"He may be an felon with a history of murder," I said to the judge, "but that doesn't automatically mean he abused this child.
The names and details in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
"How did you meet him?", I asked.
"Between classes," she answered. "I was sitting outside. He walked right over to me and started talking. Said he was he was thinking about signing up for the summer. Asked for my phone number."
She positioned the infant boy in her lap more comfortably. Her seven year old daughter played quietly with the dolls on the floor, but I could tell she was listening. They almost always do.
"Things moved quickly in a year," I suggested, nodding toward her baby.
She nodded. "We fell in love really fast."
Her daughter used a Ken doll to smack a Barbie doll.
"When did he move in with you?"
"Right away," she said.
"How was it, at first?"
"Oh, it was great! It still is..."
Ken was kicking Barbie now.
Brandi, the mother I was speaking to, spoke sharply to her daughter. "Stop that! You going to break up her toys!"
I distracted her with another quick question. "Brandi, how does your family feel about your boyfriend?"
"They don't like him," she answered dryly.
"Was this before or after the allegations?"
"Before," she said, frowning. "They're mad at him because I flunked out in the fall. They blame him, but it's not really his fault. I was just depressed and confused... I didn't really expect to get pregnant again."
Ken whacked Barbie across the face.
"Ms. Kit, he didn't do what people said."
She turned to her daughter and said, "It was the babysitter, wasn't it, Sherry?"
"I don't remember," the child answered.
She threw Ken and Barbie to floor, stood up and snuggled next to her mother. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and stared at me.
Brandi smiled and rewarded her daughter with a hug.
This must have been my third interview with this family. I'd met with mother and child both separately and together. The one good thing was that Sherry had been very consistent in answering another the question to police, the emergency room staff, and me, "Has anyone ever touched your vagina or private area," and she'd say "No, I'd tell on someone if they did that!"
Brandi, the mother, had also shared her extensive history of being harshly disciplined and getting occasional severe beatings by her own mother, which she generally did not perceive as abusive, although those events described otherwise.
The police believed that her live-in boyfriend, Karl, and severely beaten seven year old Brandi with a belt. The doctor who examined her thought she had been whipped naked. Supporting photos showed numerous welts and lacerations around the child's private area and buttocks. To study the photos, one might speculate that whoever did the deed hated females. For whatever stupid azz or complicated legal reason, this man was still living with Brandi, Sherry, and his new baby.
I bit the bullet. Therapy was going nowhere.
I said, "I need to meet with Karl."
I didn't have to do this. Karl had been court-ordered to see his own therapist. From the court's point of view, Sherry's father wasn't even the picture since he was verified to have been at work when the abuse occurred, although he was involved in Sherry's life.
Brandi looked surprised. "You want to meet him?"
"Yeah, tomorrow. Sherry's daddy too, separately, as soon as possible. It's part of what we do."
Not quite a lie, it was a stretch of the truth. She bought it.
Karl looked like he might be crazy. He tried to talk a good game to prove otherwise.
"I did not beat Sherry," he said with conviction. "I love her like I would if she were my own daughter."
"That's admirable," I said. "Tell me more."
Karl grinned. "I went to jail for that little girl," he said. "She knows that. They both do."
"What do you mean?"
"I could have skipped out and they'd never find me, but I know I didn't do nothing. They had no proof; that's how I got released so fast. It was that babysitter. Bitch is lying. I picked up Sherry and didn't know she had been beat so bad 'cause she didn't say nothin' to me. Brandi found the marks when she gave her a bath that night."
"How did she act when she saw them?"
"She cried! I told her the babysitter or some nigga in that house had to have done this."
"Then what happened?"
"Brandi called that lying bitch. They're sorta friends. She didn't know what to believe."
"Why didn't she call the police right away?"
"She didn't want them thinking I did it."
"Why would they think that?," I asked.
I knew why. I just wanted to hear him say it.
"'Cause of them murda charges."
Karl, who was not even 30, had been locked up twice on two separate murder charges. Each time he was released in less than three years. This is why I hate laws that lock up non-violent, petty offenders for long periods of time. The deadly serious criminals get out of jail so much faster, or at least they did less than ten years ago. Probably still do, depending on the state, judge, and attorney.
"Tell me again who called the police?"
"Sherry's daddy's grandma," he replied. "I told her not to take that kid over there for the weekend. She didn't think Grandma would give her bath and even told her that Sharon had just had one."
He shook his head in disgust.
I said, "So she was clearly upset. How did Sherry's father react?"
Karl smiled a big smile like the cat who swallowed the canary.
"I explained the situation to him," he said. "We a'ight. He don't cause me no problems."
This almost gave me a chill. I imagined that the kid's father was terrified of his baby's mama's killa boyfriend.
"Do you think that maybe, just maybe, Brandi did it? Perhaps the night be she took Brandi to the sitter's?"
I could see his mind ticking at this possibility, not because it was a likely possibility, but because if backed into a corner, he could blame her. He's shrewd though, and had learned to not complicate already complicated situations.
"It crossed my mind once," he said, "but no, I think it was the sitter or someone in that house..."
"Karl, can you see me again tomorrow? We're running out of time. And by the way, I'd like permission to speak with your therapist."
Sherry's father was sweating bullets before he even sat down on my couch.
"Is it too hot in here for you?", I asked.
"No," he answered. "I'm okay."
"Good," I replied. "What would you like to tell me that could be useful in helping your daughter?"
He sighed and shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "She acts like she don't remembah nothin'."
"Do you think it's just an act?"
His eyes got big. "I didn't say that."
The man was scared as shit.
"Who do you think did it?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
"Do you think the babysitter or your own mother did it?"
"My mother? No way. She's never spanked any of us. And the babysitter? I know her. I really doubt it."
"A lot of people live in the sitter's home. What about any of them?"
"Do you have reason to think Brandi or Karl did it?"
He dabbed the perspiration on his forehead and looked around the room as though looking for an escape.
Karl's therapist finally returned my call.
"What do think?", I asked.
"I think he's capable of it, given his history," he said, "but he covers himself well."
"How did he get out of jail so soon from those murder charges?"
"They happened in two different states, so one jurisdiction didn't know about the other. Gangstas killing gangstas, neither first degree murders and elements of self-defense. He got lucky on sentencing."
"He ever talk about domestic violence?"
"No, he makes a point of not talking about anything except he thinks the babysitter did it."
Karl looked utterly comfortable on my couch. He was playing the roles of innocent bystander and being my friend, to help me figure out this mess. Sociopaths - people without a conscience - do this sort of thing all the time.
"No kid is perfect," I said casually, "and Sherry is no different. I can see that."
"Yeah, you got that right!"
I nodded. "Kids need discipline," I said. "In the past, who spanked her when she was bad?"
"We all did," he answered too quickly. Then he added, "but not that hard."
He began talking faster to clean up a possible mistake. "Just a light tap on her rear. That's all. Me 'n Brandi were both abused children. We don't want to put our kids through that."
"Brandi told me about her childhood abuse," I said. "Where'd you grow up?"
"Incredible place," I replied. "How many brothers and sisters you got?"
"There's ten of us..."
Chances are, Karl was lost in that crowd.
"Your mama raise you?"
"Yeah, all of us."
I nodded. "Karl, if you don't mind, I'd like to draw a genogram. I can keep track of who you're talking about. What's your mama's first name?"
A genogram is like a family tree. He told me all of their first names as I drew squares for the males and circles for the females... brothers, sisters, mother, fathers. Lots of fathers... eight of those ten kids, all taken care of by one woman who lived in poverty.
This suggested that his mother may have had a mental problem or a low IQ or both. Women like this are sitting ducks for exploitation.
Perhaps without realizing it, as Karl spoke further, he confirmed he was raised by a woman with a bunch of problems. This means he missed out on a normal childhood. He grew up in one of toughest sections of Northwest DC before it got gentrified. Even cops didn't go in his 'hood except in pairs. The slumlords who lived fat in Maryland and Virginia had allowed those tenements fall into utter disrepair for decades. Crime festered. When crack hit DC around 1986, a lot of souls were lost - including the souls of neighborhoods that became host to transient populations where folks became more hesitant in looking out for one another.
Karl loved talking about his childhood. He rightly saw himself as a survivor.
"How'd your mother keep all of you line?", I asked. "All those kids must have been hard on her nerves."
"She'd beat our asses," he said proudly. "Most of the time though, we weren't in house, at least not the boys. I lived in the street. The street raised me."
"That sounds hard, at least some of the time."
Out of the blue, he revealed a secret.
"The worst time," he said, "was when I got raped. I was 14 and thought I knew everything."
He shared how it occurred. Alcohol and PCP were involved, and he was literally too out of it to fight off his assailant, an adult dealer who coaxed him with drugs to rape him.
"I'm surprised you're telling me this," I said sincerely.
"Men don't like to talk about it, but it happens."
What was missing was any sadness in his voice. No shame, no embarrassment. It was odd. At the same time, I didn't think he was lying.
"Did you ever tell anyone? Your mother or the police?"
"Shit. No way. It be too embarrassing. Niggas be trying to punk me after that."
"What happened to the man who did that to you?"
He shrugged. "I let it go."
"Did you ever get therapy for this?"
"Have you ever been diagnosed with depression or anything else?"
"A doc in jail said I was bipolar."
"Are you on meds?"
"No. Hate 'em."
I'd have to chew on this information before pursuing it further.
"Karl, how did this affect you, being raped?"
"I don't take take shit from nobody," he said. "I'll kill a mothafucka who crosses me. You already know that."
"You ever beat Brandi? Or other women?"
"I'd never touch Brandi," he said. "I did beat a girlfriend before that."
In my mind, I debated giving him a point for revealing this. Brandi had already told me he'd beaten a past girlfriend. I no longer recall why, but remember thinking it was a warning sign she ignored when first dating him. I could also picture him grilling her for every single thing she said to me in our meetings.
Now I asked him, "Why?"
He shrugged. "I don't wanna talk about it."
"Fair enough. With your mood swings and history of violence, however, I think meds might not be a bad idea. They have new ones that you might like better. Has your therapist ever mentioned this to you?"
"I don't talk to him or tell him anything personal like I've told you. He's an asshole, just passing time to pick up a check."
"Will you consider meds if I recommend a doctor for you to see?"
That evening, I wondered if he were truly Bipolar, of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or both. He had, after all, been raised in a war zone.
Brandi's spacious apartment was clean and sparsely furnished. She showed it off proudly.
"This is real nice," I said. "The rooms are huge. I wouldn't mind living here myself."
At the time, this was true. I love apartment living. Her development was beautifully landscaped and located in a pretty, multicultural suburban neighborhood with excellent schools, and a block away from the bus stop.
I bent down to her daughter Sherry. "Can I see your room?", I asked.
She grabbed my hand and escorted me to her toy-filled bedroom. Pink curtains and bedspread in a princess theme made it look very girly. She had a bunch of Barbie and Ken dolls too. Some of them looked like they had been through toy hell.
Karl was late, but entered the home during my visit. Sherry didn't appear to be the least bit afraid him. He scooped her up and his baby son too, and each child smiled and laughed with glee.
Any outsider would think the family dynamics looked normal... but there was something I picked up on. The child, Sherry, was less connected to her mother than Karl.
I'd seen this distance in our therapy sessions too.
So who beat Sherry, the seven year old, black and blue on her buttocks and private area?
Was it Karl, who had a bipolar disorder and was unmedicated, and was a two-time murderer with a history of childhood abuse and early adolescent alcohol and drug abuse?
Or Brandi, the young community college student and mother of two, who had a penchant for bad guys and a history of living in fear from her mother, whom she loved?
Or perhaps, Sherry's father's mother, who reportedly never spanked her own kids and was the first to call the police?
Or Brandi's friend, the babysitter, or someone in that home?
And what, if anything, did Sherry's "I'm scared of Karl myself" daddy know?
I half-way expected to die on the day I showed up to the court review hearing with my report and recommendations.
Karl made a point of sitting next to me outside of the court room. He carried a gym bag that appeared heavy and bulky enough to have several guns in them. This would have been easy, because in that county in the pre-9/11 days of the mid-90s, the Court House did not check bags. The place was wide open.
Brandi was no where to be seen. Not a good sign.
"I'm not ever going back to jail," he announced.
"Have the police investigators concluded you abused Brandi?"
"I don't know."
"Who did it? Fo' real?"
"I don't know."
"I thought you'd say that."
He grunted a laugh, then looked worried again. "I really ain't going back. I'll die first."
"This hearing ain't about this. It's only about whether you should continue to reside in the home of your girlfriend while the police continue with their investigation, and if Sherry has been following the earlier court order of parenting classes and made progress. Why isn't she here?"
"I don't know," he said sounding irritated. "Maybe she's running late."
Or maybe she knows this nigga is gonna snap today and make front page news by evening, I thought.
"Karl," I said, "I hope you don't do anything today to make a bad situation worse. Whatcha got in the bag?"
His eyes darted around. "Just my gym clothes."
"I hope so. You do have a family, along with me and everyone else in that courtroom. Please try to relax and not sweat the recommendations. They ain't that bad, and this is not the day to go postal. I got stuff to do later and I'm sure you do too."
And the recommendations weren't, at least not compared to jail or suicide. All he had to do was see a psychiatrist, take meds if prescribed, be more active with his therapist or get a new one, finish his parenting class, keep his job, and not live with Brandi and the kids until then, with a court review in 60 days.
I sympathized with him. "That's a lot of appointments that will cut into your free time, but it beats the hell out of being locked up again or worse, stressing out in a fit of rage. You have got to remain calm."
Karl was paranoid as shit and obsessing about losing his freedom. He was clearly anticipating some sort of action by the court that would land him back in jail that morning. He was right to be scared. His history was so dark that I got the sense the defense wanted him locked up until the investigation was over. I gave my report first.
"He may be an felon with a history of murder," I said to the judge, "but that doesn't automatically mean he abused this child."
The defense attorney rolled her eyes.
I continued. "He and the mother have a history of being abused as children, which puts them at a higher risk for abusing their own children. There are other parties who could have done this. The child denies remembering who did it and may be protecting that person. The police need to finish their investigation."
I then gave my recommendations.
As I passed him returning to my seat, I said, "Remember what I said."
Karl was sweatin' bullets on the stand. I was in my chair, watching him intently, 'cause he had that damn bag in his lap and holding onto it for dear life.
You might wonder why I didn't report my suspicions to the court. Karl never took his eyes off me. I had asked him what's in the bag, and he didn't admit to having a weapon. There was no probable cause.
I also had the clear sense that if I snitched my worst fears at any point before or during the hearing, he would have snapped. If I was wrong about him having a gun in his bag, he'd never trust anyone or get the help he needed. If I was right, he'd have blown away everyone in sight before the police could get to him.
The judge looked like he hated him and was dying to find him guilty of something and lock his azz up, but he couldn't, 'cause up to this point, Karl had been cooperative and compliant with the current court order. Clean drug tests, going to N/A, showing up for his own therapist who hadn't been able to get an admittance of guilt out of him either, and cooperating with me, at least superficially by coming to family therapy sessions. He accepted my recommendations. He was also pissed that Brandi didn't show up, but her attorney convinced him to let it go.
My conversation with Karl took place immediately after court. He indicated he was relieved he wouldn't be returning to jail for the time being, but for the first time, really looked sad, an expression he never showed before. I asked him why. He said now he had to move in with a friend and see a psychiatrist, which meant getting on medication.
"What else is bugging you?"
"My family needs me," he answered softly.
"Who needs you the most? Brandi or the kids?"
His voice became softer. "The kids..."
"She did it, didn't she?"
He looked down and grew quiet. I remained quiet, waiting to see if he'd say more.
"I might be a murderer," he added, "but the two guys I killed were murderers too, in the drug game like I used to be. It was me or them. But I ain't no child abuser."
"But Brandi is, ain't she?"
His face looked pained. "I love that woman. Been straight, clean, and working since I met her. I want to marry her if we ever get out of this mess."
"That's fine, Karl, but you can't protect both her and the kids if she's got rage issues. You've seen the welts on Sherry. What happens when Karl Jr. gets a little older? Make your choice. Her or those kids."
"I don't want my baby's mama in jail," he said flatly.
"Slim chance of that, and if so, doubt if it would be much time, and she'd get the help she needs afterwards."
"I ain't saying she did it," Karl said adamantly, "but if she did, I don't want my kid in foster care or put up for adoption. I'd rather die than see that happen. I mean it."
"Can't blame you for worrying about that," I replied. "Maybe Sherry's daddy's grandma will watch your son while Brandi goes through intensive therapy. You work and can pay her. I'll call her and find out, just in case you change your mind."
He nodded in agreement, but continued to look sad.
"Are you feeling suicidal?"
"Not so much now."
We parted. I watched him walk away, shoulders slumped down in depression, and clutching his gym bag.
I watched Brandi wipe her many tears. We were in the women's detention facility.
"I can't believe he snitched on me," she said angrily. "I never snitched on him for the times he hit me."
"Well, you just did," I said. "Did he hit the kids too?"
"I ought to say yes," she said, "just for payback. But no, he never hit them."
"Why did he used to beat you?"
She grew quiet. She shrugged.
I asked, "Was it for beating them?"
"I never hit the baby."
"Why did you beat Sherry so bad that day?"
"She knocked over a whole glass of grape juice on the rug, and those stains don't come out. Management will charge me for a new carpet and we can barely make the rent. I only meant to beat her behind but she kept trying to wiggle away."
"Why'd you beat her naked?"
"That's how I always got my licks."
"Let's work out a therapeutic treatment plan so Sherry can have happier childhood memories, and when Junior's a big boy, he won't go through what she has, or what you did as a child."
She began crying again. "I'm really not as hard on my kids as she was on me. I hardly even remember most of those beatings."
"Denial, or blocking out bad memories is not necessarily a good thing," I replied. "They have a way of leaking out years later, as you see."
This didn't seem to sink in at the moment. That was okay, there'd be other opportunities for her to learn about the curse of multi-generational abuse.
"My mother loved me, she really did," Brandi said. "She just didn't want me to grow up bad. She was a good person."
I smiled gently at her and nodded. "I don't judge her; she came up in a different time and place. So did you. Take advantage of the help you'll get, and you and your children should be fine."
At her trial, she was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation with many conditions. One was that children not be returned to her for at least six months and only pending the progress she made individual and group therapy.
Karl, also present, had seen a psychiatrist who placed him on a new medication that appeared to alleviate his mood swings. The judge ordered that he also attend a domestic violence program if wanted to be reunited with his family. He agreed.
Dysfunction runs in families, and it runs in many directions. Show me a 'crazy' boyfriend or husband, chances are that the woman has issues too, or she would have sensed it when they first met and avoided getting involved with him, or bailed out when signs of it surfaced. The same goes for men who get attached to 'crazy' women.
Brandi and Karl associated pain with love. That's all they ever knew growing up. This intense combination of feelings kept them from being bored with one another or dealing with their own issues. It was passed down through the generations, making them a perfect fit with one another. Their challenge was to not pass on that legacy to their children.
The challenge of society is not be too quick to write off people but to educate them and to provide them with mental health and other services they need. Nor can we wish them away.
Karl spent his childhood and adolescence slipping through the cracks of school, protective services, juvenile services, and had some monster problems by adulthood. Brandi's situation as a child may have sent out some red flags to others, but if so, weren't addressed. Another crack in the system, and another generation almost lost and possibly doomed to repeat the patterns of their parents.
Tossing kids into foster care or taking them away permanently is also an action of last resort. These two kids were lucky. Foster care is traumatic for most children - which creates more problems in the next generation and fuels fear and secrecy, which in turn makes it harder for many of them to seek out or accept help later when they're older and need it even more. It's a cycle to be avoided when possible.
Sherry's paternal grandmother brought her for therapy. She ran to me and her small hand grabbed mine, and once inside my office, Sherry, the child whose mantra was I don't remember, made an announcement indicating that real therapy could finally begin.
Her small voice said, "My mama and Karl said I can remember now."