Mother (now Saint) Teresa has said many profound things, and interestingly, it was often the very “smallness” of the idea that made it so profound. One such quote was this: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
That seems very small, right? Makes you want to say, “No, no, world peace! BIG!” Especially in our global world, with its enormous problems, it feels like focusing on our families is not nearly “enough.” And while we may be able to acknowledge the value of loving our family, and the impact that might ultimately have on the world (think “pebbles dropped in a pond that send out far reaching ripples”), the speed of life these days makes this plan seem agonizingly slow.
But the problem with our “fast fixes” is that they don’t last. They’re a bandage on a gaping wound that needs stitches or even major surgery.
And sometimes there are issues that we want fixed, but we don’t want to do the fixing. We’re all happy to volunteer and donate when we’re talking about things like feeding hungry children, finding a cure for cancer, or providing help for those who are caught up in natural disasters like hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. But when you ask someone to help parents who have had their children removed due to allegations of abuse, a change comes over them. Their eyes narrow, their voice takes on a harder edge, and even their body language reflects their distaste. They don’t want to help “those” people. They want to punish them, saying things like “they deserve to have their children removed.”
I get it. We don’t like it when the very people who should be protecting children are actually hurting or neglecting them. And hungry children, desperately ill people, and those devastated by natural disasters are easier to help because none of those things are their “fault.” When parents abuse their children or neglect them, we’re less likely to want to help, because we think the situation in which they find themselves is their fault. Certainly their decisions led them to where they are now. But things aren’t always what they seem.
People who grow up in high functioning, resilient, well-resourced families do not often end up abusing their children. They are less likely to engage in the substance abuse that is a part of a significant number of neglect cases. No, they usually grow up to be healthy adults. Not always, of course, but their chances of that are much greater than a child who grows up amidst domestic violence, drugs, and/or poverty. Their options are narrower, their “models” less positive. And while it is certainly possible to grow up in that environment and still be successful (no matter how you define that), it is considerably more difficult.
I recently re-read the book Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The book is not about child welfare, but rather about how we make decisions when there is scarcity in our life, whether that’s scarcity of money, time, or even calories (for someone who is dieting). Many of our clients in juvenile child welfare cases deal with a number of scarcities in their life, which causes them to “tunnel.” In other words, they only have enough cognitive/intellectual “bandwidth” to focus on the most immediate and pressing needs, even if those decisions will result in problems down the road (i.e., outside the tunnel).
A perfect example of this showed up in one of my CASA cases a few months ago. Mom missed a hearing (which is almost never a good thing) because she had a meeting with people about housing. People were shaking their heads—didn’t she know how important it was for her to attend the hearing?! But here’s what Mom was probably doing. If she doesn’t have housing, or is about to be homeless, that problem is squarely within her tunnel. It’s the biggest fire she is immediately facing, and all her mental resources have to go towards solving that. She will deal with the fallout of the missed hearing “later” —when that has now appeared in the crisis tunnel.
Of course, if you’ve done any work in juvenile (or other) court recently, you are also aware of trauma-informed care, which is simply the acknowledgment that when we have been traumatized (recently or in the past), we may not react well to similar situations. For example, a parent who was removed as a child himself may be re-traumatized when he finds himself back in the courtroom—this time as the parent. It becomes difficult to hear or understand what is being said. Trauma stretches your cognitive bandwidth so thin, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.
And when you combine this reduced “bandwidth” with tunneling, it’s no wonder that things don’t go well. The problem is, we don’t see all the background things that led to this outcome, and that aren’t the “fault” of the parent; we only see the result, and immediately seek to punish the parent, rather than help them.
This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any accountability. There is a difference between an excuse and a reason. If you want to read my take on those differences, you can go here, but in a nutshell, an excuse is an explanation offered for the behavior and as a way to get someone “off the hook.” A reason, on the other hand, may have the exact same explanation, but is not offered to avoid accountability; it is instead used to help determine what to do differently in the future, or to solve the immediate problem.
And here’s something else you may not know. Counterintuitively, perhaps, children love their parents even when they have abused or neglected them. They want to be reunited with those parents. And research suggests that in many cases, children are better off with their biological parents than in foster care, even when the biological parents are not “ideal.” Not always. But often enough that we need to pay attention to that when we are making long-term decisions for the children.
And consider this: when we say that parents “deserve” to have their children removed, we are also saying that children “deserve” to lose their parents. Everyone is “punished,” not just the parents.
If we truly want to help children, one of the best ways to do that is to help their parents get healthy.
Will that lead to world peace, as Mother Teresa suggests? Well, we can’t force people to love their families. But maybe if we did a better job of loving our “neighbor,” our neighbor could do a better job loving his or her children. I tend to think it’s a good idea to cast that pebble in the pond of civilization. The first ripples might just be generationally healthier families. That will lead to healthier communities, workplaces, and schools. Which can, in turn, radiate out even farther to states and nations. It’s not immediate, but it’s also not just a bandage.
Will you do your part towards creating world peace?