Never Say Never

Will’s mom Jeanette holds a gun to his head every night before he goes to sleep. Jeanette has threatened to kill Will with a handgun, a kitchen knife and a screwdriver. Jeanette has beaten Will using electrical cord, a large tree branch, an old pipe and a hammer. Jeanette has kicked him, bitten him, punched him and strangled him. Every time Will fights back, Jeanette goes to the lock box and takes out the gun.

Jeanette is not only violent, she’s mentally ill. She puts elaborate curses on her children when they do something wrong. One of these curses involves a monthly dinner where she mixes all of the blood from her monthly flow with some spaghetti sauce and feeds it to her family over pasta. She says it’s meant to “cast the evil demons out of her children.”

Will saw the phone number to my agency in a Chicago phone book and asked me for help. As a crisis counselor for Cook County, it was my responsibility to go to the house and check everything out. I was greeted by Jeanette, who was smiling warmly. “Welcome to my home,” she said. “Of course, heaven is our one true home, but God has blessed me with an earthly home.”

After pleasantries, I got down to business. “Have you ever threatened Will with a gun?” I asked Jeanette.

She replied, “The Lord told me to buy a gun, so I did. I must put on the whole armor of God.”

It was at that moment Will entered the living room. He was a skinny, soft-spoken kid with eyes void of hope and clothes three sizes too big. As he passed the bright window area, I could see large, dark bruises all over his arms and legs. Earlier on the phone, Will had told me the bruises were from a wooden stool Jeanette had used to beat him the previous night.

“Jeanette,” I said hesitantly, “ I’m going to have to take Will out of the house and have you investigated for child abuse.”

Her eyes filled with hatred. “Get out of my house, you whore! Don’t think I won’t figure out where you and your family live. Nothing’s going to happen to me; I’ve already been reported for abuse 16 times!” She ended the explosion with a condescending laugh.

I put Will in a temporary foster home and called the DCFS abuse hotline to report Jeanette. The hotline worker told me that Jeanette had, indeed, already been reported for child abuse on 16 occasions.

The DCFS worker assigned to the case called me the next day. “Hey, I just wanted to let you know where I’m at in the investigation. To begin with, I went over to Will’s house yesterday and spoke with Jeanette. She seems like a really nice Christian lady. I also spoke with Will’s uncle and grandmother—both of whom seem to be very religious and suggest that Will just doesn’t want to follow the rules at home.”

“What about his bruises?” I asked.

She cleared her throat, “Well, the child protective investigator determined they were definitely caused by a large wooden object. But the bruises aren’t severe enough according to our scale. Right now, I’m going to file this case as unfounded. That means you can take Will home this afternoon.”

Once a DCFS investigation is unfounded, it’s against the law to continue harboring a minor. I took a crying, shaking Will back to Jeanette’s.

The next morning, I called to see how Will was doing. Jeanette answered the phone, “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” When she realized I was on the other line, she stopped rejoicing, threatened my life and slammed down the receiver.

But Jeanette was nothing new. A pattern had begun to emerge. I had spent a year working with Cook County youth, all severely abused by their parents. Yet virtually every family claimed to be devout followers of Christ. I wondered how any of these kids could ever come to a correct understanding of God, when their abusers so tightly wove biblical principals into a justification for abuse and unspeakable evils.

I met a father who burned his son with an iron to show him what hell would feel like, and a mother who shaved off her daughter’s long hair so she wouldn’t “tempt” others to sexual sin. I met hundreds of children who had been physically, emotionally, verbally and even sexually abused in the name of Christian love.

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Two weeks later, Jeanette was reported to DCFS for abuse again. I was asked to drive to the projects and pick Will up. I took my colleague Tom with me for safety.

Tom was a self-proclaimed atheist who loved to argue with me. As we drove through the streets of Chicago’s poorest neighborhood, Tom gestured to our surroundings. “What do you see right now?” he asked. All I could see were groups of gang members loitering on every corner, trading money and cat-calling females. He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Churches!” he spouted angrily. “I swear this place has more churches than anywhere else in Chicago. It also has more violence and evil than any place in Chicago. 50 Cent may be ‘in da club’ on Saturday nights, but I guarantee he’s ‘in da church’ on Sunday morning … giving props to His Lord and Savior for all his X and hoes.”

I laughed, but I knew there was truth to Tom’s words. Tom, who had been a social worker for years, was tired of it all. “Now do you understand why I want nothing to do with God?” he asked with an exhausted sigh.

I finally understood. I had no defense.

My mind began racing. I was thinking about what my life had been like the few years that I did not maintain constant contact with God. Without going to the source, I was unable to see the truth. I opened my mouth to speak, but Tom interrupted. “I see the ghetto as another piece of a big puzzle. Ever since the Crusades, Christians can’t seem to get it right. They should stop trying.”

Our conversation halted as we pulled up to Jeanette’s house. Will came out to the car. “Thanks for picking me up,” he said with genuine gratitude. “I’m guessing this investigation will be the same old thing … but thanks anyway.”

Tom shook his head in disagreement. “Man, just because we haven’t had any success in the past doesn’t mean we can’t get it right one of these times. The last investigation, too many people were giving a distorted version of the truth. The investigators were talking to your mom, your classmates, your relatives … everyone but you. It seemed like only a couple of the people involved actually came to you and asked you to tell your story—which is just insane to me. You’re the only one they should come to for information if they want the truth. Don’t give up hope, Will … the truth always wins.”

Although Tom’s comments were directed to the boy in the back seat, they had also inadvertently infused me with more hope than I had felt in ages. “Tom’s right, Will—we can’t stop trying,” I said aloud. And I truly meant it.

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