“Hello Marianne how are you? We are in a small village investigating a case. We have found a baby suffering from neglect and abuse. Her mother is very young and has been a victim of repeated rape by her biological father which has left her badly traumatized. She is neglecting the baby and the infant will likely die if she remains in these conditions. Will you take her?”
Two hours later I opened the front door to a girl of barely 14 carrying her 6-month-old baby girl. The smell of body odor, damp moldy clothing, and wood smoke overtook me as she walked inside. The baby was bundled in several dirty blankets. Her pale pink lips were surrounded by a horrible, scarlet, bumpy rash. The girl and her middle aged neighbor sat down on the couch. The two women from child services pulled me aside to recount her living conditions and to obtain my signature.
The family lived in abject poverty. Their home was a tiny mud hut with dirt floors and an indoor cooking fire. They made their living picking coffee in the winter and barely scraped by the rest of the year. The girl’s mother had turned a blind eye while the father had sexually abused her for years before she finally became pregnant. Following the birth of the baby, an investigation was done and he was arrested for rape and incest. The young girl had never been able to breast feed and had fed the baby only rice water when she was able to buy rice.
A bout of rough, labored coughs and a weak whine interrupted the one-sided conversation. I turned to see the baby wince slightly, but otherwise lay motionless in the young mother’s arms.
I signed the papers hastily and turned my attention to the girl and her child. I knelt beside her and gently pulled the blankets back from the baby’s face to see long scabbed-over scratches on each side of her round puffy face. The fiery rash that began at her lips extended down her neck and disappeared beneath her dirty shirt. The baby opened her mouth slightly as my finger brushed her chin. My heart lurched into my throat when I saw the inside of her mouth was red, raw, and badly swollen.
I could not hide my horror as I looked up at the two child service workers. The oldest woman intervened. “Let her hold the baby dear,” she said as she slid the baby into my shaking arms.
I brought the baby girl into the kitchen and worked at unwrapping her. The stench of stale urine burned my nose as I pulled away the filthy clothes. The worker explained the scratches had happened when a man staying in the house picked the child up by her face and threw her aside to stop her from crying.
Time stopped. I could only hear the sound of my heart thumping in my chest.
This was some of the worst neglect and abuse I had ever seen. The silence was deafening until I could bare it no longer and began chattering incessantly about rash creams and ointments all the while praising the mother for how beautiful her baby was. Mercifully, 10 minutes later, they were gone.
I hurried to mix and heat a bottle. I ran a warm bath and tried to sooth her broken and irritated skin. This 6 month old infant was as small as a newborn, 70% of her 6 pound 8 ounce body was was covered in a rash caused by fungus. The inside of her mouth and neck had been burned by hot liquid which became infected when it was not cleaned. She was so weak she could not cry. I tried to feed her, but despite her hunger she struggled to suck and swallow the milk her body so desperately needed. Within hours we rushed her to the hospital where she was quickly admitted for her deplorable state of health.
In addition to the dehydration, malnutrition, fungus, and burns, she also had infection, parasites, and a grave case of pneumonia. She spent 6 nights and 7 days in the private hospital. Her care and medicines exhausted all our savings in a matter of days. The financial stakes were high but the alternative was unthinkable. Every doctor that cared for her told us she would have certainly died if she had come even one day later.
Baby Ashlyn expressed no sense of feeling. She never smiled or cried in fear, hunger or pain. Regardless of the medical procedure or circumstance, she showed no emotion. From behind the longest eye lashes I have ever seen, her dark brown eyes consistently stared off into the distance. She didn’t hold my gaze or squeeze my finger. She was completely numb to the world around her.
Over the next several months we nursed her back to health. She learned to suck, hold up her head and most of all to trust that we would continue to meet her needs and keep her safe.
As her body slowly recovered from sickness, severe malnutrition, and parasites, all her brittle, dry hair including her beautiful eye lashes fell out. She gained weight and developed muscles. She began to make hesitant eye contact with us as we cuddled and talked to her. She uttered her first cries as her tiny body began to recognize pangs of hunger or physical discomfort and finally, 5 months after we brought her home from the hospital we witnessed her first smile.
Now, almost 3 years later, not a day goes by that this precious child doesn’t claim her place firmly in the middle of our family. Where’s MY Daddy? She asks as she looks around me, trying to see if he is headed home from the office yet. He belongs to her and she knows that she is his. My daughter Ashlyn is a Daddy’s girl through and through, as he almost exclusively cared for her in those first difficult months. She knows full well the unconditional love and fierce protection of her father and her family.
Ashlyn knows she is safe now and while she hasn’t the words to explain, the memory of her painful first months alive still haunt her from time to time. She is phobic of the dark and fears silence if she thinks she is alone. She often wakes from her sleep, having relived some terrible nightmare from her past. She tenses her body, shrieks in pain, and screams to be saved.
I run to her side and collect her sweat-drenched, pudgy, toddler body from her little bed where she has managed to curl herself dangerously close to the edge, never daring to make a move outside the confines of the mattress perimeter. In these difficult moments Ashlyn is never fully aware that she is safe as she fights, writhes, and sobs in my arms. I am helpless to pull her from that terrible place where the memories of her past have trapped her, or to prevent it from happening. And so, I do the only thing I can. I hold her tight, smooth her hair, and whisper assurances in her ear that Mommy is here and she is safe until the feelings finally pass. When the terror subsides, she uses the last bit of strength she has left to force open her tightly clenched eyes. There, I meet her gaze, she sees my face, breathes deeply, and allows herself to relax and be held. I wrap my arms tightly around her. Tiny sobs reverberate through her body. She presses her ear to my chest and listens to the familiar beat of my heart.