A few years ago, my husband had another, what we refer euphemistically to as, “health adventure.”
We were driving home to Des Moines, Iowa, from Washington DC, where we had watched our daughter graduate from American University with her masters in International Development. We stopped at a Wendy’s in Ohio, and a few hours later, Randy fell unconscious and began vomiting profusely. His eyes rolled back in his head.
As you might imagine, it was a terrifying few moments—well, for me. He has no recollection of the event.
At the time, I drove a Saturn Aura that had On*Star. I knew it had On*Star, but my stress level was so high at that particular moment that I couldn’t remember that I had On*Star. I grabbed my phone, and dialed 9-1-1, because I couldn’t remember to ask SIRI to do it. And then I misdialed, and couldn’t remember how to backspace.
When the 9-1-1 operator answered, I gave her the information I had, and was a bit testy with her when she asked me three times how old my husband was. I later learned that I was “cutting out,” because of where I was. Apparently US Cell is in the middle of anywhere, but not in the middle of nowhere.
The reason I tell you all this, is to illustrate what trauma can do to your cognitive functioning. As traumas go, this one was relatively short-lived and had a happy ending. But you don’t know that at the time. All you know is that something very bad is happening. When that happens, there are so many things coming at you that need immediate processing (“Where am I? Where is an exit? Is he breathing?”), that cognitive functioning and emotional patience regarding everything else slows way down (memory of On*Star, Siri, and where the back button is on the phone, and getting short with the 9-1-1 operator).
It’s like that for our parents in juvenile court.
Having your child removed from your care by DHS is traumatic, no matter whether you “consent” to the removal or the child is simply removed by the police. If you were a CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) when you were a child, you are now living through that trauma all over again. Talk about a trigger. And you may have other trauma in your life, like domestic violence. You may have substance abuse issues, or mental health issues. If you’re poor, scarcity has also affected your brain and how you process events.
And now you have to focus on what DHS and the courts want you to do in order to get your child back.
Your attorney explains what you need to do, as does the judge and the DHS worker. But you simply do not have any more cognitive bandwidth to process those things. You can’t remember when your next hearing is. You know the kids are supposed to go to therapy, but your car just broke down and you don’t have the money to fix it, so how are you supposed to do that? Your boss isn’t very understanding about all the time off you’re asking for in order to attend court, family team meetings, substance abuse treatment and therapy.
Maybe you’ve been drinking to escape all the pain, and now, suddenly, you have to completely abstain. But you’re physically addicted—it’s not as easy as just “deciding” not to drink, or “choosing” your children over your addiction. And the pain you’re trying to escape has increased significantly. You have all these people in your life; you don’t know who they are, what the acronyms stand for (CASA? FSRP? DHS – well, you know that one), and what they all do.
You have a court hearing, but the housing assistance people have scheduled an appointment for you to meet with them to try to get housing, and if you don’t go, you might not get housing. That seems to be the most pressing need, so you go to that meeting and skip the hearing; you can’t be two places at once, and you will deal with the legal stuff later. Scarcity experts call this “tunneling.” And besides—when you do attend the hearings, you don’t really understand what’s going on. The attorneys do most of the talking, and then the judge says some things, but you’re so stressed out, you just can’t take it all in.
Are you stressed out just reading that?
Too often as a CASA Coach and attorney, I hear people outside the “system” say things like this:
- How could anyone choose drugs (including alcohol) over their kids?
- Why don’t they just go to therapy? It’s not rocket science!
- I have no sympathy for people who abuse their kids. They deserve to have them taken away.
- What a monster.
Maybe you’ve said or thought some of those things yourself. The thing I tell people is this: what is easy for you is not easy for these parents, just like remembering I had On*Star was not easy when I was in the middle of a crisis and thought my spouse had just died.
These parents aren’t “choosing” drugs over their kids; drugs are choosing them. Addiction is a horrible, horrible thing; it’s a physical disease as well as a mental and emotional one once you are hooked. For most people, it’s not as easy as simply saying, “Ok, I’m not going to do drugs anymore.” Their physical body betrays that kind of a willpower-only strategy.
Yes, they may have chosen to do drugs the first time, but often that’s an escape from the pain in their life. The temptation comes at a time of vulnerability, from people who are not good role models. And most people think they will be the exception to addiction; they can quit any time. And most people are wrong; but everyone thinks they will be the exception.
What about therapy? Going to therapy is easy when you have reliable transportation, a flexible work schedule, and aren’t feeling overwhelmed by other things. Most of our parents are not in this category. They may know what they are supposed to do; they just can’t figure out how to make that happen.
This third belief has a few problems. Yes, we all want to protect our most vulnerable little people, but most of their parents aren’t coming from good parenting role models, stable homes and plenty of resources. And if they have substance abuse, mental health, or domestic violence issues, they just aren’t as able to cope with life and being a parent. Again, that “bandwidth” is stretched too thin; something has to give. Most of the parents that come through our courts are not physically and/or sexually abusing their children. It’s usually neglect/denial of critical care. And even then, it is rarely the kind of neglect that you see on the 10:00 news. In fact, when it’s a substance abuse issue, the children are sometimes not even around when it happens; they might be at school or visiting a friend
In other words, when the event that caused the removal happened, the children have not been physically injured at all. The concern is that they could be injured in the future, when the parents are, as a recent example, passed out on heroin with their child in the back seat of the car.
One final comment on the statement about parents who “deserve” to have their kids removed. We often talk about taking kids from their parents almost as a punishment to the parents, or because the parents don’t deserve their kids. But removal means not just that we are taking kids from parents, but that we are taking parents from kids. Do the kids “deserve” that separation? True, it may be in their best interest, at least temporarily. But the research shows that kids are usually better off with their biological parents, even if the situation is not ideal. Usually. Not always.
Finally, it’s easy to call people who hurt children names. Often, there’s a sort of superior, yet relieved sense of, “At least I’m not that bad.” Yet I always wonder what happened to these adults when they were children. And I think about the kids currently in the system; if they grow up and have kids who are removed from their care, will we remember that they were abused or neglected as a child? Will we have compassion, remembering their difficult childhood? Or will we now condemn them, simply because they are now adults and should “know better”?
Instead of condemning, I’d rather help fix the situation.
What if we helped parents become better parents? What if we helped them take full advantage of all the services DHS has to offer them when their child is removed, to hopefully become healthy enough to parent their child safely and effectively? What if we helped them understand what they are being asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, and when they need to complete things? What if we helped them get organized, helped them prioritize, and helped them comply with their case plan?
We can’t always prevent abuse. But we can respond differently, with compassion and help, instead of judgment and punishment. We can work to fix the situation, help parents and their kids (without becoming “helicopter” helpers), and hopefully make a positive difference in the lives of these families.