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.

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