As I drove down the bumpy gravel road in our old pickup truck, endless pineapple fields stretching out on either side of the dusty strip, I began to pray, for I knew if I didn’t my mind would immediately race to the task of worrying and jumping to conclusions, which I am learning brings no positive result in addition to going against God’s will for His children.
After all, the shiny new silver truck with a neat government logo pasted on the outside was following me. Today was the official visit the Honduran government’s child protective service would make to two of our daughters’ biological family’s household to determine whether the house and its members were apt to receive our girls, who have been living under our protection since July 2015. We had never done any kind of investigational visit like this before, and I knew that when dealing with the Honduran government I had to hide my own emotions and play by certain rules if I wanted to preserve the good standing we have thus far enjoyed with them.
I breathed deeply, trying to keep my thoughts neutral and my heart fixed on the perfect peace that is available to us at all times through Christ Jesus. I whispered, alone in the car, as I journeyed farther and farther into the middle of nowhere, guiding the large vehicle behind me: “Lord, if it is Your plan and Your desire that the girls return to their biological family, I pray that You would make that very clear to all involved. Convince the government social worker and grant Darwin and me peace in our heart about the decision.” Because, Lord knows, at that point neither Darwin nor I had peace about one or both of our girls leaving the protection of our home to return to what we perceived to be a highly unstable, dangerous situation with their biological family. We were only realizing the legal investigations because Josselyn was pushing hard to do so, and it was our duty in the eyes of the law to reunite our girls with their family if at all possible.
After several weeks of phone calls, emails and visits to the little building that manages all of the cases for local abandoned, abused and orphaned children (which there are too many of) in attempts to organize this visit – a grasping at some kind of closure, some kind of answer for our 12-year-old Josselyn and for us to know what direction to head in during this new season — the day had finally arrived. Pint-sized Josselyn with her shaggy black hair had her heart set on moving back in with her biological family members after having gotten in touch with them on a chance encounter downtown a couple months ago, and today we would most likely receive our answer.
I continued onward as I started to doubt that I even remembered where the house was located. In Honduras there are no street signs (or street names), and on this long, dusty stretch everything looked about the same to me. I continued praying: “Lord, on the contrary, if it is not Your will that our girls go back to their family, convince the social worker of that, and grant Josselyn peace in her heart when we have to tell her the news. Whichever way this all goes, I ask that Your peace reign over the situation and over our hearts. May Your will be done; not ours. Show us all the way, and give us the grace and strength to walk in it.”
Several minutes later I spotted the only landmark I remembered from the prior visit I had made to the home – a small tin overhang above the front gate, a twine-and-twig contraption that could not effectively keep anyone in or out. I pulled to a stop, and the large government vehicle behind me followed suit.
Within moments I led the social worker, a very kind local Christian woman whom we don’t yet have much experience with, and the car’s driver down a narrow dirt path and crossed the threshold into our girls’ grandparents’ very simple home. Their small dirt backyard gave way to an endless sea of pineapple fields.
The girls’ grandmother, an extremely frail but alert woman, immediately received us with a hug and the customary kiss on the cheek, eagerly pulling out two plastic chairs to accommodate us in their otherwise totally bare living room. We sat down, me with a smile on my face and my lips sealed firmly shut. This very official visit was technically to be had between the social worker and the family; I was lucky to be present and knew my role was not to be an active one. Despite having been the day-to-day hands-on mom, counselor and teacher for the girls for nearly the last two years, the government sees Darwin and I – and others in our area who serve God in similar capacities – as nothing more than an emergency, short-term shelter rather than a living, breathing family – the very hands and feet of God to rescue those who are so close to the flames! – so the social worker looked to Grandma to get all the details straight rather than to Darwin and I.
Thus the interview process started with several straggling aunts, uncles and cousins of all ages quietly gathering around the open windows and doors to observe the conversation at hand.
The social worker, very eager to reunite lost children with their families (which in theory sounds excellent), began discussing with Grandma the logistics of placing both of her long-lost granddaughters under her legal care. I kept my tongue firmly placed between my teeth, intent on saying nothing. It was clear to me that Grandma and the social worker did not know – or did not want to tell – the whole story, and they had not invited me to speak, so I did not.
The social worker took out a very formal stapled questionnaire that she began filling out as Grandma began answering her questions. One of the first was: “How many people live in your home?”
It seemed simple enough; in the quietness of my own mind I had assumed that Grandma and Grandpa lived alone. There always seemed to be a whole lot of family members everywhere, but I had guessed that they all lived close by and simply enjoyed spending time together during daytime hours, seeing as no one had a stable job and none of the children were in school. Lots of free, idle time; thus, let’s spend it together.
After the social worker’s question, there was an odd pause. Grandma glanced over at her husband, and it became clear that neither of them knew the answer. They sent one of the young aunts to take a head count, and she came back a few minutes later with the answer: “17.”
The social worker’s eyes grew wide as she glanced in surprise at the lines her paper permitted her for that section: there were only ten spaces. She began asking one-by-one the names of all who lived there, ages, genders, etc, as she had to turn her page over and extend the section in her own freehand on the back of the sheet.
Grandma, oftentimes contradicting herself and having to consult constantly with other relatives as to the names, ages, and current whereabouts of those who live under her roof – a three-bedroom, one bath house – began naming several sons and grandsons of hers in their teens and twenties who live and sleep under her roof. I bit down even harder on my tongue as dark images darted across my mind, knowing full well that both of our girls had been severely sexually abused by their very own family members.
During our first supervised family visit several weeks ago, Josselyn later told one of our older daughters that I had had a lengthy conversation with one of her uncles who had raped her, and that ‘everything seemed okay now’ because I had had a pleasant conversation with him – completely unbeknownst to me that he had been one of the perpetrators – and that she would be fine living with him because he had treated me nicely and I got along well with him.
Roughly ten teenage and young adult men – none of whom study or have stable jobs and who have a known history of sexually abusing children – living and sleeping alongside of our two girls in a tiny house that holds only two or three beds? Over my dead body. Righteous anger was quickly awakened within me, but I still said nothing.
The social worker began asking about the girls’ future education, if and when they move back in. Grandma was very hesitant about this, as absolutely none of her dozens of grandchildren are in school, and all of the adults are illiterate. They move frequently and have no stable employment and, although they can afford sodas and candies and cell phones (as so many poor Honduran families do), they have no money for the kids’ education.
At some point during the conversation Grandma mentioned that the girls’ biological mom – whom many family members have told us is highly emotionally unstable and became irate when she heard the news that her daughters visited several weeks ago, thinking that we were going to leave them with her – was ‘out’ with Papo, the infamous stepfather who developed the habit of raping our daughter Gabriela while she lived under his care.
At the mention on his name, I couldn’t take it any longer – even though I had written and submitted official reports to the local government office regarding the nature of our girls’ sexual abuse (there was even a police raid to Papo’s home at the time of Gabriela’s rescue in order to put him behind bars, but he escaped the raid and the police have made no further attempt to pursue him), it was clear that the social worker had no idea who we were dealing with. She continued inquiring calmly about the mom and step-dad, when I very carefully raised a finger and asked if I could speak.
My plastic chair positioned carefully in a triangular position between the other two chairs – my attempt to show my support and collaboration with both parties equally – I spoke up, my voice quivering slightly with rage, “That man – the girls’ stepdad – is the same one who sexually abused Gabriela. I absolutely do not feel right about having her return to live anywhere in proximity to that man – “
The social worker’s eyes grew wide once more as she glanced over at Grandma to clear up the issue. Grandma, possibly wanting to defend her family members or her own integrity or simply unversed on the real issue at hand, began claiming that Gabriela was crazy and that it was all a lie. Gaby was fine and had never been abused. She always used to say bad words and take her clothes off in Grandma’s house, but Grandma knew that she did so because she was crazy.
I spoke up again, this time without asking permission, still trying to keep my voice calm while I was not at all pleased with the idea that we had such a cloud of witnesses around us, eavesdropping on such a delicate issue: “When Gaby first moved in with us roughly two years ago she constantly took her clothes off in public, tried to have sexual relations with any boy or man who was close to her, screamed and talked loudly about Papo – her stepdad – saying that she was gonna put him in jail, and her own sister affirms that Papo had taken Gabriela as his young lover from a very early age on. Her mind and body had been damaged to such an extent that she had become borderline special-needs, oftentimes struggling with self-loathing, learning disabilities and constant disciplinary issues, and the recovery process has been grueling.” (She was about seven or eight years old when she was rescued out of that situation, and we have no idea of knowing for how many years he had been mistreating her prior to that.)
I was desperate to tell the truth while not openly offending this very poor, fragile family. All the people around us had been created in God’s image just as much as I had been, and Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had paid the price of their redemption. God truly loves these people – even the abusers – and desires for them to be saved and renewed. I could not judge these people nor look down upon them, but I could do whatever was necessary to assure that these two girls did not fall back into a very dark pit. Lord, forgive me if I am over-stepping my bounds.
I had put my cards quite strongly on the table, and I had put myself at risk of being called biased or even possibly against the family reintegration process (which is a cardinal sin in Honduras). The social worker, obviously alarmed by all the information I was sharing (even though I had shared it with her and her colleagues before, possibly having fallen on deaf ears until now), began probing Grandma on the topic as she continued denying the whole thing as the list of lies and excuses lengthened.
As the conversation continued onward amiably but very professionally, the social worker jotting down all of her official notes, someone suddenly appeared in the doorway and I felt what little air I had in my lungs jump right out.
Everything around me disappeared as my eyes locked in on her extremely small frame and shaved head. She was even wearing a white dress, which was actually just a shirt that reached her waist. She wore no pants; little undies and a white shirt were all. Her eyes seemed glazed over and travelled up and across the walls.
The dialogue between the social worker and Grandma continued onward as I suddenly felt lost in space. None of the other ten or fifteen family members present even noticed her arrival. She was like a small, almost unconscious ghost. Frail and broken – probably much tinier than whatever her real age was – and with a shaved head and white dress.
I let out a slight gasp, my whole body being slammed with very strong memories of the other little angel in the white dress as I glanced over at a teen male who stood a few feet from me. I pointed a finger at the little girl and asked with deep respect and awe, “That is Katy, isn’t it?”
He affirmed casually that, yes, that was Katy. I continued staring at her – looking past Grandma to that little, lost figure with the shaved head who stood idly near her chair, eyes still glazed over and far, far away.
I spoke again without permission, this time to no one in particular, “That is Josselyn and Gabriela’s little sister. Katy.”
Oh, I knew her when I saw her because that is exactly how our Gabriela arrived under our care in 2015: shaved head riddled with scars and open wounds; lost, far-off look in the eyes; strikingly similar facial features; extremely small frame; she was even wearing a white dress the day we met her.
I felt an immediate connection with that little girl that goes beyond explanation. I felt that I knew her already; I even felt that she was Gabriela herself two years ago. I stared at her little bitty legs that led up to her underwear in plain sight and her white, nearly see-through shirt that fell slightly off one shoulder. I tried to make eye contact with her several times, but her glossed-over stare seemed to look right past me. Only a couple times did her eyes actually find mine as a very quick, very tiny smile tugged at one side of her tired cheeks before the glossy stare overtook her again. After standing idly in the doorway for what seemed an eternity, she then began hobbling over toward the adjacent room. A family member who was not present at that moment had commented to me on a prior visit that she had just begun walking recently due to severe malnutrition. Exactly like Gaby.
I do not remember the specifics of the rest of the conversation; just that I got up from my seat and sat down on the concrete floor right next to Katy and began stroking her arm and back, as I would with any of our kids. I felt that she was mine even though she had no idea who I was. Her eyes never met mine, and even the loving physical touch could not snap her out of her zombie-like state. I patted my lap and asked if she wanted to sit with me, but she neither looked at me nor responded.
At one point Grandma glanced over at me, visibly confused as I no longer displayed my happy, neutral smile. My countenance had grown dark and I silently fought back an onslaught of tears and rage.
The visit was concluded with cordial hugs, handshakes and on-the-cheek customary kisses, and we soon began walking back to the main road where our vehicles awaited us.
Once we were out of the family’s earshot, I dared to ask the social worker, “What were your thoughts on the visit?”
She looked at me, raised her eyebrows and commented very sincerely, “It seems to me that they don’t always tell the truth.”
I let out a long, unexpected sigh and dared to probe further, knowing I was trodding on fragile ground: “In your opinion, do you think that it will be best for the girls to return to their family?”
Just weeks prior when I met with the same social worker to inform her of the family’s whereabouts and of Josselyn’s desire to move back in with them, her immediate, upbeat response was, “Great! It’s always better for kids to be with their family.”
This time, however – having seen first-hand the situation in which one or both of the girls would be diving into – she responded without wasting a beat, “No way. The girls would be entering a situation of sexual abuse upon returning to their home. Plus none of the kids who live with Grandma are in school and they move so frequently that we would lose all follow-up with them. I will file the report, but in my opinion, they shouldn’t go back there.”
I let out a slight laugh of pure glee as it dawned on me that God had granted my humble request and thus confirmed His will for our girls. He opened the social worker’s eyes to the real situation at hand, helped her to detect the many lies, and convinced her that our girls should not return there. Now the only thing left (and perhaps most difficult of all), would be sharing the news with Josselyn, who had so longed to return to what she had convinced herself was the ideal life.
Feeling compelled by God to speak out about Katy’s situation, I shared with the social worker my concern for the little girl. She looked exactly as Gaby did upon arrival to our home, and I feared the worst: now that abusive step-dad Papo no longer has access to Gaby, he has probably begun abusing little Katy in the same way. The social worker seemed to understand (there are so many cases such as these that the elements of surprise and rage oftentimes don’t even come into play for those who work daily in this sphere), and I affirmed to her that if and when the government should remove her from the familial situation, we would be more than willing to accept her.
On the car ride home I prayed fervently for Josselyn – that God would console her heart upon receiving the news that she would not be able to return to her family, and that He would grant her His perfect peace to understand why. Upon arriving home I spoke with Darwin – who had been teaching classes all morning – to inform him of the news, and I wept in his presence of my encounter with Katy.
About an hour later we arranged to talk in private with Josselyn. Darwin prayed as the three of us – Darwin, Josselyn and I – held hands with heads bowed in one of our empty classrooms, the teachers and students having already returned home for the evening. By God’s grace we were able to share the news well, and although silent tears rolled down Josselyn’s dark cheeks, she did not turn violent or seem carried toward total despair. We continued talking and praying with her afterward and embraced her in a ‘sandwich hug,’ something we do with all of our kids (Darwin on one side and me on the other, both of us embracing the little person who stands between us.) We had — have — no other choice but to throw ourselves at God’s feet, asking for mercy and for His perfect peace in the face of what could possibly turn into total depression and despair for His daughter Josselyn.
Darwin then left to tend to the rest of our kids as the open conversation – by this time not so heavy – continued between Josselyn and I for quite some time. I then carefully asked Josselyn’s permission to share the news with the rest of our kids, seeing as they all knew about that day’s official visit and were eager to know the result. She consented, saying that it was okay for us to talk about it with the rest of our household but that she preferred not to be present. I agreed, and she went out front with little Gaby to play ball and climb the mango tree with a few young neighbors.
The news was shared with our other six kids – even the news of my experience meeting little Katy – and 16-year-old Dayana, our eldest, was the first to suggest that Katy should come live under our protection. 13-year-old Jackeline was rightfully enraged and surprised that the police had not put step-dad Papo behind bars (even though we had previously shared this information with our children), and a very heavy but peaceful solemnity came over the room where we prayed over and discussed with our children serious details and realities that are far from most households. We reiterated the utter importance of maintaining all forms of sexual abuse and misconduct far from our household; we affirmed our love and commitment to each of our kids; we spoke tenderly of the need to have compassion and patience for Josselyn during this time. As we left the meeting, I was certain God met us there as He had also that morning in the official visit and earlier that afternoon when we spoke with Josselyn.
Later that evening, I found Dayana playing piano and gave her a long hug followed by a kiss on the top of the head as I told her how amazed I was with the heart – the compassion – God was forming in her. The suggestion she had made during the earlier family meeting to receive Katy into our home was nothing short of a miracle, for we all know the extreme adjustments, sacrifices and general household instability that follow the addition of any new child. Surely God was granting Dayana His own heart for those on the margins; surely He was transforming her into a daughter of the King.
That night as everyone was quietly tucked into their bedrooms for our family’s daily Sabbath Hour, Darwin and I arrived at Josselyn and Gaby’s quarters and asked to come in. As we passed through their floral-print door curtain, we found both sisters quietly sitting on their tile floor, working on homework and puzzles. We sat down with them as we informed little Gaby that I had had the privilege of meeting her sister Katy that morning, and that Katy reminded me a lot of Gaby. Her eyes grew wide at the sound of her sister’s name, and I smiled at her and told her that Darwin and I would like to pray with them for Katy.
The sisters’ hands instinctively extended towards ours as the four of us formed an imperfect circle on their tile floor. We prayed for Katy, asking God’s protection over her life and that He would indicate to us what we are to do in this situation. As we finished praying, we embraced each of the sisters and gave them a kiss on the top of their head as we then left their room for the night.
That was Wednesday, two days ago. Please pray with us, both for Josselyn’s continued acceptance and peace with the fact that she will not legally be able to return to her family’s care along with Katy’s very delicate situation, knowing that multitudes of other boys and girls around the globe also silently face sexual abuse day after day. Pray that the local authorities would move to investigate Katy’s living situation and that, if it is God’s will, she would come to our home to be raised in a God-fearing way along with her sisters.
Amen. To God be the glory, for He hears us and comes to our encounter.