Broken Families Broken Hearts
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010Early in my career as a public health nurse, I received a call one Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. from the county social service agency’s homemaker. She had taken an urgent call from one of her clients who seemed desperate and she couldn’t find the family’s case worker. Would I go out and make an assessment visit with her? This was a farm family with six children ranging in age from 6 months to 16 years and the mother had been readmitted to a psychiatric unit that morning. She had a long history of depression and frequent hospitalizations. The father was known by social services to be controlling and harshly punished his children because he believed this was his responsibility as husband and father. The call to the homemaker had come from the mother’s sister, who said the children’s father was refusing to feed the children as a way to punish the mother. He believed his wife feigned mental illness as a way to get out of fulfilling her wifely and motherly duties.
I arrived at the house with the homemaker at around 4 p.m. All of the children were there except for the 16-year-old. One of the younger children explained that her brother lived in the barn because her dad didn’t like him and didn’t allow him in the house. The younger children clung to the homemaker, obviously relieved to see her. As we approached the house, the father met us at the door with a rifle in his arms and asked what we wanted. The homemaker explained that she was concerned about the baby as he seemed ill during her earlier morning visit and had asked me, the county nurse, to see the child. He allowed us in and I proceeded to assess the baby. Although well nourished, the infant was crying and lying in a urine and feces-soaked crib. He looked dehydrated and was warm to the touch, but his eyes appeared bright and he stopped crying when I held him.
The children told us that they had not eaten since the day before. The father acknowledged this. He agreed to let us do whatever we thought needed to be done as long as he didn’t have to do it. While the homemaker made up some pancakes for the children (there was nothing else in the house), I found some formula for the baby, fed and cleaned him up. All the while we listened to the man rant and rave about his “evil” wife; how she punished him by escaping to the hospital and embarrassed him by not obeying him. I was beginning to think the only sane response his wife could make to her situation was to become depressed.
It quickly became apparent we could not leave the children there. We were able to persuade the man to let us take the children to his sister-in-law’s home. We packed the children into the car as quickly as we could and drove to the sister-in-law’s house without even letting her know we were on our way.
We arrived back at the office at 9:00 p.m. exhausted and unsure what to do about the father. Still unable to locate a social worker (there were no on-call beepers or cell phones in those days), we went down the hall to the sheriff’s office to at least alert them to the situation. Feeling very shaken, I went home and prayed.
I heard nothing over the weekend. When I arrived at work on Monday morning, I learned that the man had committed suicide sometime during the night the same day the homemaker and I made our visit. In the note he left he said that since no one would force his wife to obey him, he would kill himself to “show her.”
As I write 20 years later, tears still well up in my eyes re-experiencing the tragedy and despair of that situation. It took a long time for me to process what happened and my responsibility for what I could and couldn’t do. Even now, with more experience and understanding, the utter brokenness of some situations still tears at my heart.