
“Keep praying, sweety. God will send you your guardian angel soon, very soon,” I kept telling her soothingly and prayed with all my heart that it would turn out to be true.
And it did. Two weeks later a middle aged woman walked through the school gates, demanding to see Sandra.
“I am her Aunt Madeleine,” she informed me primly, “her father’s sister. I would like to see her now, if you please.”
“She’s in class now, ma’am. Perhaps you can come back later?” I asked.
She shook her head emphatically. “Its urgent, Miss. Can I please see her now?”
“Okay,” I sighed, not sure if I was doing the right thing or if I should take her to Mr. Tobias first. She looked rather harried though so I decided to fetch Sandra and see if she knew her. “Please wait here a moment, ma’am, while I go fetch her,” I said politely.
“Sandra, do you know Aunt Madeleine?” I asked as I was walking back with her.
Sandra’s face lit up and she nodded. “She’s nice. She gives me ice cream and chocolates when I go to her house,” she said with a smile.
“That’s nice. She’s here to see you,” I said.
“Aunt Maddy is here? Where?” She ran off as soon as I pointed her in the right direction. I quickened my pace to catch up to her, only to halt abruptly as I caught sight of the scene before me; Madeleine had swung Sandra up into her arms and was hugging her tight, and Sandra was clinging to her just as tightly, her arms wound around her neck. Madeleine caught sight of me first and lowered Sandra back to the ground, though still holding onto her hand. Sandra had a wide smile on her face and I realised that this was the first time I had seen her smile, really smile, from deep inside her. Her eyes shone and her whole face was glowing. I knew then that this woman was someone special.
“Miss…?” I realised that Madeleine was talking to me. I switched my gaze to her face and stepped forward with a smile.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs…uhmmm…”
“Roberts,” she supplied, noticing my hesitation.
“Mrs. Roberts,” I shook her hand firmly.
“And you are, Miss…?”
“Fazila Bhayat. I’m her therapist.”
“She’s my friend,” Sandra put in, smiling at me shyly.
“Yes, I can see that,” Madeleine replied, looking from me to Sandra, “I’ve come to discuss some matters with you, Miss Bhayat. If we could speak in private?”
“No problem. Let me drop Sandra back to her class so she doesn’t miss out on anything, then I’ll call my superior. I’ll be right back.”
I dropped Sandra off with promises to fetch her as soon as class was over, then escorted Madeleine to Sylvia’s office. I offered her my chair and stood next to Sylvia on the opposite side.
“Miss Rousell. I have heard that you’ve removed Sandra from her family and are keeping her at another place…?” Madeleine paused and looked at us for clarification. We simply nodded and after a few moments she continued, “I am Sandra’s father’s sister. Naturally I am worried about her welfare. I would like to know what’s going on, please.”
“Miss Roberts, do you know what your niece has been through? I am just clarifying so I know where to start,” Sylvia replied.
“I have heard bits and pieces, from her parents of course. And they’re very angry, especially her mum so I don’t know how much to believe. Start from the beginning, please.”
So we did. We took turns explaining it all to her and by the end she was stunned into speechlessness.
“That’s…that’s…unbelievable!” She finally exclaimed, “I cannot believe it!”
“Unfortunately you have to believe it,” Sylvia replied, “Fazila here got the story directly from your niece. From the horse’s mouth so to speak. And even after the social worker started keeping an eye on them it did not decrease. Her mother just got more sneaky. We had a hard time getting Sandra to say anything after that, she had withdrawn so much into a shell. Luckily Fazila has won her trust and she got her to eventually confide in her again.”
“Do you want to know what her sweet mother did?” I butted in, “she wanted to punish Sandra for telling on her but didn’t want to leave marks on her. So she put hot chillies in her mouth and nose and forced her to swallow it…without giving her water or anything else to relieve the burn. Then she put her head underwater till Sandra felt like she was gonna drown. Then she would let her up again. She also locked her in the bathroom for twenty-four hours without food or water, and in the dark at night. Then she used the silent treatment on her and forced the rest of the family to do the same because she said she was a whore and therefore unfit for company. No one would sit by her, no one would talk to her…no one would even look at her. Mental torture…it almost broke her completely. Luckily we were able to get her out of that hellhole before she went beyond the point of no return. She told me she wanted to kill herself. Can you imagine, an eight year old actually entertaining thoughts of suicide???” I felt Sylvia’s hand squeeze my arm in a silent gesture and I took a deep, shuddering breath, willing back my tears. Madeleine seemed to be in a daze, her eyes wide in horror.
“My God!” She whispered after a while, “I had no idea…”
There was a few moments of silence as we all tried to compose ourselves. Then Madeleine surged to her feet.
“That bit*h!” She yelled, slamming her fist down on the table top, making us jump, “sorry for my language but I’m just so angry! Beatrice, Sandra’s mother is a spiteful old witch! She really wanted a boy after two girls and so did my brother, John. So when Sandra was born they were very disappointed. John said some cruel things to her. Told her she was a failure…that her body was too weak, not strong enough to carry a boy. He disappeared for weeks somewhere…refused to name the baby when he came back. All nonsense but his disappointment ran deep. And that made Beatrice bitter and she took it out on Sandra. It was Emily, Sandra’s oldest sister who named her. Beatrice used to address her as “the curse”…or “bit*h”. Eventually John did come around but Beatrice never got over it. Even when she got a boy three years later, then two more boys after that. Sandra just got pushed into the background then. Or used as a punching bag by her mother who was too used to taking out her anger on her. John tried to stop her after a while, realising that it wasn’t the child’s fault, but she wouldn’t listen. She would blame him and it would turn into a screaming match so eventually he gave up…” Madeleine paused for breath. “I told him, you know. I told John to let me adopt her. I don’t have kids of my own and I’d do anything to have a child. And here they had such a wonderful girl and they treated her like rubbish. But that witch wouldn’t listen. She refused to let anyone take HER child away. John told me to leave it but I tried to call her over whenever I could. I had a soft spot for her. She’s always been my favourite…” Madeleine sighed, “but by God, if I’d known that it was this bad I would have kidnapped her myself! But I had no idea…” she whispered the last part, looking anguished.
“Sorry to ask, Mrs. Roberts, but if she was so close to you how come she didn’t tell you what was going on?” I asked.
Madeleine held up her hands. “Call me Maddy, please. And the answer is, I don’t know. I did try to ask her a few times but she shrugged it off. Smiled at me sweetly and told me everything was fine. So I left it. I thought it wasn’t so bad otherwise she would have said something…”
I nodded. I knew how reserved Sandra was. She wouldn’t willingly open up to anyone.
“That’s why I’m so happy she had you, Fazila,” Madeleine looked at me, “I’m so glad you made her open up. At least now she’s out of there. And I can take her home finally.”
“You want to take her to your house?” Sylvia finally spoke up.
“Yes, of course. I’m her next of kin and she belongs with me. What time does her school end?”
Sylvia checked her watch. “In around two hours. Let’s complete the formalities so you can take her with you today. I’m sure she won’t object to that.”
“She definitely won’t!” Madeleine was beaming now.
We completed the necessary paperwork then watched an ecstatic Sandra leave with her aunt.
“Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah!” I whispered fervently.
One saved…hundreds more to go…
One step at a time…