Choices

The new federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) talks about prevention, but it’s important to understand that the prevent referenced in the act is notwhat I call “original prevention.” In other words, the act is about preventing lengthy time in congregate care (group foster homes) or foster care. The goal is to keep families together; if kids can’t stay with parents, the second best is relative placement, then foster care homes, then congregate care. But any of these choices means that the abuse or neglect has already happened. 

I’ve written elsewhereabout one of the main causes of social isolation that leads to substance use disorders (“SUDs”), both original use and relapse. But choice plays another big role in all of this. I’m not talking about the “choice” to, as some people callously say, “stick a needle in your arm.” I’m talking about choice regarding getting sober and maintaining that sobriety (and other decisions that affect the outcome of a case). 

In the book, Influencers,the authors note that, “A reigning but inaccurate assumption in counseling…is that confrontation motivates change. He then asks, “What if the counselor merely helped patients figure out what theywanted rather than what their fed-up friends wanted?” In other words, the best way to help individuals align their behavior with their deepest motives was to stop trying to control their thoughts and behaviors. 

I have a case right now where I represent a young child. I tell mom what I want to see in terms of behavioral changes in order for me to recommend returning her son to her. And then she turns around and does the exact opposite of what I have asked her to do. Now, you would think that with such high stakes (i.e., return of her child), she would comply with what she’s being asked to do by people who have influence over that final outcome. But she doesn’t. It’s almost like she’s sending the message, “You will not tell me what to do. am in control here.”

She’s not necessarily in control of the final decision, but she is right that she’s in control of what shedoes. It may or may not lead to the outcome she wants, but she gets to decide. When I represent parents, I tell them that I can’t “make” them do anything. I go on to tell them that that’s true of DHS, and even the court. However, even though we can’t make them do certain things, the court can certainly make it painful for them if they don’t. For example, if they refuse a drug screen, no one is going to show up at their door, wrestle them to the ground, and draw blood or other bodily fluids. But typically, a refused test is legally deemed positive for substance use, which will negatively impact visits (they will still get visits, but they will likely be limited and fully supervised). This, plus the limited visits (and the likelihood that they are not “engaging in services,” such as substance abuse treatment) will, if it goes on long enough, probably prevent them from getting their kids back. 

In other words, although the court can order them to do a drug test, it can’t force them to do it. But it can make the result of that choice, i.e., termination of parental rights, very painful. But it’s still a choice for the parent.

Tal Ben-Shahar, noted positive psychology scholar and author of Choose the Life You Want, also makes an interesting, and related point by saying that we often feel trapped, or that we have no choice. The first choice we need to make is the choice to choose. To recognize that we always have a choice (though some may be more or less viable than others) helps restore a sense of control over our lives. And when we look at our choices in the context of values and desired outcomes, it becomes easier to make the right choice. 

For our parents, that looks like this: If Mom’s value is to be a good parent, and her goal is to be reunified with her children, then it’s easy to choose to take the drug screen (rather than refuse it). Even if she tests positive (which is why a lot of parents choose not to take it), it’s the same legalresult as refusing to take the test. And the sooner she “admits” the usage, the sooner she can get treatment and be on the road to sobriety and reunification. And this is important, too, because there are statutory deadlines regarding when the court is required to make permanency decisions (and they’re shorter for very young children). The sooner a parent gets sober, the more time s/he has to build that historyof sobriety, which is important to the court.

Granted, that choice to take the drug test and engage in the subsequent treatment is simple, but not easy. But as an attorney, I have learned that when a parent tells me he is (or is not) going to do something, I don’t argue with him. I simply say, “Ok. But let me share with you what will happen if you (don’t do that drug screen, go to therapy, etc.), so that you can make an informed decision.” And then I explain it to them, and they can decide. He may still choose to refuse the test (which makes both his job and mine a lot harder), but it’s his choice.

But here’s the other place I see it.

I have cases where the “kids” are older teens. Even if they were adopted when they were young, and even where there was significant neglect, these kids feel a strong pull to their biological parents. They will do whatever it takes to reconnect with that parent, and in this day of social media, it’s not hard. Their adoptive parents, and even some of the DHS professionals and attorneys, understandably try to prevent that contact. They don’t want the kids hurt again. But the more they try to prevent that contact, the more damage it does to their own relationship with the kids. 

In one case, I have a child who really wants to see her mom. She has a significant “blind spot” with regard to mom’s behavior and continues to make excuses for her. Mom continues to drink, and generally make bad choices, and at one point, the adoptive parents asked if they should get a no contact order. But I told them that even if we “prohibited” her from seeing Mom, she would do it anyway. And because she’s been told notto, she will do it in secret; she will lie about it, and she will do it in a way that may not be safe. So instead of prohibiting it, I suggested we controland manage it, via her therapist. In other words, we don’t resistthe child’s decision, so it doesn’t damage our relationship with her.

One of two things happens when we “allow” the visit under controlled circumstances: either mom will get her act together and be in a position to have a (relatively) healthy relationship with her daughter, or she would continue down the self-destructive path until even her daughter would have to acknowledge those problems. Because we didn’t try to prevent her from seeing her mom, we are not at the point where the daughter recognizes that her mom is not making good decisions, and has, herself, decided she doesn’t want to see her until she is sober and has a better handle on her decisions. But that would never have happened if we had tried to force that separation.

The bond between a parent and child is powerful, even when it’s not healthy. But allowing parents andkids to have more options and more control over those decisions typically ends with more satisfaction with—or at least acceptance of—the outcomes. 

The nice thing is that although this can often require more time and energy, it does not usually require more money. The additional benefit is that it requires parents to be accountable for their own decisions and outcomes because they have made the choice. No one forced them to do anything. And the flip side is that they also get credit for good outcomes based upon the good choices they made. 

Relative Placement vs. Foster Care

The new Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) changes how some of the funding can be used, primarily trying to shift some of the Title IV funds that could previously be used only for foster and adoptive services, to prevention services. But one thing that did not survive early versions of the bill was financial assistance to relative placements.

This has always been kind of a weird thing. On the one hand, as a society we sort of expect family to step in and care for each other becausethey’re family. They shouldn’t need to be compensated for that. And there are probably some concerns about potential fraud, i.e., a family member saying, “If you take/care for my child, we can get some money out of this,” because if there’s a way to manipulate the situation to get money out of the government, there will be someone who figures that out. 

But it can sometimes lead to some rather wonky outcomes. There may be relatives who genuinely wantto care for their grandchild, niece/nephew, etc., and who are perfectly capable of being an appropriate caregiver, but who do not have the financial resources to do so. But instead of providing them with financial assistance so they couldtake in this child (and which would likely be less traumatic for the child), we put the child in foster care and pay a stranger to take care of them. This does not really make sense. 

If they want those stipends, they have to go through the arduous process of become a licensed foster care provider. And some do that, but that, in turn, gives a false reporting of how many licensed foster care homes we have. Why? Because these are not people who are planning on taking in other foster children—they just need the stipend to take care of their family’s children. This, in turn, makes the organizations charged with recruiting/retaining foster parents look like they’re doing a better job than they actually are. 

So we end up with some weird outcomes and weird workarounds to solve those problems. 

The bill does provide federal matching funds for kinship navigator programs to connect relatives to already existing resources. Again, on the one hand, this seems to make sense; if there is already a program to provide food assistance, for example, why not simply direct the relative there, rather than provide duplicate services? On the other hand, there may be services that relatives need that are not provided elsewhere, or for which they are not eligible. And there are no funds for those services. 

Following are some ideas (not necessarily in alignment with the federal legislation): 

What if we directed relative placements to the services they needed that other agencies/organizations provide, but then had funding for services that are not covered elsewhere (whether due to eligibility restrictions or some other reason)? It would still be potentially less than the full foster-care stipend but would allow kids to stay with family that they already know.  Navigators could meet with families to determine what they need, what they are eligible for, and who could provide that. A stipend amount could then be determined based upon remaining, uncovered need. 

What if we had an expedited foster care training program for relative placements who do not intend to be foster parents generally? This could allow them to receive the stipend, without the sometimes-overwhelming training required of foster parents who want to take in non-relative children. And if they were counted differently, it would give us more accurate data regarding how many foster homes we actually had (and would hold those organizations that are responsible for the recruitment/retention of foster kids more accountable in order to receive theircontractual pay). 

And what if we provided them with a dedicated Legal Aid attorney to help with some of the issues that might arise such as housing (e.g., some grandparents live in 55+ communities that may or may not allow children), SSI issues for children with special needs, collecting child support from parents, etc.? 

Of course, none of these prevent “original harm” of the child, but they could fulfill the goals of the FFPSA by preventing kids from going into foster care when there is an appropriate relative available.

Integrity

Parents who have had children removed due to a substance use disorder (“SUD”) typically struggle with another devastating loss—integrity. 

This is due in large part to the disease. To clarify, I’m talking about integrity that has two primary components. The first is the one many people think of—honesty. Individuals who have a SUD often lie about their use for a variety of reasons. They may (reasonably) be afraid that if they tell the truth about their use, DHS will “take” their children. They may think that they can “beat” the test (and all the problems that come with a positive drug screen). It may be good old-fashioned panic. The thing is, DHS is going to drug test them, and if they are using, it will show up. Even when someone “confesses,” DHS will still test. Why? Because a parent may admit to using marijuana, thinking DHS will simply accept his admission and move on. But DHS knows from past experience that admitting to marijuana use may only be a partial truth. Dad may also be doing a “harder” drug like meth, cocaine, or heroin. DHS wants the full truth about the parent’s SUD. They want to keep kids safe (whether or not that means removal) and they want the parent to get treatment for any SUD he or she may have in order to safely parent the children.

When a parent lies about drug usage, she still has all the negative consequences of the positive drug screen, but now on top of that, she has earned the “untruthful” label, which will cause DHS and the courts to question nearly everything she says going forward. Parents don’t always understand (or like) this, and so they mistakenly believe DHS is “picking on” them when in fact, it is their own lack of honesty that creates the higher scrutiny.

The second kind of integrity I am talking about is the failure to do what the person says he will do. In the arena of a Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) case, this typically shows up as broken promises about getting into treatment or therapy, though it can also include really anything the DHS/Court has asked the parent to do (e.g., find safe/stable housing, get a job, etc.). 

I had one case where mom promised to get a job. Between the start of the case and the Permanency hearing, she had five different jobs, but was actually unemployed much of that year. In reviewing the monthly FSRP reports, she kept promising to find housing, but didn’t do that until eight months into the case. Treatment? Kept promising she was going to various treatment programs. Didn’t do it until nine months in. Her lack of follow-through on promises and other “untrue statements” led me to react to every new statement of “achievement” (or excuse) with an unspoken “documentation or it didn’t happen.” And that’s a terrible way for a parent and the professionals to go through a case.

But it’s even more devastating to the kids. At one hearing, a parent promised his 12-year-old daughter that he was going to “do whatever it took” to get her back. This despite making that same promise at each of the previous hearings, and in letters to the child from jail. Finally, the child had had enough. She lashed out at him at a hearing, saying, “Stop making promises you have no intention of keeping!” and then bursting into tears. 

I often hear people express disbelief that parents aren’t “willing” to do “whatever it takes” to get their kids back. “I would walk through firefor my kids!” they exclaim. But we know that SUDs rewire the brain in ways that make it nearly impossible for them to make different choices, especially when combined with well-established habits and triggers. 

 So how can we help parents change their actions? 

It’s interesting, because we try to send them to treatment, and therapy, and so forth. But in reading the research regarding habits and change, I wonder if we are, in some respects, making it harder than it needs to be. Or if we are prohibiting the very things that might help them succeed.

Occasionally, parents will want to move in order to take a job, sometimes out of state. While I understand the challenges with that (visits, DHS and court oversight, to name just a few), it strikes me that changing their “playground” and giving them meaningful work might help them in ways that would spill over into treatment and therapy (in a positive way). 

I had a cousin who suffered from a SUD several years ago. He pulled up stakes and moved to Arizona, because he said, “In [my hometown], I knew every place where I could get meth. I knew who sold it, and who had it. I had to completely change my environment and go to a place where I knew no one. Once I did that, it was much easier to avoid the drug—the new environment disrupted my destructive patterns enough that I could more easily create new, positive ones. I got a job, found a church, and made new friends. Eventually I was able to return home and maintain my sobriety, but that was several years later.” To the best of my knowledge, he never went to a formal treatment program or therapy. That’s not to say that those things aren’t valuable, of course, but when we treat people and then send them right back into the environment that launched the addiction, we shouldn’t be surprised when they relapse.

I have no idea what they work on in treatment, but I suspect when they talk about “triggers” that precede using, they focus more on emotional triggers than environmental ones. But environmental ones, identified and planned for ahead of the time they occur, are much easier to manage. For example, if someone knows he can buy heroin on a particular corner, one that he passes every day on his way home from work, he can choose—when he’s not using and not emotionally wired— to not go home that way. He can choose a different route. He can carpool with someone. Hire an Uber/Lyft to take him home, with instructions for no intermediate stops. 

If her trigger is time-sensitive, e.g., every morning after she drops the kids off at school, she can make plans (again, ahead of time), to affirmatively do something else where people will be expecting her. Maybe she can even volunteer at the school so she’s not leaving at the same time every day. If she wants to go to the gym (and the Y has a sliding scale, so she should be able to go), perhaps she can arrange for a friend to take her and the kids to school and then drive to the gym. Maybe someone else can take the kids to school, while she heads off in a different direction. 

These sound like small steps, and they are not intended to replace treatment or therapy or be the onlychange someone makes. 

Yet even small changes can disrupt a habit enough to change it, or to more easily add and maintain a new habit. In his book, The Happiness AdvantageShawn Achor notes that when he was trying to give up television, he identified the “trigger” as finishing dinner, then sitting on the couch and picking up the remote. By simply moving the remote out of his reach, he gave himself enough time to make a different choice instead of mindlessly grabbing the remote and turning on the television. A client he worked with who wasted significant time at work checking news feeds, his stocks, and email was coached to remove the “shortcut” on his desktop, turn off notifications, and keep the app closed when not in use. He immediately noticed his productivity went up.

Achor also gives an example of establishing habits. He wanted to learn to play guitar, but couldn’t seem to start/maintain this habit, despite goal-setting, “gold star” tracking charts, etc. By simply moving the guitar to within easy reach (displacing the remote!), he was significantly more likely to pick up the guitar and practice. His take-away? Make the habits you are trying to eliminate harder, and the ones you are trying to establish easier.

Integrity comes about one decision at a time. Small wins are easier to achieve if they become a habit, and part of a daily routine. Recognizing those small wins builds self-confidence. And both of those things make telling the truth and keeping your word easier. 

Hallmark Movies, Social Isolation, and the FFPSA—Oh, My.

I have always loved Hallmark Christmas movies, but this year, they were particularly appealing. I tell people that they serve as a nice balance to the daily heartbreak I see in my work, but the funny thing is, there are a lot of people (not working in juvenile child welfare court) who love them, even if they won’t admit it. But what is it about them that draws people in, inspiring binge-watching, (sometimes around a “girls’ weekend”), sweatshirts (“This is my Hallmark movie-watching shirt”) and mugs for hot cocoa? 

The movies themselves are very formulaic, and really never vary in their over-arching message; in other words, once you’ve seen one or two, you can pretty much predict the outcome of every other one you see. Generally speaking, the actors aren’t the hottest celebrities; if you know them at all, it’s probably from a hit show that took place years ago, when the actor was a child. And there isn’t a lot of high drama or “action packed scenes” to keep you on the edge of your seat.

No, I think the attraction is that they show something we allyearn for: family, friends, community, and tradition. In short—meaningful connections. We want to feel like we belong somewhere, that we have something to contribute, and that life generally works out for the good.

But what does love of Hallmark movies have to do with juvenile CINA court and the Family First Safety and Prevention Act (“FFSPA”)?

Stay with me, here. We’re about to jump.

Recently, I watched a TED Talk regarding social isolation delivered by Rachel Wurzman. Without getting too much into the science of it all, chronic loneliness can be downright dangerous, in a lot of ways. But one particularly frightening possibility occurs when we are not getting the “neurochemical rewards” we get through positive social interaction. When that happens too consistently, we will seek out anything that can (even temporarily) fill that need—even heroin. Studies show that social isolation contributes to relapse. 

Yet in working with my families in juvenile CINA (“Child in Need of Assistance”) cases, I was stunned to learn that many of these parents do not have even three people they can call in a pinch. Please understand that I am talking about friends and family, not professional support people like social workers, lawyers, or therapists.

When families “come to the attention” of DHS and the courts, we immediately throw a whole bunch of professionals at them. They get a court-appointed attorney, a DHS worker, a FSRP worker, and, if applicable, a therapist and/or substance abuse treatment counselor/program. They may have a Parent Partner and/or a CASA worker. And if the child is very young, they may have a support team from Head Start and/or Early Access. 

What we don’t typically help them with is building connections and relationships. When the case closes—even if the children are returned to the parents—all those professional support systems end. And because there are no non-professional ones, they are once again alone and isolated, which means they are a prime target for relapse and reengagement with the system. 

Of course, part of the problem is that today’s society doesn’t provide those connections the way it used to. Even healthy families are much more vulnerable. People are more mobile, with children living far away from parents and extended family. People often don’t know their neighbors the way they used to (some blame attached garages and a lack of front porches, which may sound far-fetched, but likely has some truth to it). People aren’t going to church, synagogue, or other places of faith, which was another traditional way of connecting. And because communities are much more urban than rural/small town, people don’t feel like they are a known, or even seenpart of a community. Their participation seems not to matter.

Social media, of course, does not really help with most of this. True, it does help us connect more easily with those who are far away from us, but it tends to disconnect us from those close by. We substitute text messages and Snap Chats for deep, face-to-face conversations about the things that matter most. As Dr. Wurzman notes, “Social media can’t go deep enough.” And it often acts as more of a distraction than anything else.

And here’s the final link—the new federal legislation.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) goes into effect this year, and is focused on, among other things, prevention. But the prevention they are talking about is not “original” prevention, but rather post-event, “no further damage” kinds of prevention. For example, we want kids to remain with parents or other relatives, but if they can’t, we would rather they go to a good foster home than a facility. In other words, we want to “prevent” kids being in either foster care or facilities for long periods of time. 

But Dr. Wurzman’s research (and my own anecdotal experiences) tells me that until we focus on the original problems of lack of social connection (and the resulting “meaning and purpose” these relationships offer), we will only be able to respond to, and limit, damage that has already occurred, rather than proactively eliminate harm.

Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth and Families within the U.S. Department of Human Services, echoes this position when he writes:

“While it is critical to help children who become known to the child welfare system avoid unnecessary separation from their families when services can be offered to keep them together, it is even more important to help families and children avoid the situations that lead them to child welfare in the first place(emphasis mine). When a report is made to a public child welfare system, it usually means that the harm has already occurred, a child has been abused or neglected, trauma has been inflicted, and any interventions from that point are remedial rather than preventative(emphasis mine). …When we choose, as a child welfare system, to intervene only after abuse or neglect has occurred, we are complicit in perpetuating that inter-generational cycle of trauma and maltreatment.”

Hallmark movies, social isolation, and new federal legislation…

Here’s an interesting thought: I have, at various times, seen a project about buddy benches. They are benches installed on playgrounds; if a child is feeling lonely and needs a “buddy” or someone to play with, they sit on the buddy bench. Other children then go to that child and invite him or her to play, or simply sit and talk to them. 

What if we could figure out the adult equivalent to the “buddy bench”? What if we could create connection, build “communities,” and reduce isolation so people weren’t so lonely? 

What if we could make sure that every adult had at least three people they could call on for help, respite, or just someone to talk to? What kind of a difference could that make in our world, and in the lives of these families?

“Choosing” a Lawyer in Juvenile Court

Often, people hold the belief that a private pay attorney is better than a court-appointed one. Certainly this can be true, but in juvenile court it’s often not true. Here’s why.

  1. The overwhelming majority of parents in juvenile CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases cannot afford a private attorney. This, of course, means that most of the attorneys in this area are on the court appointment list. That doesn’t mean those attorneys don’t do private pay work—it just means that the bulk of their cases are likely court appointed. A private pay attorney who is not on the court appointed list may not do a lot of juvenile CINA work.
  2. In order to be on the court appointed attorney list for juvenile court, an attorney musttake at least three hours of continuing legal education (CLE) specifically in the area of juvenile court. They are required to adhere to a higher standard of practice. This is not required of private pay attorneys. And as a practical matter, attorneys who practice primarily in juvenile court often attend far more than three hours of CLE in this area.
  3. Juvenile court is different from other areas of law; it is procedurally different (e.g., multiple hearings instead of one trial; exhibits are entered differently; rules of evidence and civil procedure are a bit different), but also philosophically It is not, as a general rule, as adversarial, and the goal is reunification of the family—not “win” vs. “lose.” Services are offered in furtherance of this goal. The court wants to see progress throughout the life of the case; it wants to see parents succeeding.

Because of these reasons, you may be better off with a court appointed attorney (if you qualify), even if you hire that attorney as a private pay attorney. They likely have far more experience in this area than a private pay attorney. Again, that doesn’t mean a private pay attorney can’t do a good job for you; it’s just that they may not have the same level of experience that a court-appointed attorney does.

My suggestion would be that if there is someone you have in mind, call the state public defender’s office to see if s/he is on the court appointed list for your county. If not, I would ask a few more questions of that attorney regarding his/her experience in juvenile court. I would ask if they are familiar with the federal and state laws regarding timelines, the purpose of the various hearings, and if they have worked with DHS before.

Ultimately, if the court appoints an attorney for you, you may or may not be able to “choose” who that is. And like any profession, some are better than others, even on the court-appointed list. But don’t assume that your representation will be somehow less if you have a court-appointed attorney rather than private pay, because in fact, the reverse may very well be true.

 

 

Trust

Several years ago, I, along with a number of others, facilitated a diversity training with executive branch employees in state government. Someone else created the content, but there was room for personalization with our own stories and questions.

One of the scripted questions had to do with trust; when or how did you know to trust people? The question was designed to demonstrate that some of the things we routinely rely on to discern trustworthiness (e.g., looking people in the eye) could be a false indicator, due to cultural differences (in some cultures, it’s a sign of disrespect or challenge to look someone in the eye). This was “old news” to me. What I found far more interesting was that people seemed to fall into one of two camps: those who trusted no one until the person “earned” their trust, and those who trusted everyone until the person betrayed that trust.

I tend to fall into the second camp, though I try not to be stupid about it. And some people can prove untrustworthy within the first 30 seconds of meeting them. So it’s not necessarily about naiveté. And, of course, there are certain lines of work in which one’s very life depends on having the first worldview about trust. If you are in the military, for example, you probably want people to earn your trust. Trusting the wrong people can prove deadly.

But what about in the context of child welfare?

While I have never asked any of my clients (parents or children) this particular question, it seems to me that there is a little of both. They often trust parents (or partners) far longer than they should, because they are desperate to maintain their family. But if they can no longer trust their parents, they don’t trust anyone.

Children tend to trust their parents until they prove untrustworthy. But even then, they may be so desperate to keep their families together that they continue to trust and believe their parents even when they shouldn’t. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book Necessary Endings, notes that the best indicator of future performance is past performance, unless something has changed. The problem in the child welfare arena is that parents who suffer from a substance use disorder may make changes that would suggest the “future” might be different. For example, they may go to substance abuse treatment.

And they still may fail. The future ends up looking just like the past, and now they have more “history” of being untrustworthy. And kids can’t just “end the relationship” and leave like adults can. They’re stuck. And so they keep hoping and believing that the parent will get better and be the parent they need.

So what constitutes change that is “solid” enough to warrant hope for a different outcome? Should kids be “cautiously optimistic” until there’s a longer history demonstrating that things really have changed? Is it better to just “cut their losses” and start over with a “new” family?

I once worked with a family where a child had died in an adult relative’s care. It was not that child’s parent, but rather an aunt/uncle[1]. And there were children in the home at the time who belonged to this adult. Although I don’t know all the details of the criminal case, the parent went to prison for a few years.

Despite this, one of this parent’s biological children was covering his/her journal with things like, “My [parent] rocks.” “My [parent] is cool.” Was this child delusional? It could not be said that he didn’t know what was going on (parents in these families often “over-share” adult things). Or was it just that the parent/child bond was so strong that the child was trying to convince him/herself that the parent wasn’t the monster that everyone said s/he was? That if s/he could only convince everyone that the parent was “cool,” the child could go home?

When the parent went to prison, the child was placed with the other parent (who was also not “pure as the driven snow”), over my strong objections. Ten years later, I saw this now-adult child’s name on the list of prison inmates. Should s/he have been able to “reunify” with the parent when the parent was released? Should both parent’s rights have been terminated, and the child adopted out to a new family?

While in retrospect it seems like the latter would have been the better decision, the recent Iowa cases where teenaged children have been starved to death at the hands of their foster-to-adoptive parents’ hands makes one wonder. While it is true that most foster/adoptive parents are good people, it is clear that some are not. How do we know?

Who can we trust with these children?

To be sure, they are not easy children to raise. They have been raised amidst such chaos and dysfunction that even the smallest things can be a challenge. They don’t know who they can trust anymore, so they go way too far to either the left or right. Either they blindly trust everyone, including people who willingly hurt them again, or they trust no one, and never build strong relationships with anyone.

Of course, it’s not just the kids who struggle.

Parents don’t trust the “system” that has taken their kids, but now says it wants to “help” them. Women “trust” abusive partners because they so want to maintain that relationship. I’ve seen cases where the abusive partner told the mother that “they” would hide from DHS, and eventually DHS would go away (hint: that strategy never ends well). In reliance upon this promise of “you and me against the world,” mom skipped the hearing, but dad went, and then pointed out how he was “engaged” with the process, but mom wasn’t.

And mom still “trusted” him—until it was too late.

How do we teach parents (and children) who is trustworthy? How do we teach them how to discern that, knowing that none of us are “perfect” at determining who to trust, or even that none of us are perfect in earning trust? How do they learn who’s “for” them, and who is “against” them, when people lie—either through words or deeds?

How should they decide who gets a second chance?

And to whom do we give a second chance? Who do we trust with these kids?

[1] In the spirit of confidentiality, I am not identifying names, genders, or anything else that might identify the family.

Small Things With Great Love

In juvenile court, there is a lot of talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Children who have one or more ACEs are at a significantly higher risk for things ranging from chronic disease (diabetes and heart disease) to risky behavior (drugs, teen sex), and poor mental health. They are also likely to “carry on the family tradition” of abuse, neglect, and drug use. But research also suggests that the more resilience we help build into these kids, the less impact their ACEs have.

Often, people think that this requires lots of “services” (and it might) that “other people” or agencies have to provide. But this perspective lets all of us off the hook a bit too easy.

One of my favorite quotes is by Mother Theresa. She noted that she “could not do great things. She could only do small things with great love.” My Aunt Mickey was the master at doing small things with great love. While I was the recipient of her great love, the story I want to tell today is about her small things with great love towards someone else—someone I never met.

Because I never met him, I have to give him a made-up name. We’ll call him Sam. Sam was a teenager who lived down the hall in the same apartment building Aunt Mickey lived in. He lived with his mom and her boyfriend, but this “family” was not particularly stable. Not dysfunctional enough to involve DHS, but enough that this young man would benefit from a positive adult role model in his life.

Enter Aunt Mickey.

Aunt Mickey was the kind of person who knew her neighbors, and so she had spoken to Sam and his parents on several occasions. One day, she noticed Sam sitting in the hall outside his apartment. When she asked why he didn’t go in, he said his parents didn’t allow him to have a key and they weren’t home yet. She invited him in to her apartment and gave him a snack. And thus started an unlikely friendship.

But it went beyond giving him a place to hang out and a snack. She mentored Sam (though it’s highly unlikely it would have ever occurred to her to call it that). When he offered to change the oil in her car in the parking lot, she told him that her lease prohibited that. Sam suggested that no one would “care,” but Aunt Mickey was having none of it. She firmly told him that her lease said she could not do that, her signature was her word that she would not do that, and so she wasn’t going to do that. To do otherwise would have been wrong, regardless of whether anyone “cared” or not.

When she noticed him hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” she spoke up and suggested he might want to find better friends, because she knew that high school kids in particular make poorer decisions when their peers are urging them to do so.

In short, Aunt Mickey did the small things— offering snacks, a listening ear, and strong character modeling—with great love.

Is there a child for whom you could do this? A neighborhood kid that could use an encouraging word from you? Can you volunteer at a local school, even if it’s “just” reading to a child on a consistent basis?

Or if you want to step up into a more formal role, would you consider being a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (“CASA”)? Some things you might want to know are:

  • CASAs receive great training (both in the beginning and ongoing)
  • There are opportunities to get together with other CASAs
  • You will have a coach once you complete their training.
  • We only work with one family at a time; you can decide how many kids you want to work with, the age of the child(ren), and other factors.
  • The judges love CASAs! We submit written reports to the court, but we rarely have to testify. In fact, I’ve never had a CASA be called to testify, and I’ve been working with this program for over 10 years.
  • You do not have to have a background in law—just a passion for helping kids.
  • In terms of the time requirements, we typically ask for 5-10 hours a month, which is a visit (maybe two), possibly reviewing documents, and writing a short report.

So what small thing will you do with great love? Will you consider making a difference in the life of a child?

Let me know if you want more information—no pressure. I just want to get you the information you need so you can make a good, fully informed decision. And even if CASA isn’t right for you, you can still encourage the little people (and the big people!) in your life.

What is “Imminent”?

I once attended a workshop about domestic violence. At that time, there was a popular “defense” for women who had killed their abusive spouses, called battered woman syndrome. The speaker, however, was not a fan of this. She noted that when viewed through the lens of the victim’s perspective, her behaviors were perfectly logical—not a mental health “syndrome.” Her preference was to simply change the definition of “imminent danger.”

The argument, of course, was that a woman who shot and killed her husband while he was asleep wasn’t in “imminent” danger. The speaker gave a scenario where the abuser told his wife that he would “kill her in the morning.” If she waited until morning to “defend” herself, she would be dead. He was bigger, stronger, and would not allow her access to a weapon. Her only option to what she perceived as “imminent” danger was to kill him while he slept. I have no idea whether she has had any success with this theory.

In juvenile CINA court, we also look at whether kids are in “imminent danger” as a standard for removal. As I work through a particular case, I wonder if we perhaps need to reevaluate that standard—or simply redefine “imminent” in juvenile court as well. Is it imminent danger if we know, based on research, that certain events in a child’s life (called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs) will cause significant difficulties later in life; mentally, physically, and an increased likelihood that they will go down the same path as their parents? Or is “imminent” limited to whether they will survive this night?

Perhaps paradoxically, research also seems to suggest that children are generally better off with their biological parents (rather than foster parents or shelter care), even if that home is not ideal. That, of course, begs the question—how “not ideal” does a home have to be before it tips the scales to removal?

Part of this analysis must consider the trauma that is involved in removal. Of course, some of that trauma has to do with the fact that complete strangers are pulling kids from their home with little or no notice. Which makes me wonder if the trauma would be less if the removal were done later, after an attorney, GAL, and/or DHS worker had an opportunity to build rapport with the kids. If the definition of “imminent” were broadened, services could be offered on a fast track. If, after, say, a month, the same behaviors that might not meet the current definition of “imminent” but that would meet a broadened definition, were still in existence (or others had shown up), the kids could then be removed—but differently. The attorney or GAL could talk to them about what was going to happen; they could help the child know what to expect and why this was happening. They could potentially accompany the child to the new placement and help him or her get settled in. They could make sure that those “special things” and clothing could be retrieved and taken with them.

From my experience, kids can handle about anything if people they trust tell them the truth (in an age-appropriate way) and help them make that transition. What I don’t know is what the research says about later removals done this way. Is it truly less traumatic?

What Should I Expect at Court?

Dear Parents:

Here are some things you might like to know before heading into court.

  1. Iowa practices a “one family, one judge” philosophy. That means that barring any unforeseen circumstances, your hearings will be in the same courtroom, with the same judge every time.
  2. Parking can be a challenge downtown, so plan to arrive early. The on street, metered parking near the courthouse has a two-hour limit. The Hy-Vee parking ramp is free for the first two hours and $3.00 for every hour after that. Ramps tend to be around $1/hour. You will not be able to go “feed the meter” during a hearing, so ask your attorney how long the hearing will be so you can plan appropriately. Click here for parking ramp locations, and here if you are interested in a Smart Card parking card. The advantage to the card is that you can put the maximum time into the meter, and then “reload” whatever time is left back on to your card.
  3. Children can attend their hearings; in some cases, the judge may require you to bring them. If they attend, you may want to have another adult there who can take the child out if the judge asks you to do that (if, for example, the judge wants to hear information that s/he does not believe would be appropriate for the child to hear). Let the guardian ad litem know if you plan to bring the kids.
  4. You will sit at counsel table with your attorney. There are microphones at counsel table that are fairly sensitive, however, so if you need to speak to your attorney privately, you may want to turn away from the microphone and speak quietly.
  5. If you are incarcerated, you may still be allowed to attend the hearing in person or by telephone. If you attend in person, you will be accompanied by law enforcement, who will remain in the courtroom. You may be allowed to meet with your attorney prior to the hearing in a secure room. You will be allowed to sit at counsel table with your attorney.
  6. Juvenile court is a bit more informal than other courts. The judge may ask you some questions. One of the questions s/he may ask is if there are any other services you need to be successful. These may be financial, or services such as therapy, or even things like bus tokens to get to various appointments. You can also talk to your attorney about what you need.
  7. Wear your “poker face.” Do not allow anyone to provoke you in the courtroom, do not “get into it” with the other parent (or anyone else), and do not give people the “stink eye” in court. The judge will see all this, and will not like it. In other words, be civil and polite, in order to give the judge the best impression of you possible.
  8. Your attorney is your advocate; if you’re having trouble with something, or are having trouble getting hold of DHS, call your attorney. Yes, they represent you in court, but they can do that much more effectively if they know what else is going on.
  9. If you fail a drug test, quit going to therapy, or fail to do something else the court or DHS has asked you to do, tell your attorney when it happens (don’t wait until right before the hearing). Your attorney cannot “tell on you,” because of attorney/client privilege (though these things will likely come out anyway), but s/he can help you get back on track faster.
  10. You don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to substantially comply with what you are being asked to do.

Other questions? You will likely meet with your attorney when the date of the hearing approaches. Write down your questions, and when you meet with your attorney ask him or her to answer them.

Is it Really Domestic Violence?

Each month I attend a Model Court Training session dedicated to a topic of interest to those working with families in juvenile court. Yesterday’s topic was domestic violence and covered such things as how it impacts CINA cases, and also tips for attorneys working with these families. The focus was on helping victims—usually the moms. They really had no tips for attorneys representing dads who were the (alleged) abusers. It occurred to me that when we focus only on the victims, we are always in reactive mode. What if we could shift to a more proactive perspective and try to either stop domestic violence before it happens or at least prevent it from happening again? That, of course, is much harder, but it would also be much more effective.

The first problem is that we aren’t always “diagnosing” the problem accurately.

When someone is arrested the first time for an OWI, we don’t assume the individual has a substance abuse disorder. We instead ask for an assessment. It’s possible the person has a disorder, of course, but it is also possible that this was a one-time event where they drank more than they usually did, misjudged their level of impairment, and got “caught.” But unless there is an assessment done by a professional trained in this type of evaluation, we don’t know which it is. It’s only after the assessment is done that we decide what the treatment/consequence should be.

But with domestic violence, we really only look at two factors: was there violence, and were the parties in an intimate/family relationship? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then it’s domestic violence.

But that might not be true. And if it’s not true, then not only are we giving someone an incorrect (and harmful) label, but we’re not treating the problem correctly. Let me give you two examples from cases I’ve worked on (details changed, of course, to protect identity).

In the first case. Steve and Sarah have a daughter, Cassie, together. Steve does not allow Sarah to work, insisting instead that she stay home and raise Cassie. Because Sarah is not working, she has no income of her own. Steve gives her money for the household and for spending, but she does not have access to that money herself. Further, she must account for every penny she spends from that “allowance.” Sarah has a car, but Steve closely monitors the mileage; he also insists on monitoring her cell phone calls and texts, explaining that he “loves her so much” that he just “couldn’t stand it” if she was seeing someone else. He argues that if she has nothing to hide, she won’t mind if he checks. They’re married after all, and shouldn’t have any secrets.

Steve also tells Sarah that if she tries to leave him, he will take Cassie, and Sarah will never see the little girl again. To demonstrate his ability to do this, Sarah tells about a time when they went to the grocery store. Cassie was asleep in her car seat, so rather than wake her, Steve suggests Sarah go in alone. Steve seems relaxed, and the couple has been getting along, so Sarah agrees.

When she comes out, the truck is gone. Sarah is immediately gripped by an unimaginable terror. She frantically looks around for the truck, and shortly thereafter, Steve pulls up, laughing. He’s made his point. He could run with Cassie at any time. And if Sarah reports what he just did, he will just say that she “forgot where he was parked,” or, that he “moved the truck so Cassie would be in the shade.” His explanation is completely logical, but also completely false.

Sarah reports that Steve pinches her if she’s not doing what he wants, but otherwise there’s no physical violence.

In the second case, Andrew and Jessica have been married for ten years. It’s a second marriage for both, and Jessica has two teenagers from a previous marriage who live with her. Andrew has no previous children, although his first wife also had two teenaged kids. Andrew and Jessica have two children together. Both of his wives’ children have had fairly significant issues: his first stepdaughter ran away from home with her boyfriend when she was 15-years-old. His current stepson has mental health and behavioral issues that resulted in inpatient psychiatric treatment, as well as outpatient counseling. This occurred both before and after Andrew and Jessica met and married. Andrew and Jessica are in their late 40’s; there has never been any allegation of domestic violence against Andrew by anyone.

Both Andrew and Jessica have full-time jobs. In addition to their joint checking account, they each have their own bank account that is not monitored by the other. Both have a vehicle and a cell-phone, but the other party does not monitor that. Both are free to travel to visit family or friends.

Andrew has a high-stress, dangerous job. Jessica has a chronic illness that periodically results in her missing work and being bedridden. At the time of the event described below, Andrew was working a fair amount of overtime. His beloved dog that had been with him for years was dying of cancer. Jessica was having a “flare-up” of her disease and was unable to do anything around the house; she was also unable to properly oversee the two younger children, and was leaving it to the older ones to care for them until Andrew got home.

When he arrived home on this particular evening, an issue came up regarding the behavior of his stepson. The stepdaughter reacted the way teenagers often do—she “mouthed off.” And that was all it took. Because of everything else going on in Andrew’s life, his “emotional bandwidth” was stretched too thin, and he pushed her down—onto the couch. He does not deny this. She claimed he “choked her.” He does deny this, but notes that because of her height, it’s entirely possible that he pushed her in the area of her sternum. There were no marks on her that would support her story of being choked.

At that point, Jessica came into the room, barreling into Andrew to “stop him.” He pushed her off of him, and she lost her balance, falling to the floor. She also did not suffer any injuries and had no marks. She left with the kids, and he did not pursue her, and he ultimately filed for divorce. There was no additional violence, even when she moved out. There was no additional violence when she immediately found a new  (albeit temporary) partner.

Both of the cases were deemed to be domestic violence. But were they? If not, which one was domestic violence and which one wasn’t?

Domestic violence is generally seen as a play for “power and control.” Violence is simply the tool used to achieve that power and control. It’s characterized by such things as preventing the victim from having access to money, family, and friends. She (and it is overwhelmingly a “she”) may be prevented from working (which is different from a decision made together for her to stay home to raise the children). He may refuse to let her visit family and friends without him.

All of these things are clearly present in the first case, but not the second case. Yet the “violence” was much less in the first than the second, especially if you believe the “choking” allegation. It’s important to remember, however, that because it’s about control (and not violence), domestic violence abusers will only use the level of violence necessary to control the victim. If pinching controls her, he doesn’t need to hit, push, choke, or kick her. It’s only when the victim begins to resist control that the violence will escalate.[1]

Too often, abusers are sent to “anger management” class. But because domestic violence is really about control, this isn’t effective. Most abusers know how to manage their anger; they don’t abuse their boss, their golfing buddy, etc. They can present to the rest of the world as a laid-back, reasonable guy. In other words, they “manage” their anger very well. What they need is batterer’s education.

In the case above, Andrew had no history of trying to control either his first or second wife. And there was no “minor” violence that gradually escalated into pushing or choking. In other words, although there was violence, and although it occurred within an intimate/family setting, it was really not domestic violence. It was simply an assault/battery that occurred against a family member/intimate partner. In Andrew’s case, he was sent to batterer’s education, when he may have actually needed anger management (though even that’s debatable; it’s possible it was a situational, one-time event).

But if abusers try to protest that they don’t belong in batterer’s education, they are told they are not “taking ownership” of their actions. Yet that wasn’t true in Andrew’s case; he fully acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He didn’t blame either his stepdaughter or his wife. He simply didn’t believe (probably correctly) that he was a batterer; he did not fit the “profile.” And if he is right about that, then batterer’s education was not going to help him. And anger management was not offered to him.

So was the class effective in preventing further violence? Or was Andrew given solutions to a problem that didn’t exist, while not receiving the information and tools that would have helped him in the future?

Don’t misunderstand—violence against a partner or family member is never ok. The point is, without proper “diagnosis” (i.e., is it domestic violence or is it a one-time assault against an intimate partner?), we can’t properly “treat” the problem. And until we start correctly assessing, diagnosing, and treating the real problem, we’re not going to solve it.

Which means we’re stuck in reactive mode by focusing only on the victim.

 

[1] This is why the most dangerous time for a woman is when she tries to leave. Leaving is the ultimate loss of control for an abuser, which is why he will resort to the ultimate level of violence—murder.