Monthly Archives: April 2016

Nature Bites Back

Yesterday was Earth Day. It was also national parks week, meaning free entrance to national parks. Buddy is a natural hiker, and Sissy is turning out to be in the same mold. So I found a park about a hour drive away and packed the kids up for a fun filled adventure. First, to see a mammoth excavation site that has been turned into a national park. Then to a large park along the Brazos River with lots to do.

As always, I made sure to take sunscreen. I’m extremely fair skinned and burn easily. And even though my husband is multiracial and dark, both kids inherited my complexion. I was hoping that they would have inherited their father’s ability to tan and not mine to burn, but I’ve also not want to bet on it.

I also took a can of bug spray. We live in Texas, and right now we have been given a lot of warnings about zika. Lately I’ve been seeing headlines along the lines of bug spray is safe, zika is not, make sure you spray!

Having experienced plenty of sun burns in the past, and having family members have to be treated for skin cancer, I know that the sun is dangerous. Yet when I slather my kids with sunscreen, I also can’t help worrying about all of the unnatural chemicals. Doubly so for bug spray. And today it hit me just how badly our cultural panic over things that are unnatural has eclipsed our common sense. I have experienced the unpleasantness of sunburn countless of times, but I still second guess wearing sunscreen, even though I’ve never been harmed by sunscreen.

I was able to get Sissy lathered up, but Buddy ran as soon as he saw the woods and I was only able to give him a cursory coat.

We saw the mammoths first and learned that they had died in a flood and possible landslide. Nature was definitely not kind to them. Next we went to the other park, and my GPS led me to a part of the park that did not have much for toddlers to do. Really, the only thing to do was hike through some very complex unmarked trails. Buddy was game, Sissy gave it a good try, but she was just too little.

What happened next emphasized that nature is not exactly our friend. The trails at this park were hard. Buddy was having the time of his life, Sissy was getting frustrated. At one point Buddy flew down a steep hill (probably about an 85 degree incline) marred with tree roots and rocks. Even if I’d had my baby carrier with me, I would not have been able to get down with Sissy without losing my balance (I carry a big backpack filled with a gallon of water and other supplies on my back and wear her on the front. Just with the backpack I was having a hard time keeping my balance).

Sissy alternated between trying to get down on her own and wanting me to carry her. Meanwhile I was worried if I didn’t get down there to where Buddy was I’d never see him again. For Buddy’s part, he was having a ball staying near the bottom but exploring the area. I thanked my lucky stars once again that, unlike a lot of children with autism, he doesn’t elope and likes to keep me in his line of sight.

I got to a very difficult part of the hill and Sissy wanted me to pick her up. And then the inevitable happened: we fell. Sissy was okay. I’d hurt my arm and pulled a muscle over my rib cage that made breathing painful. But we were finally at the bottom of the hill.

At that moment, I was pretty sure nature wanted me dead. I had a few choice words for nature, as well as for myself and how I get myself in these situations. I looked back up at that daunting hill. There was no way I could get Sissy to climb it on her own. So in my injured state I was going to have to get us both up there.

Buddy wasn’t happy about going, but he followed us, thankfully. We got back to the car. Sissy was asleep in minutes after getting on the road.

The next day she seems no worse for the wear. Buddy, however, has definitely inherited my ability to burn. Even under the cover of a dense forest and even with a bit of sunscreen, he has a splotchy sunburn. I’m a bit sore but planning the next outdoor adventure nonetheless.

What I learned this Earth Day? Nature is a wondrous and beautiful thing. However, she is also cruel and will kill you if she can. She is not our friendly goddess willing to provide whatever we need to survive. There seems to be this movement to exalt the healing power of everything natural and despise all that isn’t. And to those people, I know of a park in Texas to refer them to for some education.


Alone Among My Social Support Group

Until a few weeks before the primary in my home state, I was seriously debating whether to vote for Clinton or Sanders. Both had pros and cons and for the most part I was simply glad that in my very red state, I actually had the chance to vote for someone where my vote could actually matter.

A few weeks before voting I swung firmly into the Clinton camp, and there I’ve stayed. What factored into that decision was articles like this that explained that Sanders doesn’t have a workable plan for how he will put his platform in place. Clinton does. Further, Sanders is a one issue candidate when the problems facing our nation are multifaceted and complex, and I feel that Clinton understands that in a way that Sanders does not. And what really concerns me, looking at things from a long term perspective, is that should Sanders get into office and fail to bring about the revolution he promises, the failure of his presidency will be blamed on his economic policies and not a flawed president.

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The Complex Problem of Child Abuse, Part I

Ever since I heard about the tragic case of Leiliana Wright, I’ve been struggling to write this. Leiliana was four years old when she was beaten to death by her mother and step father. Worse, the abuse had been reported to CPS and they had failed to intervene. A lot of people reacted to the story with shock and outrage. But as someone who spent the last four years working closely with CPS in a neighboring county to which this tragedy occurred, I was not shocked. I was expecting a tragedy like this to occur.

I was working at an organization that provided counseling for people with substance use problems. Most of our clients were referrals from CPS who had had their children removed from their care due to abuse or neglect. Child abuse is an issue I am very passionate about. There are several people in my family who were abused as children and worked hard to break the cycle of abuse as adults for one thing. I also watched my mom give parenting classes to teenagers growing up, also hoping to end the cycle of abuse before it started. I did my practicum at a children’s mental hospital where I did counseling with children who had been horrifically abused. This was bleak and gut wrenching work, and I felt that I was trying to put a bandage over a problem that never should have happened. No child deserves to go through what the children I have worked with have.

So when I started working with substance use, I was interested in working with parents, because I figured that if I could teach people how to be good parents, then there wouldn’t be any wounds in the first place.

Of course, things are not so simple. Often these parents were abused as children and still have their own wounds that need tending for a start. The other problem was the overwhelming poverty these families were in. When you can’t make ends meet, worrying about meeting your children’s emotional needs falls by the wayside. But the other problem was child protective services itself was underfunded, understaffed, and ill equipped to meet the needs of the children who were relying on them to protect them.

The problems with high turnover, low pay, and high caseloads have been well documented, and nothing has been done about it. When the Sunset report came out, my friend and co-worker noted how every critique of the agency was spot on, but nothing was being done to address the problems. In December 2015 Judge Janis Graham Jack issued a damning ruling against CPS, finding they had violated the US constitution and put children at risk. Once again, the problem of too few caseworkers come up.

And NOTHING has been done to increase the pay of caseworkers, or increase the number of caseworkers, or decrease the turnover.

To put things in perspective, the caseworker assigned to Leiliana had a reported caseload of 70. It is not possible for one person to manage a caseload so high! A recommended caseload is 12, no more than 17.

CPS Investigators investigate claims of abuse. They go into homes where abuse is reported. This is often hazardous. They go into homes where people are using drugs or have even cooking drugs. They go into homes where there is hoarding and other unsanitary conditions. They also work with people who are threatening. I know one woman who quit working at CPS after a parent attempted to run her over with his car when she informed him that she was going to have to remove his children from his custody.

They have college degrees and do the work of a detective. Yet in the rural area where I lived, they made about 34,000/year. In cities where the cost of living is higher they could make around 40,000. In 2014 the average pay for a detective was 58,630 per year.

Obviously, the turnover rate is high. Investigators and caseworkers get burnt out easily and leave. Because of this, it is hard to retain trained workers and cases get shuffled around often. I have had clients have three different caseworkers in three months.

Here is the situation my clients would often find themselves in. They had their children removed. Often people assume that children are happy to be away from their abusive parents, but children tend to find it traumatic to be removed even if, best case scenario, they are going to a better home. Their stability has been disrupted. Also, contrary to belief, parents who have their children removed tend to love their kids even if they don’t know how best to care for them. Having their children removed is devastating for parents. They feel guilt and shame for losing their kids and are desperate to get them back. They start doing the services CPS asks of them.

But then their case gets moved to a different caseworker who doesn’t know the details of their case. This caseworker may tell them they need to do a different set of things than the first caseworker. Or the parent may be concerned because the new caseworker does not appear to know anything about their case. They finally get on the same page with the new caseworker, and then that caseworker leaves, and they have to start the process over again with yet another caseworker.

This is incredibly maddening and frustrating for the parents. They get confused messages and the impression that the caseworker does not care about their children. It is really hard for these parents to understand that the caseworker has about 30 cases they are trying to manage. They are also often frustrated because their phone calls and text messages to the caseworker are ignored. In that parents’ mind, their children are gone, and the only thing that matters is getting their children back and they don’t want to hear excuses about overburdened caseworkers.

And while these parents often made poor choices, they and their children are now stuck in a system that is dysfunctional. It is agonizing for them.

It is also harmful for their children, who the system is supposed to help. They have a different caseworker each month and can’t rely on the same person being there to help them through the process. They may have to tell the same traumatic story multiple times to multiple people. Caseworkers easily lose track of them. And far too often children are harmed in the household they were placed in. About every few months I would have a parent come in distraught because their child was raped in foster care, found to have suspicious bruises while staying with a relative, or neglected after being placed in a home with too many children and too few caretakers.

Yes, the children may have been abused or neglected with their parent. However, the reason CPS got involved was to protect the child, and now the child was further harmed by being placed in a harmful environment.

And in the last few months I was there, the problems with employee retention and high caseloads at CPS seemed to be getting worse. Caseworkers were often pulled from our county to Dallas county, where Leiliana resided, because it was known the situation in Dallas county was so bad. However, that did nothing to help the fact that the county they already were in was understaffed. I saw children returned to homes that were not safe because of lack of staff and a lack of safe places to put the children.

If we want to get serious about combating child abuse, the first and least thing that we can do is ensure that caseworkers who investigate abuse have a manageable caseload and a decent salary. No, this is not going to solve the problem by a long shot, it is just a start. However, there still appears to be no momentum on addressing these issues. Once again, we’re going for surface fixes, replacing a few key people and patting ourselves on the back and moving on. But until we start and push for more substantive change, then we’re going to have more Leiliana’s.


Medical Abortions

This week, a tragic story about a couple who lost a wanted pregnancy went viral. Taylor Mahaffey went into labor just shy of twenty weeks of pregnancy. Let’s get a few facts straight. A fetus is not viable this young. The earliest a fetus can survive outside the womb is 22 weeks, and then there’s only a 10% chance, which goes up as the length of gestation increases. Another fact, Texas, where the couples lives, outlawed abortions after twenty weeks unless the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus has abnormalities incompatible with life, neither of which was the case for Ms. Mahaffey. This law was passed in 2013.

Best practice in this case, and what Ms. Mahaffey wanted because she did not want her baby to suffer, would be to induce labor. But, even though she was just shy of 20 weeks, the hospital did not want to run afoul of the law and sent her home. For three days she felt her child struggle within her. Then she started bleeding, but since there was still a fetal heartbeat, she was sent home. After four days and several trips in and out of the hospital her waters broke and she delivered her son stillborn.

I am appalled that Ms. Mahaffey’s life was put at risk for a fetus that had no chance of surviving. I am appalled that best medical practice was discarded for fear of legal repercussions. I am appalled that Ms. Mahaffey and her husband suffered for four days knowing that their wanted pregnancy was ending and that their agency in how to handle a tragic situation was stripped from them.

And I am appalled that, even though this is happening to other women across the country, pro-lifers continue to rationalize this away. Here are arguments that I see.

1. You should hope for a miracle/when I was in a similar situation, I waited for things to end naturally because that’s what our bodies intended to do and it worked out wonderfully. I see this one and variations a lot. And it makes me see red. If you are in that situation and want to pray for a miracle or let your body do it’s work naturally, great! That is YOUR medical choice. It is your body at risk, your choice to make. Here’s the thing. Letting our bodies work the way nature intended does not work so well for other people. Google Savita Halappanavar. Further, OTHER PEOPLE MAY WANT A DIFFERENT CHOICE! Other women may not want to risk medical complications when they are told their fetus is not viable. Other women may want to get it over with and move on. Other women may worry that their fetus is suffering, is being crushed by their womb, is struggling for no reason because there is no hope of survival and may want to end their suffering. People are different. How one person deals with a tragedy is different from how others deal with the same tragedy. If you want to stick a nonviable pregnancy out to the bitter end and pray for a miracle, great! That’s your right! But it is not right for you to tell other people what to do in a similar situation. Suppose the tables were turned and the woman’s life was always given top priority and women were forced to abort nonviable pregnancies (I am NOT advocating this, but suppose this were the case?) Now you understand what you are putting women through when you deny them the agency to make the best medical decisions they can for themselves. I cannot say it enough, these decisions need to be between a woman and her doctor.

2. This is about murdering babies, no one thinks about their suffering. No one wants to murder babies. People who make this argument tend to see pregnancy as black and white. And they also seem to believe it always results in healthy babies and mothers. But here’s the thing. Maternal mortality in the US is unacceptably high. And even when women survive, not all pregnancies result in healthy babies who survive. In this case, something that the article made clear, the Mahaffey’s fetus’s feet were dangling from her cervix for four days. Mahaffey describes him as “struggling” in the womb. She and her husband state they did not want him to suffer. They were thinking about their son’s suffering! It why they wanted to end the pregnancy. Once again, some people want to hope for a miracle, hope that the doctor is wrong, etc. Other people focus on the quality of life and do not think there is anything noble about suffering needlessly. And the former should not be able to dictate the medical decisions for the latter!

3. I don’t believe this story because a family member went through something similar and got good, compassionate care. I’m glad you had support during a tough time. However, this law was enacted in 2013, so very recently. Also, Texas is a huge state, so people are going to have different experiences depending on where in the country they are, the religious affiliation of the hospital they are at, their medical insurance, etc. Further, other women are coming forward across the US with similar stories.

Taylor Mahaffey suffered for four days, feeling her wanted son die within her, knowing that he was not going to survive. Her ability to control the medical decisions that impact her body was stolen from her. This is cruel. Her life was put at risk for a nonviable pregnancy. Best medical practice was put aside for fear of legal repercussions.

Pregnancy is a complex situation. It is a grey area. Women can die (and in Ireland, have died) by being denied the best medical care while pregnant for fear of being prosecuted by the law. Each pregnancy is unique. Each challenge is unique. And each family is unique. How each family faces adversity is unique. What is comforting to some families, such as bucket lists for the nonviable fetus, are torture for others, and vice versa. Some people value life at all costs, other people value the quality of life.

We need to acknowledge the harm these laws are causing. We have to acknowledge that different people are going to react different ways and find different thing comforting in a crisis. And we need to trust women and their doctors with their personal medical decisions. The clergy and politicians need to butt out.