Let's call him "Devin". He's handsome, energetic, sweet, respectful, and seven years old. He's been at the domestic violence shelter for three weeks. No problem in group time, behavior wise and gets along fine with the other kids. During suppertime (before group), I had noticed his mom rarely smiled at him and acted quite stern and strict. He always listened to her in my presence and obeyed her without argument.
He gave me a hug when I arrived and always joined me at the table to talk or show me a new game. So I was surprised when one of the other women asked him, "Why you dis your mom so much?"
He said nothing but his eyes dropped in embarrassment. I told him I was surprised because he never disrespects me. When does he dis Mom? He shrugs. "He disses her all the time," the other woman said.
"Do you know what she means by "dissing" your mom?" I ask him. He shakes his head "No." I tell him what it means and he nods, blurts out, "She won't let me see my Dad!"
He throws himself onto the table, then drops into my lap and sobs. His mother hears the commotion, comes into the dining area, stands there sad and helpless. Wisely waits until he calms down to take him upstairs so they can talk privately. He seems back to normal during group that night.
There are so many kids in this situation. They love their moms; hate what Dad or her partner does to her. Yet they often love him and miss him when they leave home. Unfortunately, allowing a child to visit an abusive dad is very tricky. Sometimes it is already forbidden by a restraining order. Sometimes a woman understandably fears or abhors contact with the man. Sometimes she has taken her kids out of his presence so they won't run the risk of becoming like him in the case of her boys or the risk of falling in love with someone like him in the case of her girls.
When I worked in a Permanency Planning department of a private social work agency, I dealt with this dilemma all the time--and the conflict it aroused in me. As an adoptive parent I encouraged my son from an early age to talk about and ask questions about his "first mom." As a child therapist, I watched the rage that the threat of a legal, "permanent" separation from mom or both parents caused in children old enough to understand this loss.
Few preferred new ("forever") parents to their own, no matter how nice they seemed. Most wanted their "real" parents to bring them home, whether the parents were "fixed up" or not. The only exception: the child abused in his own home to the point of fearing for his life.
The next week, Devin had moved back home with his dad. His mom was still at the shelter and looked depressed and anxious. She knew he was already highly identified with his father and she had little influence over him. She hoped when he grew up, he'd understand the choices she made. Even more, she hoped he'd make different ones.