By Tammi Pitzen, Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County
In 1989, I started this quest into the field of child abuse as an intern on the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office child abuse team. It was made up of two women detectives. I graduated in 1990 from Northeast Louisiana University. (They changed their name sometime in the later 90’s, but I refuse to play along. My degree says NLU, and so that is who they will always be to me!).
On December 26, 1990, I began working for the Office of Community Services in Vernon Parish and briefly closed my eyes. When I opened them again, it was 26 later and here I am in Oregon.
This work was meant to be a temporary passage — not a lifetime passion. December 26th I will embark on my 27th year of working on my behalf of abused children.
As I sit down to write this, and reflect on the last 26 years, I recognize that many things have changed for me. I started out making less than $12.50 an hour. I just did the math and that is shocking to me. If I am honest, I can’t remember how much I made, but at the end of ten years, I was making less than $12.50 an hour.
I started out in this field at the age of 21, single, childless, and ready to take on the world. I had no responsibilities to anyone else and so I worked. A lot. I worked weekends. I worked late. I took work home with me. I will say, that part does not seem to have changed that much.
26 years ago, there were no cell phones. I would go out for the day to locate families, signing out on a white board, and just assumed that if I didn’t come back, someone would eventually come to look for me. Not that they would have found me as, most of the time, I just signed out “in the field”. Depending on the day, it could have literally been a field, but most of the time, it just meant “out of the office working”.
26 years ago, there was no GPS system, so I would navigate with the latest parish map. 26 years ago, I planned my life around a “pager” schedule. I would literally sit around and wait for the pager to go off on my “on-call” weeks.
26 years ago, most of the training was on the job training and the initial training I received, before going out and investigating life and death crimes, was on constructing genograms. (The social workers reading this will know what that is, and smile, and recognize that it would not help me in deciphering timelines or pattern bruising).
Within six months of this first job, everything about me changed. I was no longer who I thought I was. This work changes you.
No. Actually, the children do that to you.
To this day, there are eight children from two families that flash into my mind every night before I go to sleep. They made me into a better case worker. Their parents made me more compassionate and empathetic. Those kids never got to go home or at least, not until their 18th birthday.
In my first year, I worked near fatal child abuse cases and, within my first year and a half, I had worked fatal cases.
The smell of a hospital still evokes images and a panicked feeling surrounding my first fatal child abuse case. Surprisingly, I didn’t interact much with law enforcement while investigating that case. I do remember having to repeatedly call and basically camp out at the police station to get a report and to get a copy of the coroner’s findings.
I do remember my shaking hands as I tried to draw the injuries I could see on the child’s body. Another skill that none of my initial training taught me. And I remember crying myself to sleep as I imagined what had happened that caused her to take her last breath.
It was a pivotal moment. At this point, caseworkers either move on to some other work or decide what adjustments they will need to make in order to stay in.
Upon reflection, I have learned so much. Here are 26 things I have learned in 26 years:
1. At some point in life, you have to decide if making a lot of money is your driving force or if it is finding your purpose. Sometimes you are super lucky and your purpose will allow you to make a lot of money.
2. Sometimes your passion chooses you. And usually when you are not paying attention.
3. If you are going to make a difference, you have to take care of yourself. I always thought it was crazy that the stewardess on the plane tells you that, if you are sitting next to a child and the air masks drop, put yours on first. Now, I totally get it. You will do no one any good if you are sick and unable to function.
4. For the most part, people do the best they can with what they are given—this includes parents of abused children.
5. Sometimes milk and cookies is the answer — no matter what the question.
6. Spilled milk is not a crisis or the end of the world. Neither is spilled red Kool-Aid.
7. If we listen closely, children will tell us what they need. And part two of that is that sometimes they tell us through methods other than words.
8. Adults are always in control and in charge in any interaction with children. It does not matter if it is an abuse scenario or just regular life.
9. Very few mistakes made are mistakes that can’t be corrected.
10. Sometimes you get “do overs” in life. Always take them.
11. Wolves really do come in sheep’s clothing. Every single time I am surprised by it when it happens.
12. Life is good when you expect the best all the time, even when people disappoint you. Being surprised by the wolf in sheep’s clothing does not make you naïve or ignorant.
13. Everyone has something to give and no matter what it is they are giving, it has value. It is important to let them give.
14. Children who are abused did not ask for that abuse nor did they do anything to cause the abuse to happen. The brokenness that is left after a child is abused can be repaired.
15. Sometimes everything IS awesome. Enjoy those times!
16. Sex offenders look like everyone else.
17. An abused child deserves the same things that any other child has.
18. The world-wide web is not the enemy. The key is supervising our children and monitoring their actions on the internet.
19. Kids will teach you what you need to know to love them.
20. Judgements get in the way of doing our best work with families.
21. Don’t get caught up in leaving a legacy or a mark on the world. Focus on doing what is “right” and “kind” in the moment and your mark will be left.
22. Providing structure provides safety.
23. Abuse in your childhood does not define who you are. It usually has nothing to do with who you are and more to do with who the abuser is.
24. Listen to everything your child tells you, as if it is the most important thing in the world, so they will tell you the important things when they come up. Otherwise they may get filtered out.
25. Never underestimate the impact of being kind to someone.
26. Terrible awful things happen to the best people. It really isn’t about what is fair or what is right. It is about what you do next. Do you choose to stay exactly where the terrible awful thing left you. Choose to rise above and beyond.
And I want to add one more that has saved me many times: Never, ever take yourself too seriously. When you can recognize your weaknesses and your mistakes and forgive yourself those missteps, it allows others to do the same for themselves
While many things have changed in the last 26 years, the one thing that remains constant is this: Abused children need each of us.
We — as in all of us — are the ones that can change the trajectory of the life of an abused child. Don’t let anyone tell you it is not your business. It is your business.
It has been a long rewarding 26 years. I am hoping I have more years to give. As I enter in my 27th year, I am humbled and thankful for the opportunity to do this work in this community.
I am extremely proud of the staff, Board, Advisory Council, volunteers, donors and Multi-disciplinary team at the Children’s Advocacy Center.
Together we can make our world a better, safer place for children in Jackson County. We depend on each of you to be able to provide abused children with interviews, therapy, medical care and support services.