Columns 2005

Abused kids unlikely to say thanks

The December 1, 2005 issue of this paper carried a letter to the editor from a gentleman who wanted to know why none of the victims rescued from neglect and abuse through the Office of Children’s Services have come forward to defend OCS and praise the actions that were taken in their name.  I read the letter and sighed. 

In all my life, I never wanted to end up as the defender of OCS.  On a good day, in my capacity as a GAL, I can be as angry and frustrated with the services and staff as any other person trying to find their way through that bureaucracy.  There is obviously always room for improvement in any agency and I think that OCS probably has a larger margin for improvement than just about any government entity short of the US Congress.  But even under the best of circumstances, waiting for victims to come to the rescue of OCS, except for rare instances, is an exercise in futility.

The problem is that kids, being kids, tend to want to be with their mother and father no matter how bad mom and dad might be.  While they might be relieved to be rescued from an abusive situation at the time the abuse is occurring, the next day they want to go home.  And inevitably their parents are sober the next day, or the day after that, or the week after that, and they promise the child to never drink again or do drugs again or hit them with hammers again or let their friends use them sexually again. And because that parent represents home to the child – remembering that no matter how bad that home might seem to us, it’s the only one the child knows – he or she believes and wants to be returned.

And who is it that gets the unenviable job of standing between that child and his parents?  Yes, that ever-popular all occasion pi�ata, the social worker. While mom and dad, often still reeking of their hangover, promise the children pie in the sky, it’s the social worker who stands there and says the kid can’t go home until the parents have done something more impressive to improve their lives than stay sober for six hours. From the kid’s perspective, the social worker is the meanie.

Here’s another reason why you won’t get a lot of “saved” kids praising their childhood spent in multiple foster homes, group homes and institutions.  Because they liked it better at home where they could drink and smoke with mom and dad, often starting way before they were 10 years old, and had no rules imposed. They could do what they wanted, when they wanted, so long as they were smart enough to stay out of sight when mom and dad got to that point of messed up where they got mean.  Being forced into a home with sober people who had expectations for them to actually go to school, obey curfews and stay sober is not something they are necessarily going to thank anyone for.

The pull of home and parents is so strong that I’ve had children immediately head there when they turned 18 even though the last time they lived with their parents was when they were 8 or 9, and even though those parents allowed them to grow up in foster care rather than make the changes needed to get them back into their home.  Again, these kids are not apt to stand up at meetings and do testimonials to the social workers who they view as having kept them from their families.

I sometimes wonder why anyone would go into social work. I’ve talked with many state workers who do it because they know that kids deserve safety whether the kids realize they need it or not.  And they stay in the field because every once in a while they find a child who makes it through the system and uses the chance given for a better life to actually make their life better. 

It doesn’t happen often.  I don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of kids from my caseload over the past twenty odd years who would qualify in that category.  But you keep going because every once in a while a kid actually slips the knots of dysfunctional family dynamics and goes on to have a healthy life. 

For the rest, if we keep them safe till they are 18 and at least give them the choice of a better life, whether they take it or not, that’s often the best we can do.  None of us in this field spends any time waiting around for testimonials from these kids.  If that was the reward we needed to get up for work tomorrow, we’d all be in a different business.