Things are not always as they seem

I know I had expectations when I started my job. Abusive families were poor, dirty, disheveled….mean, drunk, broken. Not only did I expect it, but I think I needed them to look that way. It fit with a version of the world where heroes wear capes and villains are in masks.

Now let’s get a little more honest. My early, naïve version of healthy families: middle class, clean, competent…kind, sober, intact.

Stereotypes come from somewhere, but was there any truth in my early beliefs?
Fact: Poverty is associated with child maltreatment. Whether it is a cause, contributor, or coincidence, it is well understood that poverty and child maltreatment go together. A lifetime of poverty means more than not having enough money. It can be a soul crushing existence in which families have all but given up on their dreams. But poverty does not equal abuse any more than money equals safety. It is obvious but frequently forgotten.

How about cleanliness? Does a dirty home equal an abusive home? We challenge this assumption all the time. Dirty is not the same as dangerous, but at times it can be. A home that can be treacherous for a 2 year old can pose almost no risk to a 15 year old. Even more challenging—dirty does not equal unhappy. It is difficult not to judge a parent who provides a home so unclean that a child has a strong, noxious odor. Is this abusive in and of itself? Is this child harmed if he doesn’t notice or care? After we check our judgment we find that the real safety issues in an unclean home are smaller than we expect.

If competence is the ability to meet a child’s needs and organize one’s life, then being disheveled can sometimes equal poor parenting. But then let’s figure out which families get a little slack when they are disorganized. The “good families” are allowed to forget to pick up their kids every once in a while and it’s laughingly attributed to a busy life, whereas a poor, unclean family who forgets to pick up a child is much more likely to be reported for neglect.

I wish everyone was kind all the time…to their kids, families, coworkers, waitresses, bankers…. It is tremendously challenging to figure out when a bad mood and some ugly words become abusive, and so we walk that line between intrusiveness and necessary intervention. Verbal abuse is insidious, toxic, and so difficult to address in the child protection system.

Sobriety does not automatically equal safety, and chemical dependency doesn’t always mean abuse. There are times that this statement makes people crazy. Alcoholism is not illegal or automatically child maltreatment. Even hard drug abuse, when it occurs away from the children, may not be maltreatment. I will be the first person to say that if a mom is using methamphetamine, it is highly unlikely that she is meeting her children’s needs. But we need to connect the dots and show how the drug use impacts the children.
Intact families are becoming the exception, and single parent families are more likely to be referred to child protection. This brings up another truth—perceived “nice families” are less likely to be reported, their transgressions more likely to be overlooked.

It would be so much easier if the bad guys looked like villains. But another, equally important truth has emerged—with very few exceptions, parents who harm their children also love their children, and children who are abused by their parents still love their parents. The good guy/bad guy scenario just doesn’t work when an abusive dad is also his son’s hero. Kids have an uncanny ability to separate the person they love from the behavior that they hate.

This is ultimately my job as well. A child protection social worker has to find the humanity behind the addiction, the uncleanliness or the abuse, and I have learned in no uncertain terms that the humanity is there.

In unprotected I wanted to challenge these belief systems. Amanda, social worker/protagonist, comes from a poor, single mom who didn’t meet Amanda’s needs. Chuck Thomas, the dad accused of abusing his son, comes from a well respected, beloved family whom no one would ever suspect. Amanda’s belief system about herself, her family and her child protection clients is constantly being challenged. Ultimately Amanda learns, as all child protection workers need to, that child abuse defies stereotypes, and luckily the good guys can be found anywhere.

Unprotected can be purchased on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at assorted local book stores. Thank you for your support!

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