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Care Less

Could I be immersed in cases of abuse of children by day and still be a good mother at night? Could I maintain a professional boundary with a victim that I wanted to rescue? If I left my office at five o’clock to take care of my child, who would do the work necessary to get the convictions and protect the victims? Rebecca Miller introspects deeply and questions her role as a mother and a district attorney.

When I first entered a courtroom as an assistant district attorney, my knowledge of crime came from newspapers and the nightly news. It was the early 1990s and the incessant television crime shows were just beginning to sink their claws into America. Thirty years later, violent, graphic imagery and the tragic consequences of crime are no longer shocking; victims are merely bloody bodies on a screen. Without thinking, we have become anesthetized to people who suffer. As a prosecutor confronting heartbreaking stories day after day, avoiding apathy felt crucial to me.

Like most assistant district attorneys, I spent a year pushing drunk driving, shoplifting, and minor assault and battery cases through district court before I graduated to superior court where the crimes were more serious. My first trial was rape of a child, and the victim was a preteen boy. I said penis in open court more times that I had ever said that word in my life. But the defendant was convicted and went off to state prison. On to the next one. Stacks of child abuse cases were waiting.

Many of my sexual abuse cases followed a similar pattern—a young victim, an overwhelmed or neglectful mother, and a boyfriend/stepfather/male neighbor as the perpetrator. There was seldom physical evidence, there was often pressure on witnesses not to testify, and much of the case depended on my relationship with the victim. They had to trust me if they were going to stand up in a courtroom and tell their story. So, I learned to cajole the parents whatever my personal opinion of them. Frequently there was so much chaos in their lives that a court case was not their primary concern. I tried to understand. My sidekick and mentor in this world was Joe, an investigator, who had seen horrific physical and sexual abuse of children and bore the scars of his chosen career. He smoked, drank, and couldn’t complete a sentence without a few expletives. He kept his sanity by finding humor where he could. A defendant’s ill-fitting toupee. The rumor that two of our convicted defendants were sharing a cell at the state prison.

I appreciated his gallows humor, but jokes only carried me so far. When I lost my first case, I left the courthouse and drove for hours wondering why the jury didn’t believe my seven-year-old victim. When a jury acquitted a defendant who had raped his teenage daughter, I spent the evening at a bar worrying about this teenager’s future. Each loss was a poisonous knot inside of me. 

And the cases kept coming. As I gained experience, the facts became more complicated and disturbing. A mentally disabled victim who contracted a sexually transmitted disease. A nine-year-old who became pregnant. A father who raped two of his three children. I hunkered down and dedicated myself to my job, determined that all my defendants would be convicted. I researched and strategized every angle of every case. Older attorneys snickered at my extensive preparation, but I felt responsible for each case, each victim.

One day Joe swaggered into my office, handed me a file, threw himself into a chair, and called the perpetrator a string of names I could never repeat. I skimmed the case and came up with my own colorful comments about him. Kaylee, the six-month-old victim, had brain damage. The teenage father had an ever-changing story about how Kaylee was injured. The teenage mother didn’t want to testify against the father because he was still her boyfriend. Joe and I were livid as custody of Kaylee bounced between a foster home and the mother. During the trial, the mother cruised through the courthouse with Kaylee on her hip, laughing with her friends, while I called medical experts to testify about her child’s brain damage. The defendant was convicted but I couldn’t close the file and move on to the next case. What would happen to Kaylee in the future?

Then I had a miscarriage.

When I returned to the office, my tolerance for the parents of my victims had dissipated. I silently judged the working mother who foolishly let her nine-year-old daughter spend afternoons in the basement with a seventy-year-old male neighbor. I chastised a mother who asked if her husband could return home after he served his sentence. My perspective was shifting, and I felt off balance.

I went hiking on the weekends trying to restore my sanity through fresh air. I interspersed emotionally taxing child abuse cases with straightforward drug cases. Even a murder investigation was less arduous.

Then I became pregnant again.

I looked around the office and realized none of the other child abuse prosecutors had children. Of all the attorneys that passed through the courthouse, few of the female attorneys had children. There was one female judge in our circuit—no kids. Joe was a father not a mother, and he was an investigator not a prosecutor, and the impact on him was obvious. Could I be immersed in cases of abuse of children by day and still be a good mother at night? Could I maintain a professional boundary with a victim that I wanted to rescue? If I left my office at five o’clock to take care of my child, who would do the work necessary to get the convictions and protect the victims?

As the reality of being a mother settled on me, I understood there was going to be a wall between my child and my victims. Every day I would climb from one side of the wall to the other, but my time and emotion would be directed at the side of the wall with my own child. Like a captivating news story, the victims would be with me for a while, but then I would move on. They would be traumatized, and I would be relieved to go home.

So, when I was eight months pregnant, I left my job.

Joe sent me a note couple of months later telling me it was time to come back. I thought about it. If I returned, someone would suffer—my child, my victims, or me. I couldn’t sacrifice my child or my victims, and I didn’t want to become someone who didn’t feel the trauma of the abuse. I didn’t want to be someone who no longer flinched at a bloody body on the screen. So, I sent Joe back a note and said, Remember Kaylee? My little girl is the same age Kaylee was when that asshole slammed her into the table. Sorry, I can’t come back to that.

Several years later Joe got on the wrong side of the district attorney and lost his job. Then he died of cancer. A friend told me about his funeral, but I was preoccupied with my own family and chose not to go. I knew I didn’t want to reflect on the path I hadn’t taken, and those I had left behind.

Book Stack

Rebecca Miller is a writer and an attorney living north of Boston, Massachusetts. Her essays have been published in WBUR’s Congnoscenti and in the essay collection Women Under Scrutiny.

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