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?

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