Our instinct to protect our children is tied into a lot of factors. It could be that we're collectively averse to letting harm befall any creature so small and adorable or that we have a biological imperative to ensure the survival of our genetic material. Oftentimes it seems our protective nature stems from the understanding that we have to speak for the people who can't speak for themselves. It's why we blearily change diapers in the middle of the night or break up sandbox fights that look like they might get out of control. It's the least we can do, speaking for little ones without a voice yet. Acting for them.
That's why when someone acts outside of the sort of common human agreement that we all have to protect our community's most vulnerable tiny humans, we are shocked and horrified. This is what happened to a baby named Jacob. Someone hurt him, but what's worse is that now his parents feel powerless to speak up for him.
In a post that has since gone viral, Jacob's father, Joshua Marbury, shared his son's infuriating story. It seems straightforward enough: The little boy was with a babysitter. They believe the babysitter hit Jacob, leaving bruises so bad that Marbury says a detective told him and his partner, Alicia, that the abuse could have killed their little boy. According to Marbury, the babysitter even admitted to doing this:
Then, nothing. A quirk in Oregon law means the case can't move forward because the victim (Jacob) can't prove he was in substantial pain. Because 1-year-old Jacob can't talk.
It's a collective parenting nightmare come to life. This age, the one between the early days of eat/sleep/repeat and the lifetime ceaseless stream of babble, is such a tough one to navigate. When babies are newborns, it is a foregone conclusion that they can't tell us anything. We have to intuit their needs instead, and those needs are terribly straightforward. But by the time they can sit, crawl and begin to pull themselves up, those needs have already begun to evolve. They need to satisfy their curiosity. To try new sounds and tastes and textures. They need to trust that they are safe.
Children a little older than Jacob have begun to perfect the art of a well-placed point and an "owwie" or a pat on the stomach with something that sounds like "hungry." If someone were to hurt them, they might not be able to point an accusatory finger, but they could at least articulate that pain.
Jacob cannot, at least not verbally. As the people with the closest bond with him, his parents, as any parent would, can intuit what he's going through. But any onlooker could do the same. Looking at that picture, there's more on his face than those awful bruises. That's a little boy who is hurting. He looks miserable. Wary. He may not be able to articulate what he's feeling, but anyone with eyes and a brain knows.
When we trust other people to watch our children, we expect they will adhere to the social contract that means they will protect their charges and take up the task of speaking for them. If not by some genetic conditioning, then at least because we are paying them to do so. Perhaps they won't love our children the way we love them, and really, that's OK.
But at the very least, we expect they will protect them in the way we would by keeping them safe. It takes a gross amount of apathy for any person to stand by and watch a vulnerable child be harmed. It takes something far worse for them to participate in harming them.
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