Her spirit still shines but she deserves much more
I SAW an 11-year-old girl last Saturday whom I will never forget. Oh, I had heard of her before, read newspaper stories in early 2005 about how Big Island paramedics responding to a 911 call had found her barely clinging to life, with festering puncture wounds, burns, broken bones and ligature marks. Stories about her mother had abandoned her into the "care" of a Puna family under whose watch she had suffered what one investigating officer described as the most brutal child abuse he had ever seen. Stories about how the matriarch of that house -- who was eventually indicted on charges including attempted murder by omission, assault and kidnapping -- insisted that the child was defiant and uncontrollable, that she had mutilated herself.
The case was front-page news, at first, but eventually the stories slowed to a trickle. A gag order was imposed. In October, a state agency issued a vague update, saying only that the victim was out of the hospital and living in foster care. The trial, originally scheduled for May, was delayed.
The story faded from the newspapers and TV news, and from public consciousness.
Then came Saturday.
My family had been invited to a birthday party, and unknown to us, so had the family the girl lived with for months after being released from the hospital -- and they had brought her along. I had heard through the grapevine about that initial placement, so I knew that the disfigured girl who limped through the door was the child whose suffering had made headlines so many months before.
Her former foster mom obviously didn't know that I was going to be there, either, and her demeanor turned stern when I broached the idea of an interview.
"I can't say anything, Christine," she insisted. "There's a gag order."
I praised the woman, sincerely, for nurturing this battered soul, for taking her into her busy home -- even temporarily -- for doing what only a tiny fraction of the human beings on earth have the willing heart, mind, body and spirit to do. She smiled and changed the subject.
For the rest of the evening, the girl alternately hung out with the large group of kids and circled back to the warm embrace of her former foster mom. Her physical injuries remain heartbreakingly obvious, but the other kids paid her no ill attention. She couldn't play dodgeball or run fast like the rest of the energetic crew, but she did enjoy using a camera phone to take pictures of the birthday boy. The easy affection from her ex-foster mom -- a hug, a pat, a kiss on the head -- made me mourn for the childhood this girl might have had, if only she had been born into different circumstances.
I am not printing her name and am being circumspect about exactly what she looked like, to respect her privacy. Let's just say that what I saw kept me up that night. Not from a sense of revulsion, but of outrage.
The thought that a human being could inflict such misery on a child -- as prosecutors allege -- seems unthinkable, until you see the evidence for yourself. No one who sets eyes on this girl would believe for a second that the damage was self- inflicted.
Seeing her brought to life every anonymous victim in the countless "police beat" items I edit about abused and neglected children. Just like all those other kids, the Puna girl is much more than a story, although she does have story -- both horrific and inspiring -- to tell. I hope someday she will be able to tell it, on her own terms.
All these many months later, she is doing better. But better is a relative word, and in her case I guess it means profoundly damaged when she could have been dead. To assume that she's fine because she is out of the hospital and back in school simply fails to comprehend how hard she's fought to survive and to reclaim her place in the world -- and how much farther she has to go.
Amid the tragedy, the triumph is that her life does go on -- as difficult as it may be -- thanks to her own incredible will, and to a dedicated team of doctors, nurses, therapists, social service caseworkers, foster parents and private citizens who are as kindhearted as they are press-shy.
There is a much more complex story to be told about this child and the far too many children like her in Hawaii. About how they came to be injured, about whether the "system" does enough to protect them, to help them get better and to prosecute those who harmed them, about whether the privacy rules intended to protect the victims go too far in shielding government agencies from scrutiny and accountability.
The indomitable girl I saw at that birthday party certainly deserves some answers.
Christine Donnelly is a Star-Bulletin copy editor.
My Turn is a periodic column written by Star-Bulletin staff members expressing their personal views.