When You Know Their Names

My supervisor walked over with a large file stuffed full of documents, set it down on my desk and said, “Here’s your first case. Make sure to read it and let me know if you have any questions.” I looked at it with apprehension; fearful of what I would see. Slowly, opening the binder, I saw her name. It’s odd how personal and raw it becomes when you know their names.

Like the beginning of a new book, I didn’t know quite what to expect but was eager to read it. Graphic details chronicling the abuse that occurred caused my heart to speed up a bit. I pushed the file away, sat back in my chair and took a deep breath; fighting tears.

Reading an account of a child’s life; one that included sexual abuse and neglect, gutted me. Word by word. Sentence by sentence – the unraveling of what should’ve been a happy and safe childhood. Placement disruption and behavioral issues – all of which added to the texture of trauma in this child’s life. Her life carries the weight of those first few years, even after adoption.

Coming from a safe and stable childhood free of maltreatment, I was unaware of the depth of abuse that occurs in our neighborhoods. As a caseworker, I delved into darkness to which has never really left me. Because of it, I’ve changed. Perhaps, for the better.

When you know their names, everything changes.

May is National Foster Care Month in the U.S. The goal is to bring awareness to the needs of children and the system. It’s easy to look at child abuse statistics and think, “What a shame.” It’s much harder to look away when you know the child’s name.

As we close out this month, my hope is that awareness will stir the hearts of people to dig deep and reach out to at-risk families, children and others involved in the system. It isn’t pretty. It won’t feel good (not very often, at least), but I’d like to think every footstep made toward hurting children and families will cause walls to fall. (Think Jericho and the walls tumbling down.)

And from the crumbled up remains of broken down walls, a movement of hope and resilience will grow causing a better future for all of us. It’s more than a “like to think” thing. Actually, I cling on to that hope.

Idealistic? Maybe. Unrealistic? Perhaps.

But as I said earlier, when you know their names, everything changes.

A Gorilla, A Petition, and the Perspective of a Child Welfare Professional

(Writer’s Note:  This opinion is not intended to represent other child welfare professionals’ opinions.  Plus, I’m not an expert on anything Gorilla or zoo related, and I can barely keep my children from escaping my grasp.)

If you are like me, your social media feed has been taken over by the shocking events that happened when a preschooler fell into the Gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo.  I’m guilty of commenting and sharing news about the incident, as well.  When I first saw the video of the child being dragged through the water, I watched with fear over what could have happened.  I thought about my own children, and what I would do if the same thing happened to any of them.  It hit close to home because I have an almost 4-yr-old who is extremely curious, lacks no fear, and is too quick for me to keep up with.  My heart just sank watching the video; saddened by the death of the majestic Harambe, worried about the child, and apprehensive about the reactions of so many.

I want you to know that I have always been an animal lover.  My parents endured my bringing home half-dead pigeons in hopes of healing them.  I have donated money to a tremendous amount of animal organizations and have fed numerous stray animals.  (I fed a stray cat just hours before writing this.)  In between classes in college, instead of driving the fifteen or so minutes to my house, I would drive around, read the “lost pet” signs, and then look for the animals in hopes of reuniting them with their owners.  I have helped to find homes for stray animals and rushed a dog to an emergency vet right after being hit by a car because I could not stand the thought of that poor baby lying there helpless while everyone else just zoomed by.  So, please hear me.  I adore animals.  I have pets and love them dearly.  I teach my children to do the same.

With that being said, when I read that nearly 500,000 people had signed a petition for an investigation and charges of negligence and/or lack of supervision to be brought up against the parents of this young boy, I had a visceral reaction.  My blood boiled a bit.  I am all about social movement, and stand behind change and action being brought on by the people but as a child welfare professional, I was just livid.  It’s not because I do not think the anger is justified, or that the parents’ actions, or lack thereof, should not be taken into consideration.  (Although, I do not know how it happened, and choose to hold no judgment.  As a mother, I know that things happen literally in the blink of an eye. I do wonder how anyone should be able to escape into a supposedly secured animal exhibit, especially a young child.)

My anger with the petition has more to do with the response to this one incident, than anything else.  My husband told me to just let it go, and stop reading/watching the news about it.  Maybe, I should.  Yet, in my heart, I know that the public outcry appears to have little to do with the child and more to do with the death of Harambe.  This is what stirs my feelings.  I’ve worked in child welfare now for fifteen years, and I can assure you that 500,000 people have never rallied around a situation involving negligence or lack of supervision for any child I’ve worked professionally with.

According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children  (www.americanspcc.org), in 2014, an estimated 702,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect.  In that same year, 3.2 million cases of child abuse were investigated, and 526,744 children suffered neglect.  I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I find these statistics to be quite overwhelming.  I walk into my office each week knowing that part of my job security is based on the need for services for abused and neglected of children.

I can probably count on two hands the number of perpetrators who have actually been charged and subsequently convicted of abuse or severe neglect for the cases that I have been involved in.  I say two hands, but that might be exaggerating a bit.  And with this, where is the outrage?  Where is the petition?

Where are the people when a young child is left alone all day long because the single mother is working three jobs in order to make rent and put food on the table?  

Where are the people when a toddler is found alone and wandering down a busy street?  

Where is the outcry for justice when a baby is found in a diaper that has not been changed for days, or when a teenager is kicked out of his or her home by an alcoholic parent?  

Where are the people when a baby is diagnosed with failure to thrive after suffering months of extreme neglect?  

Where are the signatures for punishment when someone, who has caused lifelong damage to a child, is not held responsible for this crime?

Where is the outrage?  Where is the petition?  Where are you?

I am tremendously sad over what occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo.  It is just plain awful. However, I am so incredibly thankful that the little boy survived.  A child’s life is of great value.  We should never forget this.

If you have never worked with children who have suffered abuse and neglect, then you do not understand how much it affects their lives, how vulnerable they are, and just how heartbreaking their stories are.  As one person who has worked in child welfare for a long time, I know firsthand that neglect and lack of supervision happen far too often in this nation we call home.

My anger over this situation has little to do with the death of Harambe; although it bothers me that any of this happened.  It has more to do with the reality that social media persuades us to get passionate and angry over certain circumstances, and yet, in our communities, and maybe in our own homes, we choose to turn a blind eye to what is really happening with children.

Where is the outrage about this?