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May Is National Foster Care Month…


During my years as an attorney, one of the areas of law that was very dear to me was working with abused and neglected children.  Not because it was a happy part of my job most of the time, but because it was one aspect of my legal practice where I truly felt we could all make an enormous difference in the life of every child we helped.  I worked in all facets of that area of practice — helping the Department pull kids out of severely abusive homes, following-up on their foster care placement, doing home visits with the kids I represented as a guardian ad litem, and then later as a prosecutor, holding abusive parents criminally liable for their conduct.  I’ve also represented my share of parents in these sorts of situations.

None of this was easy.  But the thing that always puzzled me was how some children seemed to be able to snap back from all of the misery, the physical and emotional strain, the horror of repeated sexual abuse.  Some children were somehow able to pull themselves up and move forward with their lives despite everything that had happened in their young lifetimes, and some seemed trapped — almost as if the abuse were still ongoing — no matter how good the foster care placement or adoptive family.  I always thought of it as a sort of switch — some kids had the ability to flip it on and go forward, some never could, but it has been a huge puzzle for me throughout my professional career as to why this is such a divide, even among kids in the same family who lived in the same circumstances — good and bad.  (I talked a little about that here.)

The NYTimes Magazine has an article today that may explain some of this question.  And I wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention, because the problem of child abuse in this country isn’t just limited to the children and the families involved in the discreet court cases or the nasty little spat you witness at the local WalMart or whatever.

Abuse touches each and every one of us — because a child who is abused even once has his or her view of the world changed in that instant forever.

Not to go all Dr. Phil on everyone or anything, but my experience with the criminal justice system in my little microcosm in WV — and in talking with other prosecutors from around the country at seminars and such when I was practicing — is that we all see the same families over and over again in the system.  You start with a child who has been abused, physically and emotionally, and you have an abuse and neglect case.  They move into the juvenile justice system, and eventually into the adult criminal system.  And then they have children, and the cycle often begins anew.

Every once in the while you get a kid who beats the odds — but they were rare, and it always puzzled me as to why those kids were able to make that choice to have a better life and really make it out of the problem cycle.  And I tried to learn from those kids when it happened — what had we done right within the system, what had the foster placement or adoptive placement taught us, etc., so we could do better with everyone else.  But there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason to it.

Until reading this NYTimes Magazine article this morning.  It’s a tough read, but maybe, just maybe, some genetic issues can explain a little bit of the resilience question.

But it doesn’t explain the whole of it.  We do things backward sometimes in this country — and how we deal with child abuse is one of those things that I think deserves a whole lot more thought and care than we have given it in the past.  I’m going to try and devote some time and energy to this issue throughout the month of May, as time and events allow, because it is so important to all of us in our nation that we get it right.

Our children — all of our children — deserve nothing less.

(I found this poignant photo at a website called Thompson at Large, along with an intriguing article about child abuse issues.  It’s worth a read and some thought — and it something I’ll address down the road.)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com