Columns 2008

Let’s call them what they are…pseudo-families

After spending countless years working with abusive families and damaged children, I’ve decided that one of the ways to get a grip on the problem is to redefine the terms. Anyone who’s ever been called fat or ugly knows that words are very powerful. So we need to use the right ones in defining the people involved in the court system because of domestic violence and/or neglect and abuse of children.

Right now, the system is geared towards reuniting families. This goal is predicated on the assumption that the family is the best unit society has for rearing the next generation. That assumption has led to numerous battles over the definition of family and, in some cases, caused state constitutions to be changed to protect society from defining family in any but very traditional and biblical terms. In actual fact, if you look up the word family in Webster’s online dictionary, the first definition states it is a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a basic social unit consisting of persons united by the ties of marriage.

In America, forty years after the Free Love movement and easy access to birth control, we do not necessarily define a family through the legal requirement of marriage. On the other hand, most Americans still insist that at a minimum there needs to be a man and woman, possibly some kids, living and working together towards common goals of mutual benefit.

The “families” I work with as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) minimally meet that definition; there is usually a man and a woman living together and there are kids in the home.  Because of that, the state is required to try and reunite the family and can only find other permanent placements for children after all avenues of reunification have been exhausted.  After decades of doing that, I’ve reached the conclusion that you can’t reunite a family that never really was one.  Nor should we try if, while trying, we create more and more problems for the children waiting on the sidelines while their parents decide whether or not they want to get sober or stop hitting each other or stop beating the children. Because for every day these children are in foster care, are not in permanent homes, have uncertain emotional attachments because they never know when they will abruptly end – for every day children are subjected to those conditions, their own ability to form healthy attachments and live healthy lives is damaged.  Often the damage becomes irreparable. When they are finally returned to a family being held together by so many bandages that you can barely find the people inside the wraps, the children are in such bad shape they don’t stand a chance of ever having a healthy adulthood.  A depressingly high number of them will end up in jail or in court with social workers taking another generation of children from the same “family”.

So I propose society redefines what these damaged people living together really are. I think we need to call them “pseudo-families”.  Then we should legislate that we don’t have to try and reunite pseudo-families. We can, instead, immediately turn our attention to placing the children in permanent situations where, with help and love, they might have a chance at a good tomorrow. 

We can easily define pseudo-families as any family where the children are the result of drunken, meaningless encounters; where physical and sexual abuse is the norm and not the exception; where the children are left to fend for themselves while mom and dad party; where food and clothing are secondary to the parental need for substances that alter their ability to even recognize their children’s needs.

The definition needs refinement but that won’t be much of a problem for anyone who has worked in the field for more than five minutes. Pseudo-families are the people for whom sobriety is only a temporary state until the children are returned. They are the ones who smile and say they now understand what violence can do to their spouse or children and will never do it again. But the minute the children are returned and the state is no longer looking over their shoulder, they do. When their children grow up, they will most likely perpetuate the cycle.

So let’s break the cycle. Let’s stop reuniting families that never were.