November 4, 2014
It is heartening to see so much media attention on child abuse recently. There is much to be done on our system of child protection, and I am hopeful that the task force appointed by Gov. Dayton will provide some meaningful reform. Nancy Zupfer, in her commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Oct. 26, pointed out the key question for this group: How can we put children’s interests first?
We have tended to resist getting personally involved in finding a way to stop abuse because we want to respect the privacy of the family – most of us have some family secrets that we wouldn’t want exposed so we feel we can’t step into this family secret either. And most of us have had the experience of reacting with a wish to strike out or even of using physical discipline in anger or out of desperation – so does that make us culpable as well? And isn’t it easier to distance ourselves from the most heinous examples of abuse by blaming a bad parent or an incompetent child protection worker?
I’ve worked in child protection, in hospitals, and in children’s mental health, and have watched us struggle to define abuse, and to determine a response that is right for kids and their families. The answers are not simple. Once a child is being abused, are they better off staying in their family home or moving to foster care? Is parenting improved by forcing services on families or by inviting them into services voluntarily? Is child protection right to hold to a very high standard for mandatory intervention, or are too many children not being protected? Definitions of abuse are all over the map, from the legal definition for substantiated abuse, to the definition counties use to decide to investigate, to the much less strict definition of reportable abuse that many providers must utilize, to a community standard of acceptable/effective discipline. Now we’ve added the term “credible abuse” for the Catholic Church to use in determining when to report. And we’ve recently learned (or re-learned) thanks to Gail Rosenblum’s recent column in the Star Tribune that psychological abuse can be just as harmful as physical or sexual abuse. The new TV comedy “Black-ish” devoted their episode on Oct. 22 to the parental choice of physical discipline and very poignantly brought the viewing audience into the emotional and historical choices about using a belt to discipline a child. And was Adrian Peterson justified in just trying to do what he thought was right by disciplining like his parents did?
Here is where I believe we miss the point. Once a child is being abused, even by the broadest definition, we’ve already missed the opportunity to give them the best chance to thrive. Research tells us that children’s brains develop in different ways when they have to manage the impact of trauma, reducing their ability to build positive strengths. The definition of abuse is grey and tricky. As a society, it is time for us to truly take on the responsibility of caring for all our children rather than leaving it hidden in the privacy of the family home. Of course we respect the rights of parents and we also support them in taking on the most difficult job of being a parent. Given that, let’s step up as a community and begin to talk about what we truly want for our kids. What forms of discipline are not only okay but actually helpful? Can we take a critical look at the use of physical discipline and try to figure out how to manage children’s behavior in other ways? How do we as parents gain enough support to step beyond our own histories of trauma and stress? Where can concerned family members go to get help without feeling judged or condemned?
We can continue to ask task forces to “fix a broken system” and try to distance ourselves from the most extreme examples of abuse. Or we can all acknowledge our roles as parents, elders, community members, and those looking to a better life for the next generation; and truly begin to make a difference. We need to have focused conversations in our churches, our PTAs, our community organizations, our political gatherings, our book clubs, and our civic groups. There are leaders in many child focused agencies who can be child advocates bringing the wisdom of research and experience to facilitate these discussions. The time is now. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do this!
Barb Klatt, LICSW
Children’s Mental Heath Manager, Retired
Co-founder and Board Member, Family Enhancement Center