Monday, November 10, 2008

I Have Never Seen Her Smile

Jeff, Carter, and I hadn’t lived in our house for very long before we discovered that we were living across the street from a registered sex offender. At first I found it very disconcerting. Carter was under a year old when we moved in and I was acutely concerned for his safety. I spent hours online searching court documents trying to figure out what the exact offense was in order to determine how protective I should be of my precious firstborn. In the meantime, we watched him, his wife, and their three elementary age children through our front window as they played in the cul-de-sac. Truth be told, I was troubled that he even had children.

It wasn’t long before they had a baby, and soon he and Carter began to play together in the cul-de-sac. Jeff made contact with them first. I note that only because if frequency of opportunity is considered, it should have been me. But I was content to sit behind my closed door and silently pass judgment.

A tentative relationship based on a shared cul-de-sac and a lot of Little Tikes vehicles eventually began, and very quickly thereafter we came to know why he is in the registry. She was 14 when they met and began seeing one another. He was 21 and already the father of a 3-year old son, and 1-year old daughter. At 14 she became their de facto mother, and by 17 she was pregnant with their 1st child. They were married shortly after she graduated from high school.

As far as the safety of my own young family was concerned, I felt better about the situation having been granted these details. Their relationship had not only lasted a decade, but he had a thriving small business, and they seemed fairly stable (with the exception of occasional police visits which we assumed had to do with his prior record). As both of our families grew, we spent more and more time together in the cul-de-sac watching them play. Their 2nd son is sandwiched between Carter and Griffin. Peyton is next in line and they had a 3rd child late last fall. I wouldn’t say a friendship has grown, but certainly the familiarity has. This year, Carter started riding the bus to and from kindergarten. Their 10 year old son (who has always been so tolerant of the three little boys who want to follow him everywhere) rides with him and looks out for him on the bus. When Carter gets home from school each afternoon, their 4-year old is at our front door in minutes wanting to play. Thankfully, the play-set has been a huge hit. Our lingering discomfort with the three of them playing around their house was a primary motivator for that investment. We wanted to draw the all the neighborhood kids to our house – to an environment we knew we could keep safe.

Over the last two years, things have steadily started to break down at the house across the street. Last year the police were called 3 times on assault charges. This year, they’ve been called 5 times. Sometimes the other neighbors fill us in on the details, sometimes she fills us in. Invariably, she is always the victim.

In October, she was attacked by four teenagers while her mother-in-law stood by. Their weapon of choice was a wrench. Her 16-year old son tried to help her, but he was sorely outnumbered. She eventually escaped and ran to a neighbor’s house and begged them to call the police. This was the one incident I know of in which her husband was not her abuser. Her de facto daughter and friends were.

On Friday night around 7:00pm, I left with Griffin to do a few errands. There were two police cars parked at their house. When we returned an hour later, there were six cars and two of those had almost run us over in their haste to get on the scene. The neighbors in the surrounding streets were all outside watching the action. Apparently, there had been a domestic dispute at their house involving a hand gun. The police had chased down, caught, and subdued the individual with the firearm, but he had managed to ditch the piece before they caught him. They were all outside in the dark with flashlights looking for the missing gun.

It’s a curious thing. I am able to feel an astonishing range of emotion on any moment of any day for Africa’s orphans thousands of miles away. Emotion that motivates me to dream up extraordinary measures to try to remedy circumstances so dismal they almost cannot be described with words. But for 5-years, I have shut my eyes and heart to the dire needs right in my own neighborhood. I have hid my light under a bushel of mammoth proportions. What causes me to be so selectively compassionate, so exclusive with my love, I do not know. But on Friday night it was hard to decide if the crime that had been committed across the street was more despicable or if that award should go to me for my callousness.

I carefully maneuvered my van around the law enforcement obstacle course, into the cul-de-sac and up into our garage. I knew that there was no excuse for the fact that I had not harnessed the power of God earlier in my relationship with them, and decided there was no time like the present to inject my peaceful, hope-filled self into a situation overflowing with evil.

I passed Griffin off to Jeff and told him that I was going across the street to get the kids out of the house. If nothing else, our home could and should be a place of refuge. I walked to the nearest inhabited police car only to find our neighbor handcuffed in the back seat. Since they were his kids I was about to start making decisions for, I thought it only right that I inform him of what I was about to do. Handcuffed or not, the guy has always been cordial to us and he was, per usual, very polite. I went to their house, retrieved the two youngest and told their obviously battered mom I expected her to come over as well after the cops left. Jeff and I then spent the next several hours trying to care for an exhausted infant and entertain an anxious preschooler until their traumatized mother arrived to spend the night. It felt right.

Our neighbor may not be a sexual offender in the manner that immediately comes to mind (i.e. rape or incest), but the resulting effect on his wife has been the same as if he had. Physically, she is 27-years old. Psychologically, she has the decimated ego and decision making skills of the 14-year old she left behind. She lives in fear and will do anything to avoid facing the anger of even her own young children, some of which are already beginning to exhibit a tendency toward violence. She has a drinking problem (let’s call it a “coping mechanism” to be fair), a nicotine habit, has never worked or been self-sustaining, and owns nothing in her name. It is readily apparent that the very idea of having to find a way to support herself and her young children is far more intimidating than dropping the charges against her husband and allowing the escalating cycle of abuse to continue.

My pitiful psychology degree expired in my head years ago, and I have no personal or practical experience with domestic violence. I have even less experience with firearms and if I could register as a pacifist I’d do it tomorrow. I’ve decided, however, that relatability in this instance is perhaps not the point. Compassion is the point. Love is the point. Being willing to wholly engage in order to help someone transform their life and the lives of their children is the point. The question that plagues me now is whether or not I am too late.


  1. What a tragedy. I hope things can improve for her and the kids. I'm glad you were there today.

  2. What an awesome post, thank you for your honesty.
    Whatever you are able to do right now has meaning, don't forget that.

  3. thank you for reminding us that we have a missionfield outside our front door!!!!

    I am sure God will lead you in how to help!!! He is far better than a psych degree.

    I will pray for the situation.

  4. You did good. Hopefully this is what will give her the strength she needs to do what she needs to do to protect herself and those babies.

  5. Melanie, you are not too late. Even though you had some reservations (which seems wise if you ask me) you have been treating your neighbors with kindness and respect for a long time, don't forget the importance of that. Offering them your home on top of that is nothing short of extraordinary. You have already made a difference, even if you do not see it manifested in the ways you expect. The dynamic between the parents is so deeply ingrained that it may never change, but they and others have seen and felt your compassion nevertheless, and it has meaning. Now, for goodness sake please tell us, did they find the gun??

  6. They DID find the gun. He had stashed it behind someone's air conditioning unit. It's shocking that they found it considering they were searching completely in the dark.