Billie Johnson

Billie Johnson

Have you noticed the shiny blue pinwheels in your area? I first spotted them a few weeks ago around the ISU campus and noticed some in Idaho Falls this week. For the last few years, they’ve popped up in April for Child Abuse Prevention Month. I’ve said many times that my childhood was shaped by child abuse — not because I encountered it, but because my mom was a child protection worker. If she were alive today, there would be pinwheels in her yard, on her car antenna and tucked behind her ears. She would tell me, “Honey, if you can carry around your cellphone, you can carry a pinwheel for a month to spread awareness about this problem and call for its end.”

I have not been carrying a blue pinwheel this month, but I’ve been wrestling with what to write. The arsenal of prevention tips, the laws I came to know, the agencies I could highlight, the stories she told and the kids I met personally leave me wondering where to begin. I’ll start with the trombone player.

I met the trombone player when I was 8 and he about 13. His mother had troubles with drugs and alcohol, and his father was violent and cruel. His dad would play catch with him and throw the ball too high or too hard and then beat him when he couldn’t catch it. He would set his son up to fail and then berate and punish him for it. The neglect from one parent compounded by the emotional and physical abuse from the other were horrendous. I can’t recall if their parental rights were terminated or if they surrendered their child to the state, but I met him when he first went into foster care. This was also when he started to play the trombone.

His trombone-playing was significant because my mom played the instrument in high school. She always told me that I, too, would play it someday. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was a mandate, and I was underwhelmed at the prospect until I met the trombone player. He was kind and always smiled at me. When he was in high school and got a job at a local pizza parlor, Mom would take me there on Friday nights, so she could check in with him. He’d sneak me ice cream and quarters to play video games. I couldn’t wait to play the trombone like he did.

He was eventually adopted and moved out of state. He wrote letters to Mom and called her once in a while, but that trickled to an end in his late teens. Years later, out of the blue, he called Mom at home one night. I could hear only parts of their conversation where she laughed and cried and kept spilling the kind of encouragement I was accustomed to. When they hung up, Mom sobbed.

The trombone player, who had gone on to earn a music scholarship in college, had called because he was now a young father. He was worried he was going to be like his dad because he felt his temper with his toddler and he didn’t want to be that man. He needed help.

Mom offered tips about not reacting in the moment and counting through breaths, but what he really needed was professional counseling. She committed to tracking down agencies in the city where he was living and got back to him.

Although he was miles away and years had passed, the trombone player had a personal connection that made that phone call easier than reaching out to a stranger. But my mom had been a stranger to him at the beginning. Just like then, there are strangers in our midst today who want to help. In the Pocatello/Chubbuck area, I’m familiar with the Family Services Alliance and the Bannock Youth Foundation’s Family Resource Center as having free counseling available. Health West offers counseling services on a sliding scale, and the Family and Children’s Services division of the Department of Health and Welfare can also be a starting point to connect to counseling resources.

Breaking the cycles of child abuse is the cornerstone of prevention. I grew up understanding that “hurt people hurt people.” When we as adults find ourselves in situations where our own hurt is leading us to hurt others, it’s on us to examine our behaviors and work to change. It’s monumentally difficult to hold ourselves accountable as adults for the behaviors we learned as children, but it’s not impossible. The trombone player did it. Child abuse prevention can start with questions, recognition and a phone call — not just during this Child Abuse Prevention Month, but any time at all.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business from Idaho State University. She is an engineer and community volunteer who relishes hiking and biking the mountains of Southeast Idaho.