Families can shout

My brother’s first girlfriend once told me that it was in my family’s home that she learned that people who love each other can yell and fight and when the yelling and fighting is over, still love each other. She came from a quiet home – something as an Italian I didn’t understand. Apparently in her home you never raised your voice because if you did, the implication was that you would cause an irreparable breech.  In my home, if you didn’t raise you voice it meant you had laryngitis from the last family conversation.

This comes to mind because a family I work with said they were told by a social worker that raising their voice and yelling in their home could constitute domestic violence.  By that definition, my entire nuclear and extended family would inhabit most of the prisons on the East Coast.

We, as a society, have an obligation to get into those homes where children are being harmed and make sure that the family is not allowed to raise another generation of abused children with the overwhelming potential to become abusers themselves.  But like the zero drug policy in schools that leads to second graders being expelled for offering their classmates a tic-tac/pretend aspirin, sometimes we get so rigid and unbending in our attempt to protect kids that we take down the good families with the bad.  Yelling that denigrates a child and threatens violence can constitute abuse. But to counsel with a family and not differentiate that from the normal yelling that can occur in a home is, to my mind, in and of itself family abuse.

The law is not a fine tuned instrument.  It can often feel like a massive sledgehammer striking all offenders indiscriminately, with no room allowed for a basically healthy family having a bad day.

So when this family reported to me that they’d been told that even raising their voice to their children could constitute domestic violence, they said it with fear in their voice as they realized the potential of the state to invade their home and remove their children – to say nothing of the power this gave their children to dictate how life would be lived in that family.

My grandmother lived her life with a wooden spoon permanently attached to her hand that seemed to be endlessly stirring the pot of tomato sauce that, in one version or another, was always simmering on the back of the stove.  Her grandchildren learned early on to respect her skill with that spoon, both as a cooking utensil and as a potential weapon of retribution for transgressions.  Run by the stove too fast and startle her? Whap.  Before you could sidestep, you were wearing red sauce on your shirt and your mother was going to be distinctly unimpressed with your explanation of how it got there.

Under today’s definition of child abuse, my grandmother would have spent all of her adult life in jail.  And jailers all over the East Coast would be wearing sauce stained shirts because we only got that spoon out of her hand when we prepared her for her funeral.

Child abuse and domestic violence are two of the most horrible crimes we face in our state today because there is a direct cause and effect between kids raised in those homes and adults who offend.  Given the limited number of human resources our society is willing to pay for, it would just seem to make sense to put them where they are really needed and stop scaring families into thinking that if they raise their voice at their kids, they’ll end up in the system and without their kids. We need to differentiate really troubled families from those good families that hit an occasional rough patch. They are not the same thing and any professional worth their advanced degree will tell you that.

My mother has been dead for four years now and I still hear her voice loud and clear when making certain choices. The way some OCS staff define our current laws, they would still be trying to arraign her for a crime because she didn’t feel she needed to modulate her voice when she wanted to be sure I’d remember the point she was making.  I do remember. She’s still my primary source of ethical and humane beliefs. I’m glad she spoke loud enough for me to always hear.

There is a difference between discipline and abuse – whether verbal or physical.  Like pornography, it may not be easy to define, but you know it when you see it.  It’s time social services allow its staff to use some common sense and professional judgment in recognizing that difference when dealing with our families in Alaska.