Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A busy couple of weeks, and my tribute to English classes past...

Life has been a little crazy by my standards in recent days.  I was in Denver three days last week, and I'm spending most of this week in Orlando.  Apparently, this is the time of year for big child welfare conferences, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to attend, to learn, and to share.

Last week was a group of kids in foster care, kids who've aged out of foster care, and professionals who work with this population of youth.  This week is the big statewide dependency summit that we have in Florida every year.

Yesterday, I was part of a small team who presented some information to a large group of Florida judges--talk about an intimidating crowd!  But they were attentive and had thoughtful comments and questions--not a heckler in the bunch--and I was fortunate to be presenting alongside some wonderful people, including my colleague and friend, Jen Behnam, who gave a TED talk on the value of permanency, which nearly knocked my socks off.  Jen and people like her are why I get up every day and head to the office with a positive attitude.

So, because I have been out of my beloved routine, I've struggled to find time for my blog.  I've got a bunch of ideas floating around in my head and notes scribbled on paper, but I don't know when I'll have time to develop them into something worth reading.  Therefore, I will go to my fall back position and share with you a piece that I wrote a few years ago after reading a book that continues to resonate with me today...

Jeanette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” is a study in contrasts.  The writing is both raw and beautiful, and Walls pulls no punches as she describes her childhood—one of grinding poverty and unbelievable neglect, as well as undeniable examples of an at times almost magical existence with truly unique parents, who although limited by their personal struggles with alcoholism and mental illness, also encouraged in their children incredible spirit, intelligence, strength, and love.

            “The Glass Castle” contains a valuable message for the child welfare world:  We should never become so committed to our particular system of care that it causes us to overlook the individuality of each child and family and the importance of sibling and family bonds.  Even when a child’s experience includes terrible neglect, those experiences belong to the child, contribute to her individuality and strength, and often exist side by side with other experiences that can be quite lovely.

            Jeannette Walls grew up with her brother and two sisters, the children of an artistic mother struggling with mental illness and a brilliant father struggling with alcoholism.  Walls’ earliest memory is from when she was just three years old.  She suffered severe burns as the result of her clothes catching on fire while she was going through her usual routine of preparing hotdogs for herself:

I’d put a chair next to the sink, climb up and fill a glass, then stand on a chair by the stove and pour the water into the pan.  I did that over and over again until the pan held enough water.  Then I’d turn on the stove and when the water was boiling, I’d drop in the hot dogs. ‘Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told [the doctors and nurses at the hospital], ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’

            This type of extreme inadequate supervision, while shocking, does not tell the whole story of this family.  Although Walls’ parents had some questionable ideas about child rearing, they loved their children and sometimes showed that love in startlingly beautiful ways.  One Christmas, although the family had no money for presents, their father “took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one” and allowed each child to pick out a star as a present.  When it was Walls’ turn, the “star” she chose turned out to be a planet, and her father responded, “It’s Christmas.  You can have a planet if you want.”  Walls marveled, “And he gave me Venus.”  Later, the children “laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys.  ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘you’ll still have your stars.’”

            Later in the book, as her parents struggle to support their family, Walls draws a stark contrast between the hardships in her house and those of a troubled boy in the neighborhood.  Billy is emotionally disturbed and in many ways is much worse off than Walls and her siblings:

The funny thing Billy wanted to show me was in his house, which was dark inside and smelled like pee, and was even messier than our house, although in a different way.  Our house was filled with stuff:  papers, books, tools, lumber, paintings, art supplies, and statues of Venus de Milo painted in different colors.  There was hardly anything in Billy’s house.  No furniture…It had only one room with two mattresses on the floor next to a TV. There was nothing on the walls, not a single painting or drawing.  A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling, right next to three or four dangling spiral strips of flypaper so thick with flies that you couldn’t see the sticky yellow surface underneath.  Empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and a few half-eaten tins of Vienna sausages littered the floor.  On one of the mattresses, Billy’s father was snoring unevenly.  His mouth hung open, and flies were gathered in the stubble of his beard.  A wet stain had darkened his pants nearly to his knees.

When Walls shares this with her family, her mother takes the opportunity to talk to her daughter about compassion: “She told me I should try to be nice to Billy.  ‘He doesn’t have all the advantages you kids do.’”

            Like many people, Walls’ mother taught her children to be wary of the government.  When Walls approached her after having had nothing to eat for three days but popcorn, her mother refused any suggestion of signing up for benefits such as food stamps:
Mom wouldn’t hear of it.  Welfare, she said, would cause irreparable psychological damage to us kids.  ‘You can be hungry every now and then, but once you eat, you’re okay,’ she said.  ‘And you can get cold for awhile, but you always warm up.  Once you go on welfare, it changes you.  Even if you get off welfare, you never escape the stigma that you were a charity case.  You’re scarred for life.

            At only one point in Walls’ childhood does a child welfare worker show up to check on the family, and Walls, although living in deplorable conditions in a decrepit house without heat, running water, or indoor plumbing, has nothing but fear for what this might mean:

If the child-welfare man got it into his head that we were an unfit family, we’d have no way to drive him off.  He’d launch an investigation and end up sending me and Brian and Lori and Maureen off to live with different families, even though we all got good grades and knew Morse code.  I couldn’t let that happen.  No way was I going to lose Brian and Lori and Maureen.

            As they grow up, Walls and her siblings help each other find ways out of the unstable life of poverty and neglect they have led.  Their parents taught them to think for themselves, and ironically this ultimately leads them to leave their parents and their unstable lifestyle behind.  Sadly, their parents continued to live in the same manner they always had—ending up virtually homeless in New York City, rejecting all offers of assistance by their children.

            “The Glass Castle” is an excellent book that everyone should read just because it is so good.  However, for those of us in the child welfare arena, there are important messages that should inform the work we do every day.  All families are not alike, and we must approach each with respect and compassion.  One size does not fit all, and determining what will work best for a particular family requires true collaboration, creativity, and open-mindedness.  Additionally, just like the Walls family, many are distrustful of the child welfare system and have strong views about what it means to accept help.  A strength-based and family-centered approach is a must.  Of course, this is not always easy and rarely happens overnight.  Finally, we need to really see our kids and hear what they are telling us.  The bonds they have with their brothers and sisters often represent the most important thing in their lives and absent significant evidence to the contrary should be treated as sacred.  We cannot just say these things, we have to recommit ourselves to these principles and find creative ways to fundamentally change our system to embody them.

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