We owe them a safe place to grow up

Someone recently asked me if I felt that the work I do as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) actually “saved” any children.  I asked them to define “saved”.  They responded that they would define it as taking children out of a bad situation and returning them to a healthy one, either with their healed family or a new family.  Then they added, “And these kids grow up ok and become productive, healthy members of society.”

They had me nodding yes until we got to that last part.  Children in state custody often don’t arrive there until an awful lot of damage has been done to them.  Sometimes this damage started before they were even born, with mom drinking during her pregnancy.  Oft times the problem is exacerbated by substance abuse and domestic violence during their youngest and most important years – years when the ability to trust and love and have healthy future relationships is either created or not; years that if lost, cannot be regained.

So my response to the question of whether I feel that I’ve actually helped “save” any kids is yes, but within this limited context.  I feel my work has helped take children out of unsafe, often abusive and violent situations, and gotten them into a place where they can grow up safely.  What happens after that is pretty much anyone’s guess. 

Sometimes these kids have already been so damaged that they immediately revert to the world they first knew and have drunken, often violent lives. Sometimes they get in trouble one time and that’s enough for them to figure out that they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their past. Sometimes they go from the state social services or juvenile justice system straight to the adult penal system with barely a break from one to the other. And sometimes, despite all odds, they turn out just fine.

If continuing to work as a GAL was contingent on creating productive adults out of damaged kids, I would have given up a long time ago.  Satisfaction for me is knowing that while they are kids, they have someplace safe to sleep at night, food on the table at meal times and sober adults who care where they are and how they are spending their childhood.

This can be hard for a layperson to understand.  Most people want a better return on their tax dollar. They want to know that money spent on social service programs will have some really positive outcome when the truth is that keeping children safe is often the best outcome we can hope for.  A child with signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a low IQ who experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence before he or she was 5 years old, is not someone that the best system in the world can always fix.

That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. And it doesn’t mean as a society we should not be responsible for giving these children a safe place to be children.  But it does mean understanding the limits of what you can do with a child who starts out with so many strikes against them.

Most Alaskans have heard about a recent case in Wasilla where children taken from a home in which substance abuse was apparently a problem were adopted by the state into a home in which physical torture and abuse seemed to be the norm. One of the reasons this case has struck such a chord with me is that it violates the minimum standard I feel we owe these children – a safe place in which to grow.

If anyone thinks these children have much of a chance at a “normal” life in the future, they are sadly mistaken.  These kids have no idea what normal is. Maybe, with lots of love and determined effort, they can achieve some quality of life in the future.  Maybe not.  But by taking them from one abusive situation and placing them in another, the state has condemned these children to a life of emotional and spiritual pain that they may not ever be able to overcome.

The one thing the state owed these kids when it got involved in their lives was a safe place to grow up.  They didn’t get that.  We will all be paying the price for that mistake for years to come. But the greatest price of all has been, and will continue to be paid by these children.