Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Things I Have Come to Learn In Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I was twenty-three years old. I was a college graduate. I was working part-time in a church doing work that I loved (basically the youth minister in a smaller congregation), but getting paid so little that I had to work another full-time job to support myself. I hated that so much of my time was spent doing something that mattered so little to me just so that I could pay rent and pay my bills.

Twenty years ago I had little first-hand understanding of the juvenile justice or child welfare systems. I "knew" what I had heard. I believed that the systems in place were working on behalf of children. I had enough knowledge of the history of child neglect and abuse to know that our state was one of the forerunners in caring for children. I naively thought that kids who wound up in foster care were often there because of parental abuse or neglect. I conjectured that those youth who found themselves behind bars had made unwise, unhealthy or illegal choices and that with the right home atmosphere or opportunity they could be "redeemed."

Twenty years ago I believed that someone with an MSW or a Ph.D. knew what they were talking about and that they used their knowledge and competence to advocate for and with children needing caring adults in their life. I read the journal articles they wrote, I checked out from the library or purchased the books they sold. I enjoyed the knowledge I acquired from their learned texts.

But then I became involved personally in the system. Fifteen years ago I spent a couple of years working as a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem. I was appointed by judges to be "the eyes and ears" on behalf of children. I was told that my recommendations to the Court would be carefully considered because I had less of an axe to grind than attorneys or parents or social workers, that since my sole concern was the "best interest of the child" I had the responsibility to be clear and honest without the consequences other professionals might face. And I discovered, with gratitude that what I had been promised proved true. Guardians ad litem were respected. The role was critically important, extremely difficult, but a necessary part of the process.

I also discovered, in small ways, how necessarily self-serving other roles (notice I say "roles" and not "individuals," because I truly believe it's more of a systemic issue than one of compromised individuals) were. Attorneys were present to represent their clients' wishes, not what was in their best interest. Social workers were driven by a need to balance budgets, try to maintain peace with all parties and, almost always, to cover their collective behinds. I was also soured as I watched professional witnesses drug into courtroom settings where the best testimony had been procured by the parent with the most funds available. For a number of reasons I decided I could not work in that role and feel like it mattered much with all the other factors involved, and so after less than two years I left it behind.

Eleven years my wife and I became foster parents and then adoptive parents. In the first county in which we lived we were viewed as partners, team members in caring for children who had been abused or neglected or who were delinquent. We were respected, our views were carefully heard, most often appreciated and affirmed. The relationships we garnered led us to believe that we not only were doing a good thing for children, but also a relatively good thing for an outmoded, underfunded, poorly equipped child welfare system.

Then we moved. Our one hundred fifty mile move within the same state could have been a fifteen hundred mile move. The county to which we moved was familiar with child protection issues, of course, but mostly acquainted with generational cycles of poverty and neglect, with the smattering of transitional families who did not stay long. We were a cunundrum. We had adopted children from difficult backgrounds, children very much like the ones they knew from their caseloads, but with one startling difference, a difference I am not sure the professionals really understood very well. The difference was that we were not the parents who abused, neglected or caused to become delinquent, the children in our care. We inherited years of dysfunction, generations of organic damage and environmental difficulty. We were not the cause of our children's issues. Yet we were the ones who were treated with either a naive or cavalier or "business as usual" approach. Our thoughts mattered little, our concerns seldom addressed, our role negligible. We spent seven years in that environment, a difficult and long haul that produced no better functioning for two of our children in question, and nothing but anxiety and added layers of challenge for the remainder of our family.

We live now in a new county, where we have found better treatment, but I have to wonder how much of social services is driven by the bottom line (financial bottom line, that is). We are grateful that here parents of delinquent children are not treated like the delinquents. But, and perhaps this is the way it is in most connections parents with tough kids have with social service agencies, we are often treated like we are buffoons. When the psychiatrist who has prescribed your child the meds that (while effective) contribute to his obsessive tendencies lectures you about his nutritional habits, implying that somehow you are unable or unfit to provide the appropriate nutrition that will bring his weight down, it's irritating. When the social worker presents a plan that you know, based on history, to be flawed for the child in question, and the plan fails, it makes me grate my teeth.

I'm sure the professionals are simply doing what they feel they need to do, but these are not the ones who live with, parent daily and have a lifetime commitment to our children. When their responsibility has come to an end (whether at the end of the work day or when our child ages out of their care) they can close the file and the door on the way out of the office. When their doors close, ours are just opening.

Maybe that's the most important thing I've come to learn in twenty years.