Contributing Author: Whitney Belich, Child Abuse Resource Prosecutor, North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys
When I first began handling cases involving child abuse as a prosecutor, I was young, unmarried, and childless. My mentor, who had handled hundreds of these cases and seen the worst of the worst, told me, “It is so much harder when you have kids.” To be honest, I resented that. I know he has a lot more experience than me, I thought, but who is he to imply I don’t care as much as him? Just because I don’t have my own child, I can’t feel deep pain and sympathy for what these child-victims have had to experience? What kind of monster needs their own kids to want to work towards justice for horribly abused, vulnerable, innocent children?!
Well, consider this my apology tour to him and others who said similar things to me. After a few years focused on other areas of law, I returned to dealing with cases involving child physical and sexual abuse. Only now, I am not-so-young, married, and mother to a four-year-old daughter. It is hard to explain how my world twisted when I opened up that first file upon my return to the field. It seemed like, just to drive the point home, the universe decided to give me only cases involving child victims around my daughter’s age. One even looked a bit like her.
I realized that my mentor wasn’t saying that those without kids aren’t devastated by the tragedy of child abuse or that they don’t carry a hole in their heart for all the pain they have witnessed and trauma they have watched others experience. Now that devastation, that hole in your heart, has a name. That burden you carry for the children you could offer so comparatively little to; you now carry it for your own child as well. Now you know how sweet a three-year-old’s smile is because you see it every day when you get home. You know how that infant was completely dependent on his parents because you have held and cared for one for months, so small and vulnerable in your arms.
Each night when I got home after resuming my work as a child abuse prosecutor, I hugged my daughter a little tighter. It took me months to stop looking at her when she laughed and thinking about how it seemed impossible anyone could want to hurt something so full of joy and light. I still struggle to not allow that sort of darkness to infect my relationship with my child. It can be so difficult to keep any sort of levity when it comes to children, knowing just how many monsters lurk in the shadows.
Probably the most common comment I get when I tell people what I do is, “How do you do that? There is no way I could handle seeing all you must see.” Anyone who tells you they don’t struggle with that is lying. Whether they have kids or not, seeing what a human — a PARENT — can do to a child will never leave them. So how DO we do this? For me, I am constantly reminding myself to use the horrible stuff as motivation instead of incumbrance. Not only motivation to work harder at my job to give justice to these kids but also motivation to simply put my phone down and pay attention to another story about a unicorn or request to play with slime. I tell myself that I should take each opportunity I have to turn bad into good, negative into positive, as a way to rebalance the evil in the world.
Of course, all of this amounts to quite a bit of pressure and that is something I still very much struggle with. To not only be a good prosecutor and trainer and help the kids of North Carolina but also to try and be a good mom to make up for all the bad moms and dads out there? Phew. To say I’m still a work in progress is an understatement. But, if I can offer one piece of advice to the other works-in-progress out there, it is to allow yourself to have support. Find out who you can be open with and share your burden. Sometimes these cases are not things we can talk about to friends and family. Find your co-worker and talk it out. Go unload on your therapist once a week. And be willing to let friends and family be there for you to share life’s other, smaller burdens and traumas.
Many of us prosecutor-types are built to be our own islands, to just tough it out and push it down. I think we can all look at previous generations and see how well that worked-out. Strings of divorces, kids they don’t know, and empty liquor bottles are the legacy of many a prosecutor who tried to “be strong.” I, for one, hope to change that by first recognizing that I cannot do it alone even though I desperately want to.
So, yes, having your own kids makes it so much harder. And, even long past the time we finally call it quits and leave the courtroom for good, we will carry these burdens with us, and they will impact our lives as people and as parents. The names of these children who never had a fair shake and the pictures of what was done to them that can never be unseen, will live in us. But we also have great power to actually do good in this world, actually make a difference. We just have to let others help us. And hug our kids a little tighter. Just in case.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month.