‘I don't want to go home.’
Those words still haunt me today. I can still hear them as our two grandchildren went out the door of our ‘safe’ house to return home to a house of abuse.
Our daughter Sarah* married an alcoholic. Michael*, her husband and the children's father, was abusive particularly to our grandson. After 10 years of living dominated by physical abuse of both Sarah and the children, the marriage ended.
We were not aware how much trauma occurred during those years, as our daughter worked really hard at projecting to us that everything was okay at home.
I remember one Christmas Eve service at our church. Our entire family always attended. This particular year they turned up and I thought the children looked rather scruffy and unkempt. Only later did I realise Sarah had been working and Michael was supposed to organise the children. It would have been so much easier for her to just say they were not coming, but they came only because of her determination and perseverance to keep up a normal life.
All this makes what happened in the following years so much harder to comprehend.
David* moved in soon after Michael moved out. We were not aware of this until some months later. At this stage our grandson Jack* was 8 years old and our granddaughter Sophie* was 6. David attended all our family get-togethers and was accepted as part of the family. At no time did our grandchildren even hint to us that there was a problem and, of course, our daughter didn't suggest there was anything untoward going on.
Thinking back I realise that often when I rang Sarah our conversation had to be suspended because of crying and screaming in the background. That was when David attacked Jack and Sophie. Whenever Sarah had a shower or wasn't nearby, the ‘hero’ went for the children. They were warned not to say anything or worse would follow.
About two years after David moved in, we arranged to pick up the grandchildren from school each Wednesday. We helped them with homework and stayed until Sarah came home from work. This was when we realised something was wrong. Once David arrived home before Sarah, and Sophie, with a frightened look on her face, asked ‘Could you please stay a while?’. On another occasion Jack asked the same thing.
It was a mind-numbing shock to find out what was really happening in that house. Jack was repeatedly hit and forced into his room. Most of the time it was when Sarah was not there. Jack would break down and cry. Sophie's way of coping was to keep out of David’s way and not stick up for Jack who was constantly receiving all the abuse. They were such sad, unhappy little children.
My husband and I decided to discuss the situation with Sarah. We told her what the children had told us, how David was hitting them, how he had such a violent temper, used foul language, and how he loved to frighten them. We also told her we thought he had mental health problems which needed checking by a doctor. It was the worst thing we could have done.
Sarah told David and the situation got much worse for Jack and Sophie. It became obvious then that for Sarah, David staying was the priority over the needs of the children. From then on, if we asked whether we should say something to their mother, they begged us not to. Such was the fear he generated in them.
We started having the children stay with us more often. Not only did they stay during all the holidays, they also came for ‘respite care’ at least three times during the term. They needed to get away from the home situation. At one stage things got so bad they came to us on Thursday after school and went back to their mother Monday after school. Each time they went home the words ‘I don't want to go home’ echoed in my head and I just sat and cried, feeling so desperately sad and helpless.
Apparently, each time they stayed here, David would really go for them when they arrived home. He had never been married or had children of his own and he didn’t want them or like them being around.
I took notes of what the children told us in case these were ever needed. Both Sarah and David used emotional blackmail to keep the children. Reading through my notes, I see they were told after a particularly harrowing time that if David left they would end up in an orphanage, be separated and never see each other again, or that they would end up in the gutter with nowhere to live. We assured them they always have a home at our place, where they are loved and appreciated, listened to and respected.
Jack looks after his personal property and does not like his ‘stuff’ being damaged. At one stage he desperately wanted a Nintendo 3DS game console. David didn't want him to have it so, when it was new, he threw it across the floor. It was scratched and this upset Jack. He was told not to tell his mum what had happened. Another ‘trick’ of David's was to take a special toy of Jack's and hide it. Jack would spend hours looking for it and then, after months of searching, it would suddenly appear again.
David would say things to Jack and Sophie like ‘tell anyone and I will rip your head off’, ‘I will rip out your throat’ or ‘if I had my way I would throw you under a bus’. David has an uncontrollable temper. He is mean, nasty, aggressive and violent. He has at times turned on our daughter, too – not physically yet, but he has certainly been verbally abusive. The children become so scared for their mother they ring us and we head to their house wondering what we will find when we get there.
Generally Sarah is furious that the children have rung us and so, once again, the problems are all their fault. Unfortunately she is in total denial. It is so hard for us as her parents to try to understand what is going on in her head, let alone why she stays with David.
We contacted legal aid to get advice about taking the children away from the home situation. At the time they were 16 and 14 years old. Because of their age, we were told, we might be able to gain custody. It is quite obvious it is almost impossible as grandparents to obtain custody, as has been often reported.
All this heartbreak, tears, anxiety and desperation came to a head one day in 2015 when we received a call from the school counsellor asking us to come to the school as the grandchildren were too frightened to go home. We were asked whether we would take care of them. We picked up their clothes and over the next few days collected most of their personal property. Not once did their mother ring either the children or us. They were totally abandoned by her. They stayed with us for eight months. It was time of adjustment for us all, but much more relaxing, too. No longer did we have to worry about how they were being treated, whether they were safe, stressed or unhappy.
After some months our granddaughter missed her mother and decided it was time to return home. I’m not sure Jack felt the same way. Their mother didn't welcome them back straight away. David would not have wanted this and so it took a while before they left. I warned them David would not have changed and that he would still be nasty, mean and vicious. It didn't take too long for those words to become reality.
There are times when it is almost impossible to believe this has happened to our family. We are no longer a family unit. There is a divide which at this stage appears to be impossible to bridge. We make sure our grandchildren are involved in all family occasions and that they regularly see their cousins. It is important that they still feel part of our family, even if their mother is no longer interested.
Abuse is not only physical either. Because the state department for child protection eventually became involved in our situation, David is now careful not to touch the children. But the abuse continues in more subtle ways. They are constantly harassed. He never leaves them alone and if he can't think of something current to annoy them about, he will dredge something up from months before. They are constantly reminded how little they mean to him and how he wants them out of his life. He demands total control. There is also the social abuse. He is not interested in going anywhere or doing anything for the children. So before the children were old enough to meet friends and go out themselves, they did nothing, except when we took them on holidays or to other various activities.
We still see them regularly and spend our time with them building them up. They are amazing young people, now 18 and 16. There is no sign of the anger, hatred, violence and lack of respect they have experienced for so much of their lives. We try to fill their lives with love and encouragement to always stay strong and not ever come to think that the home they grew up in is the norm.
We pray for their safety every day. We pray they will not be influenced by what they have experienced. We pray they will have happy, well-adjusted, sharing and caring lives. And, above all, we thank God for his guidance through this traumatic and stressful period of our lives.
* Names have been changed to protect the author's identity.