An Excuse vs. A Reason

In April, I met a nurse-turned-author. I was having a conversation with a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) about the work we do (I am a CASA Coach). CASAs work with children who have been abused and neglected (usually by someone in the home) and who have often been removed from the home. The nurse told us she had once had to report a case of potential child neglect; she said the mother was not feeding the child, despite participating in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. Mom was also allegedly doing meth, and the nurse was very angry.

I get it. We don’t like it when our smallest and most vulnerable are abused and neglected by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. We want to punish them, or sometimes even “do unto them” as they have “done unto” their children. And yet, that’s not usually helpful.

There has been a great deal of research in the area of child welfare. A significant body of work (as well as my anecdotal experiences) suggests that even when children’s home lives are horrific, they prefer to be at home with their parents. And there is also research that tells us that many of these parents were traumatized previously, sometimes having been a CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) themselves. Because of this, their brains don’t always function the way they should, interfering with good decision-making. And of course, drug use doesn’t help that situation.

The nurse adamantly insisted that mom’s drug use was “no excuse.” And that’s true. But it misses the point; there is a difference between an “excuse” and a “reason.”

An excuse tells us why something may have happened, and lets someone off the hook with no accountability or consequences. A reason, on the other hand, may identify the same causation, and still holds the parent accountable. There are still consequences. But it also seeks to prevent a recurrence of the event. So if mom isn’t feeding her child because she’s on drugs, there is accountability and consequences (in the form of the child’s removal), but there are also services provided to help her get off meth—hopefully for good.

This, of course, is never easy, and if she doesn’t succeed within statutory guidelines or the court’s decisions, she runs the risk of losing her children forever. But if she does succeed, her children can be safely returned to her, which is good for everybody.

We all struggle with something; wouldn’t we prefer having someone help us overcome that struggle, rather than judge and punish us? Especially when some of our failures might not be entirely our fault?