The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.



13 responses

2 03 2012

For me, one thing helps humanize the parents of kids I’ve dealt with (especially in the bad cases where I’ve never gotten to know the parents) is to think that wow, your life must be really sucky if you think the thing that would make you feel better is hurting your kid. I know a lot of foster parents don’t connect with that thought, but it works for me. Even with the one monsterish case we know, there’s still that.

5 03 2012

I think that’s a really good way to look at it. I try to consider that perspective even with teens who are acting out and driving their parents insane–it’s not OK what they’re doing, but what are they going through that makes this kind of awful behavior appealing?

2 03 2012

I really enjoy your posts. I adopted my son out of foster care, and his birthparents aren’t monsters either. Just people with poor parenting skills, family histories of addiction, and poor timing and luck. In given enough time, things would have gotten better. And they did, after rights were terminated and the adoption was final. But growing up doesn’t wait and my son needed parents who could be there for him. Second chances are good, but sometimes people aren’t ready for them yet.

Not disputing anything you’re saying, just ranting out my own perspective. 🙂

5 03 2012

I’m glad you raised this point. I totally agree. It’s not fair to let a child languish for years while biological parents try to get themselves together. Second chances, yes, fifth chances, no. I work in prevention, rather than foster care, so that’s the perspective I’m writing this from. Thanks for commenting 🙂

2 03 2012

I like how you relate peoples perception of child abuse to the media’s portrayal. I noticed a long time ago that the understanding that most people have on the issue of child abuse and neglect comes from something that they saw on television. Whenever there is an abuse or neglect story that becomes high profile, like Casey Anthony or Jerry Sandusky’s Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal, there is an instantaneous knee jerk reaction all across the country to address all of the systematic failures that led to that one sensational act of horror. Due to the Jerry Sandusky case, for example, many states are reviewing their mandatory reporting laws to make sure that college staff are now required to report child abuse, and some states have gone as far as to require everybody to report any little thing or face legal consequences. With the Casey Anthony trial, it seems as if people are trying to make some good out of it with the passage of Caylee’s law, which would make it a felony to not report a child missing within 24 hours. Of course, most American’s could probably be half way to Mexico within 24 hours, but that’s beside the point.

Also, the words “Child Abuse” and “Neglect” have become generic, one size fits all labels in public perception because the television portrays the issue as if every case is as severe as those which are newsworthy. The average Joe just doesn’t understand the concept of different severity levels. So upon hearing the words, only the most horrific images, like what they saw on TV, pops into their heads. Now a days, we have such a paranoid and self-righteous society that we have people calling the child abuse hotline simply because their neighbor isn’t parenting up to their high standards and without the slightest consideration of the harm that such calls could have on the innocent. And because everything that Child Protective Services does is done in secret, behind confidentiality rules, the fact that frontline workers are spending so much time chasing shadows, and investigating false accusations and unwarranted calls which is taking away the needed time and resources from the kids who really are in need of protection is not even considered.

2 03 2012

What percentage of removals made without getting a court order in a contested proceeding are for non emergencies in other words long standing condions that were immediately life threatening?

4 03 2012

It amazes me how many people don’t want to see the humanity in people, in general. My theory is that accepting this and letting go of the idea of “evil” is hard because it requires accepting that we can also do very bad things.

I worked once with the elderly and I also did caregiver support. It is SO common for caregivers to become abusive to their loved ones (parent, spouse, sibling) and no one thinks it will happen to them but the stress of being on call 24 hours and having to clean up poop messes, it turns out, is pretty stressful. Kind of like, wait, what? Being a single parent? Yeah.

Personally, my mom was abusive to us as kids. Not in a tv news way, but I did get slapped/hit, things thrown at me, called awful names, etc. It’s clear to me that my mom was beyond stressed and didn’t have the emotional resources to deal. If she had access to therapy it would have been IMMENSELY helpful to our whole family (and maybe my brother wouldn’t be an alcoholic…)

5 03 2012

I find that so much in talking to people about my work. People will even admit to doing things that would be regarded as abuse, but would never call it that because they don’t consider themselves to be bad people.

I’m sorry for what you and your brother went through, and I’m glad to see that you can recognize it for what it was and that you’re helping others. Nice work 🙂

5 03 2012

i agree with lk
i find your attitude refreshing.
Almost every social worker I have meet has the take child and run mentality that is very harmful. I would go so far as to call it abuse when a social worker refuses to work with parents.
Your blog gives me hope that perhaps there are some good social workers out there.
Just some perspective for those who read this comment:
i was in foster care
i would have been better off if i had been left alone

5 03 2012

I just feel like I have to stand up for social workers… most people who work for CPS and call themselves “social worker” are NOT social workers. They don’t have the degree or license. I really think most actual social workers do not have a “take the child and run” mentality.

5 03 2012

That is a huge issue. I wrote about my feelings on that (surprise: they’re not good) a while back. Social work is a specific profession, with its own history, education, and values, and it’s quite upsetting when people violate that title.

9 03 2012

ok more clarification.

the social workers that i am specifically refering to actually did have the power to take children away bc they STOLE me from my mother for NO reason and told my mother they would not offer her ANY services.

i did not say ALL actual social workers have that mentality but according to one actual social worker who specifically worked removing children she said it was roughly 50% that do have this attitude.

that is why i complimented your attitude bc while i was in care i knew many actual social workers.

9 03 2012

it is easy to defend the ones who take children to quickly when you were rescued from an abuser.
I was kidnapped plain and simple and i spoke with MANY other children that felt the same way
it is ABUSE to take a child away and then they cry almost everyday until their parent dies.
Sorry Sarah but i took off my rose colored glasses a long time ago.

Especially since i was abused and removed from the home they placed me in.

I understand how my views may be offensive to those good social workers but the ones i actually met did have that menta
lity. The ones that are bad are giving the whole this stereotype.

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