10 Things I Learned Volunteering with Abused and Neglected Children

Disclaimer:  My blog is usually about bees, flowers, and gardening.  This winter I decided to write a series of posts for my Left Field collection.  I’ve covered everything from My Near Miss with an Exorcism to why I Hate Christmas Music.  If you only want to read about gardens and beekeeping, please check back in the spring or browse through some of my older posts. Today’s post was written by request.

For five years I have been volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) with the local family court.  CASAs serve as an extra set of eyes and ears on abuse and neglect cases. We strive to give a voice to children who may not be able to speak for themselves.  The link to the organization I am a part of can be found here. I volunteer in the USA in the state of Kentucky. Some terms and details of child welfare law will differ from state to state. After 5 years serving a total of 21 children and observing dozens of other cases, here are some of the things I have learned.

  • Family situations are rarely black and white. – People with no involvement in the family court systems often have the impression that all child welfare cases are like the ones that make the news.  The abuse and neglect has to be extreme to punch through the daily news cycle.  Most cases are more complicated and nuanced without a clear villain.  What do you do when grandparents are raising grandchildren and disciplining the grandchildren in the style that was considered acceptable 40 years ago?  When I went to public school in the early 80s, teachers spanked kids as young as first grade with wooden paddles for disciplinary infractions.  If grandparents do that today to a grandchild, they might get reported.  What do you do when a troubled teen wants a parent out of the house so she makes an allegation of sexual abuse?  What about the single mother that leaves her children home alone because the babysitter didn’t show up, and she will lose her job if she misses work?  Is that single mother being responsible or neglectful?  People have really complicated family situations, and somehow social workers and family court judges have to sort it all out.
  • Affordable housing has a huge impact on child welfare. –  Once a family loses housing, everything starts to spiral downwards.  Communities must have safe, affordable housing options for residents that are low to middle income.  Parents who are working hard to get their lives together and regain custody of their kids need to have stable housing, and that is nearly impossible in some areas.  The zoning laws that upper middle class residents lobby for to protect their property values have real world consequences for children and families. 
  • Children are not resilient. – A toddler can sleep on a hardwood floor.  Adults pull muscles in their back and neck if their bed pillows aren’t perfectly aligned.   Sometimes people think that because a child is more physically reliant than an adult that the child is as emotionally resilient as an adult.  Children don’t have the cognitive abilities to process their trauma.  The effects of childhood trauma carry far into adulthood if left untreated. 
  • Love doesn’t fix everything. – Real life is not like a Hallmark movie. A loving, stable home is a good thing, but it doesn’t fix everything for an abused or neglected child.  If a child is the victim of abuse that caused developmental delays or severe trauma, the child needs more than love to recover.  That child is going to need counseling from health care professionals that understand trauma.  The child may need medications.  The child may have to be in specialized learning environments until healing can take place.  Thanks to advanced brain imaging techniques, scientists know more than ever about the childhood brain, and they have discovered that childhood trauma impacts brain development.  Fortunately the brain can be “re-wired” through therapy, so these children have hope for a good for a life.    
  • Social workers have an impossible job.  – I don’t like it when people complain about how hard their jobs are.  Everybody has a hard job.  Each job has its own set of challenges and stresses, and rarely do I think that any one job is harder than another.  I will make the exception for social workers, though.  These individuals deal with traumatized families every day without a break.  Many of these workers have only been out of college for a few years and don’t yet have the life experiences to help them deal with the more challenging adults they encounter as part of their daily job.  Social workers go into homes armed with a smart phone and a clip board and don’t always know what is waiting for them behind the door.  I have deep respect for social workers.  The job they have is impossible, and yet they somehow find a way to do it.
  • The process is slow for a reason. – Removing a biological child from a parent is one of the most intrusive things a government can do to a citizen.  Formally terminating parental rights legally severs the child from the parent forever.  These actions need to be taken thoughtfully and deliberately and adjudicated fairly.  Yes, the process takes a long time, but sometimes that is a good thing.  These are not the kinds of actions that should be done with haste. 
  • Governments were never designed to raise children. – People often complain about “the system” as it relates to child welfare.  Just remember that if the government is involved with protecting a child that means the parents, extended family, and broader community all failed to protect the child first.  The government via the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is coming in after everyone else failed, so cut “the system” some slack.  Governments don’t make good parents.  Considering all the obstacles, I am amazed that “the system” works as well as it does.
  • People don’t mind admitting they neglect their children, but they won’t admit that they abuse their children.  – Family court is not the same as criminal court.  A person is not “convicted” in family court.  Instead, the judge may make a “finding” of abuse or neglect.   Just like you see on criminal TV shows, lawyers will get together and see if they can work out plea agreements before a trial is held.  I am always amazed at how quickly parents will agree to admit that they neglect their children but will vehemently deny that they abuse their children.  Somehow it is more socially acceptable to leave your child in a dirty diaper and fail to feed them.   
  • Everyone plays a role in protecting children. – Every adult should know the signs of childhood abuse.  If you don’t know, then take an hour one day to learn about it and hope that you will never have to use what you learned.  Every adult should make sure that organizations that serve children have policies in place to keep the children safe.  Churches, athletic leagues, scout troops, and similar organizations need to screen their workers and volunteers.  Children should not be left alone behind closed doors with coaches, Sunday School teachers, or other volunteers.  People who prey on children will seek out these organizations to gain access to children if proper controls are not in place.  I am so proud that I am part of a church that has well defined policies around child welfare.  These policies keep our children safe and our volunteers safe from unwarranted accusations.  The policies are not expensive or time consuming to implement, and they are worth it if you can save just one child from abuse.   
  • Be Careful Who You Let into Your Home. – The likelihood of sexual abuse of children increases dramatically when a single mother is cohabitating with a man to whom she is not married.  Ladies, there are men who will flatter you and charm you just so they can get to your children.  Are you revolted yet?  Yeah, I was too when I learned this.   

Child abuse is a heavy topic, but that’s real life.  Everything is not as whimsical as cocaine hippos and honey harvests.  Let’s all work together to keep kids safe.  If you know a social worker, buy them a coffee or flowers or a vacation to Las Vegas.  They deserve it.    

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