Since the beginning of February, I’ve been volunteering at the government home for abused and neglected children here in Arica. I keep meaning to write a blog about a typical day working there, but I haven’t worked up the emotional fortitude to do so yet. Given that today was an exceptionally hard day, I guess I’m using our blog as therapy. To be fair, before I talk about today, I’ll share a little bit about the home, in general.
On any given day, there are about forty children ranging in age from a week old to seven years old—though most of the children are between one and four. They are divided into three age groups: babies, toddlers and preschoolers. There are a couple of ladies that care for the babies, but only one each for the two older age groups. I spend my time playing with the toddlers and preschoolers. I hug them, hold them, tell them stories, play with them and do everything I can in 3.5 hours to show them that they matter to someone. I also change diapers, help with baths and feed them.
The children live at the home for a variety of reasons: some have been removed from their homes by social services because of drugs or abuse; others are in the home because their primary caregiver is in prison; and others are there simply because no one in their family wants to care for them. That kind of trauma and rejection is so difficult for me (and probably you, as well) to comprehend. Their behavior makes it obvious that it’s also incredibly difficult for the children to comprehend. They bite, kick, poke, pinch, shove, spit, elbow, hit and pull hair. The first morning I went to volunteer, I came back home and took a three hour nap. It is that exhausting.
I can’t help myself, though, and I keep going back. Maybe it’s because of the smile that creeps its way onto the face of the little boy whose only typical interaction with an adult is when he’s fed, bathed or disciplined. He’s four and he only ever speaks one word: “Ma.” Here that’s actually not even a whole word. It’s half of the word for “mom.” A fragmented word for a little boy with a fragmented life. It’s heart-breaking.
Most of the children I work/play with have adjusted as well as possible to living in the home. They know how to get what they want from the other children and the adults they interact with. Many have given up on home and family and can fend for themselves. A few are overly-sensitive and clingy, but it’s difficult to be clingy when there’s not much to cling to. Some of the children cry and pitch fits, but that’s pretty normal for a morning at the home. I can’t say I’ve gotten used to it, but it isn’t surprising anymore. To say that what I witnessed this morning is surprising would be a misnomer because it’s exactly how I would expect someone to act given the situation. I guess the word “rattled” would be more appropriate because I left the home completely shaken.
There’s a new little boy at the home. He’s about two and he arrived in the middle of the night on Friday. The tía (caregiver) for his age group didn’t know why or how he ended up at the home. When I got there this morning he was crying and carrying on, but not in a away any different than how the other children do. I tried to comfort him, but he didn’t want anything to do with being comforted. Later on, I sang to him while I changed his diaper. It calmed him a little, but he was anxious to get away from me as soon as I was finished. Shortly after, he disappeared with one of the other tías.
When he came back for lunch, his mom and grandmother were with him—thus explaining why he disappeared. The home has visitation hours in the morning and in the afternoon and most of the time, the visits take place away from the other children. Another explanation is that they may have been in the midst of an evaluation by the psychologist-in-residence. Either way, his mom and grandma stayed with him while the tía fed him his lunch. After he ate, the three of them disappeared again.
He seems like a well-adjusted little boy. He speaks better than almost all of the other children, even though he’s two. With his mother close by, he ate well and chatted away—asking lots of questions about the not-so-cooperative child I was trying to feed. His mother seemed to care for him, but she was so young that I’m not sure she’s entirely sure how to do so.
Like every day, visitation hours end and are followed by baths and a nap (I leave for the day when all of the toddlers are in bed). Most of the kids that get visitors are used to being re-separated from mom or grandma. They cry a little, but normally just need to be held by another person for a few minutes to calm them down. It was painfully obvious that this little boy was not used to being separated from his mother. He cried. He screamed. He yelled. He threw himself on the ground. The tía gave him a bath, though I don’t know how, and I helped her dress him. She told me to put him in his crib for nap time, but I couldn’t make myself do it. He kept crying that he wanted his mother. He repeated “Me voy” over and over again. “I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’M LEAVING!” I tried to calm him, soothe him. I sang, I bounced, I paced, I spoke softly. Nothing worked. Finally, his thrashing and hitting got to be too much and I had no choice but to put him in the crib.
I struggled to fight back tears. I wanted to tell him that I know it’s not fair. I wanted to get on the floor and throw a tantrum just as big as his. I wanted to take him out of the crib and run home with him. I wanted to yell at his mother for whatever it was that happened that made his stay at the home necessary. But I didn’t. I left. Because that’s what I do at nap time.
I walked home with his screams still playing in my head, though the tears I had struggled to fight back earlier wouldn’t come. I got home, showered and waited for Blake to get back from running errands. The irony of having a loving husband who held me while I finally cried and a sweet dog who receives more affection from her “parents” in a day than most of those kids will receive in a lifetime is not lost on me.
It isn’t fair.