I am Caucasian, of Irish, English, German, Dutch, Scottish and Welsh descent. I have traced my genealogy, tracking where my ancestors immigrated from when they entered the US, and though I have had ancestors who came over during the 1500s, the countries above come up in their countries of origin with surprising regularity. And I’ve not even found any First American ancestry in my family tree to make things more interesting (and a genetic test that my dad took confirmed that he at least is overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon with no trace of American Indian, though we do have some Neanderthal and Denisovan, so perhaps my ancestors weren’t as stodgy stick to your own kind as they seem!). My husband, Andy’s, parents immigrated from the Philippines, which is its own mixing ground of ethnicities. Andy has ancestors from Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, and, naturally, the Philippines.
As usual, I picked Buddy up from therapy in the afternoon. Since he has autism he has five hours of therapy a day, even in the summer. His coach came out and gave me a summation of his day, and when I made to leave, I was stopped from getting to the door because there was a crowd of coaches around another little boy who is a client there and his guardian.
It didn’t take long to figure out both the little boy and his guardian were upset. Apparently he had been bitten by another child there. The case manager made a comment that they would be calling the other boys mom and other such assurances.
Since I’m a counselor, I’ve heard a lot of life stories. And people tend to fall into two several camps. Some people had wonderful families but where treated horribly from society. Others had horrible families but were treated well by society. Some had horrible families and were badly treated by society. And some lucky ones had wonderful families and were treated well by society.
As for me, I fall into the wonderful family camp treated horribly by society. People often find this surprising. My parents are atheists, and they were loving, caring, and I couldn’t have asked for a better family. And unlike some parents who were atheists, they didn’t attempt to raise my sister and I with religion. They figured that Secular Humanism offered a good moral system, and the thing is, studies have born out that raising kids without religion may be better. Pretty much, the findings echo what I’ve found with my family.
Today, my five year old son, Buddy, came up to me and spontaneously said “Happy Mother’s Day!” This is the first time he has ever wished me a happy anything and it was definitely better than the gifts…even the Russell Strover’s chocolate!
Buddy has come so far since we got him into a new therapy program and out of the public schools. He’s started engaging in imaginary play such as having his Yo Gabba Gabba dolls interact with each other. He’s playing with others more appropriately, he’s more social, and he’s no longer anxious like he was when he was going to public school. He is really blossoming, and I wish every family affected by a family member with autism was able to access the services we are.
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.
As I was walking Buddy to his new school, my husband emailed me that our city was having a big homeschooling convention. A few minutes later he emailed me, “nevermind.” I smiled, knowing exactly why he lost enthusiasm for the convention.
I found out I was right when he got home. He explained that when he investigated the convention, he found they were staunchly conservative Protestant. And while it’s a given that as an atheist I wouldn’t be down with the agenda, as a Catholic, he’s not too fond of it either. And he went on for awhile in exasperation with how out of sync their educational goals were to our own (me being familiar with the homeschooling culture in our area was not surprised).
I don’t think I could have made an interfaith marriage work with a conservative Protestant. But a minimally practicing Catholic? Yeah. It works. And I think a big reason is because it doesn’t affect us much on a day to day basis.
Here are the reasons Andy is not fond of religious based homeschooling, or religious based schooling, period. He believes that it should be left to the church to teach religion. Andy wouldn’t even consider sending our children to a Catholic private school. In his mind, schools should teach academics, and religious instruction should happen solely within the church. This is a mindset I really wish more conservative Protestants would adopt!
The other reason is because Andy, like me, loves science. We read Discover and Scientific American magazines. We love Neil DeGrasse Tyson and watch his shows together. Andy doesn’t see any conflict between evolution, cosmology, and his religious beliefs. And he values science literacy and wants our children to have a firm grasp of how science and the world works.
And while he’s not a history buff like I am, he is concerned about the revisionist history that goes on in those circles. He wants our children to have a firm understanding on how the separation of church and state is fundamental to our government. He also understands that it’s important to acknowledge when our country was wrong, such as the issue of slavery. He does not want to whitewash something as horrible as the Civil War by reducing it to a mere matter of “states rights.”
Andy is able to compartmentalize his beliefs from his day to day life. In some ways I think this is easier for Catholics, because their faith focuses on acts (going to Mass, partaking in the sacraments, etc) than many Protestant sects which focus on belief. But whatever the reason, it works for us, because the educational goals we have for our children end up being the same. We want them to be scientifically literate, have a good understanding of history and how our government works, and believe that religious instruction is best left to the church.
Last Wednesday was the last day I took Buddy to his old school. They told me it was no longer acceptable for him to come to school with his clothes on backwards. I also know they’ve been punishing him with time outs for toileting accidents, something that EVERY book on autism I’ve read has said not to do. Once that started happening I noticed a change in Buddy. He stopped wanting to go to school. I wonder if they got on to him for coming to school with his clothes on backwards because last Weds he was very withdrawn. But since he can’t talk to me all I have is speculation.
Thursday morning he was extremely reluctant to go to school. It’s usually not an issue. Unlike a lot of kids with autism, Buddy likes getting out of the house. I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said “no.” In the past when I’ve asked he’d repeat, “school” which for him is a way of saying yes.
I took him to a playground instead. There were several other little boys Buddy’s age there, and he surprised me by joining in their game of Power Rangers. One of the mothers there had worked as a physical therapist at his old school and recognized him and she commented on what a good job he was going with the other boys. As we left I felt he benefited far more from those hours at the park than he would have at school. And that play? He wasn’t getting at school. But it’s the type of play he needs.
Friday I took the kids to visit my grandparents. And on Saturday when my parents came to visit, they found that Buddy had come out of the shell he had been in for the past few months, ever since they started the time outs at school.
Monday we started his new school. When I picked him up, he proudly showed me the truck he was playing with. His case manager said he’d done well and he won a game of musical chairs. Today when I went to pick him up I saw his therapist engaging him in a long, back and forth verbal sequence (five turns). This is something they were able to do in two days with him that his school was not able to do in five months of being with him! In fact, his school had no idea how to engage him. They asked me once, and when I told them (find what he is interested in, play with him, and gradually bring him into your world) they dismissed me as being permissive and went back to doing what doesn’t work.
And Buddy just seems happier now. And we’re seeing more engagement from him. While driving home today with Buddy and Sissy in the back seat we got stopped by a train. Buddy pointed at it and looked at Sissy and said, “Look, Sissy! A train!” I rarely hear him talk to her expect at night when he says, “Night night, Sissy, love you.”
At home we were watching “Mary Poppins” and when Mary Poppins did her long twirl during the “Step in Time” sequence he got excited. I started wondering out loud if any of us could twirl as long as she could and gave it a try. After I tried, Buddy tried. Here’s the thing, Buddy rarely imitates what he sees on tv. But as the show went on he started dancing more and imitating the movements. Later as I was doing dishes he started singing “Old MacDonald.”
I don’t think his new school has wrought a miracle so much as I think his old one was really stressing him out. And what I want to emphasize was that he was in pre-school. Pre-school was stressing him out. And further, is was inhabiting his growth when it should have been encouraging it.
And here’s the thing, it’s not just parents of children with autism experiencing this. Kids today are more anxious and at younger ages.Sensory processing disorders are on the rise. We have become so focused with academic success that we have set our expectations for our pre-schoolers way too high. Kids in pre-k are not wired to sit down for hours. They are not wired to know how to read or to do arithmetic. Our society got this insane notion that if we teach things to children at a younger age they will be smarter. But what happens is that we are teaching our children skills they are not developmentally ready for. Some children, boys especially, can’t learn to read before they are seven! But if you expect that child to learn to read at 4, well, of course they are going to get frustrated with school. When you expect a pre-school to sit still for hours, well, he’s going to get frustrated when he can’t do it.
And here’s where it ends up. Children’s mental hospitals. I did my practicum in one. I saw kids as young as four given ADHD medication so they could sit still for long periods of time. Here’s the thing, you give a kid who had ADHD medication, and he will calm down. If you give a kid who does not have ADHD medication, he will become irritable. When this happens, rather than saying the kid does not have ADHD, what tends to happen is it is viewed as that child has depression that the ADHD was masking, so they’re given an antidepressant. And then when the child has the symptoms from the depression medication, they’re given a third medicine. Some kids get up to 18 medications so they can sit still. At the age of four.
A disclaimer, I do not feel all medication is evil. While I was working there I also saw kids with schizophrenia. They definitely needed medication to be lucid at best, or to at least control their outbursts at worse (the prognosis for childhood schizophrenia is not good). However, for things like ADHD, I feel that medication should be used as a LAST resort when behavioral options have been tried and failed. But too often it’s used first.
Something else to point out, the children’s hospital I was in did not have a playground. I did not learn about sensory processing disorders until I had graduated, but looking back, I realize that a lot of those kids likely had undiagnosed SPDs and would have benefited more from physical therapy and play as opposed to Adderral and Abilify.
Which is all a long winded way of getting to my basic point, when the expectations we place on children are too high, normal behavior become pathologized. When a four year old is expected to sit still for hours, not being able to sets that four year old on the path to being labeled ADHD. When a five year old can’t read, she is set on the path of thinking she is too stupid to learn.When we stress the importance of achieving a high score on a test above all else, we set our kids up for anxiety disorders.
In the two days Buddy has been at this new school, I have already seen good progress. He spends his days learning through play. On the note they send home they have play activity after play activity they have engaged him in. At his old school they did a lot of work sheets and art projects, both of which are not age appropriate for a pre-school. My son has made more progress with play activities than he has with five months of work sheets. And it frustrates me to no end that we have someone gotten so obsessed with academic achievement that the idea of children learning through play is revolutionary, and finding places that provide it are so exceedingly difficult.