This week, The Inlander has a cover story on child abuse, investigating why the rates in Spokane seem to be increasing. What follows is a more personal piece, about one man’s journey from neglect, to abuse, to healing.
Today, David Smith is a confident 44-year-old Air Force veteran, bald and goateed.
Back then he was a scrawny 9-year-old boy, with buzzed hair and deeply tanned skin, living in a ramshackle house on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where the power would go out and the water would turn off and the cupboards would go bare. Smith and his sister would often subsist on just oatmeal, day after day, until even that ran out.
He, his sister, and his cousins would walk five miles to the trading post to try to buy food on credit. “Sometimes they would take pity on us,” Smith says. “Other times they would say, no, your bill is too far past due,” and they’d walk five miles back on hungry stomachs.
His mother, despite his pleas, would usually leave on Thursday or Friday, and wouldn’t come back until days later. She’d be dead drunk, slurring insults, fighting with whatever man she brought home, until Smith could calm her down and get her to bed. She’d sometimes wake up with her eyeglasses broken and her teeth chipped.
But on one winter Sunday, the guy she fought with gave her one of the worst beatings of her life, violently kicking her in the head. Smith and his sister screamed at him to stop, but the man grabbed a gun and chased them out of the house. They hid in the woods until the cops and a social worker arrived.
Smith implored the social worker, “You don’t understand, when you leave, the man who’s here is probably going to kill us.”
But the foster home he landed in was even worse. The kids there were “virtual slaves,” forced to cook, clean, even rub the foster mom’s feet. He starved there too. “She wouldn’t feed us, but she’d put out candy at arm’s length, and if we’d touch it, she’d beat us,” Smith says.
When someone stole a fun-sized candy bar out of her bedroom, she lined all the kids up, and went kid by kid, beating them with a belt, then repeated it all over again, for three and a half hours, until someone fessed up. The foster mom was a police dispatcher, so he didn’t feel he could go to the cops.
As he climbed into the shower, he saw the marks she had left on his body — shades of black and blue, red and orange.
He escaped all that long ago. But marks of abuse linger.
“I’m supposed to be a statistic,” Smith says. “I’m supposed to be on the street corner, drug addicted, had two or three kids out of wedlock, have abused [them], got them taken away to foster care.”
Instead, he escaped foster care and abuse relatively intact. But he knows he isn’t unscarred. Today, everything feels temporary. He’s gone from job to job to job, been a flight attendant and 911 operator, worked in the military, the medical field and in social services. He points around to his immaculate house, with the zebra-patterned rug and the golden trophies on the shelves. “If everything in this house burned down tomorrow, I’d be like, oh well,” Smith says.
Just a few years ago, his friend joked about having “macaroni soup,” and Smith felt his stomach tighten. That was the lousy dish, boiled macaroni noodles sitting in water, he repeatedly ate in that abusive foster home, while the foster mom and dad ate steak.
“I have to work diligently, when life happens, to not take it out on my kids,” Smith says.
There’s no way to erase abuse. It can take years of counseling. But the biggest hope for healing, therapists say, is the creation of positive, nurturing, non-judgmental relationships. When a child is able to form a healthy attachment, in a safe place, they have somebody to cling to.
Smith found that place at the Hutton Settlement, a Spokane group home he landed at when he was 14. “I always think of myself as a wandering, lost soul before Hutton,” Smith said. There he had caretakers who actually cared.
There he came across a cardboard box, small enough to slide under his bed. And when nobody was looking, he’d grab whatever he didn’t think they’d notice him taking — canned corn, canned peaches, Grandma’s cookies — and hide them in that box under the bed. To Smith’s mind, having food was never a guarantee.
When the resident director eventually stumbled upon it, and asked him about it, Smith thought he’d be kicked out, sent to another home. Instead the director led him down to a huge room in the basement, where shelves, floor to ceiling, were filled with canned food. He showed him the freezer, stocked with endless milk and ice cream and frozen vegetables.
He’d always have food, the director told him, and he could restock his box whenever he wanted. For months he did. One day, when a house mother needed to make spaghetti and didn’t have any sauce, he ran upstairs, pulled out his box and brought her a gift of tomato sauce.
“I said, ‘here you go,” Smith says, “It’s from my stash.” And eventually, maybe after a year and half, he got rid of the box all together.
Back at Smith’s house, three decades later, a door opens, and a round-faced 8-year-old boy in basketball shorts flops down on the couch and embraces him. “I just wanted to give you a hug,” the boy says.
Today, Smith is a foster parent himself, with two foster kids. At three years, he says, his father-son relationship with his oldest foster kid is the longest relationship he’s ever had. They have their own painful histories — but Smith has become the person they cling to.