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Won’t You Take A Step?

One of the most painful, and yet most rewarding, aspects of my legal practice was working with children in abuse and neglect cases.  It was always tough work, not the least of which because at the time that I was doing it, I had issues with miscarriages and other problems as we tried desperately to have our own little miracle.  Watching parents who not only did not appreciate their kids for the miracles they were, but who could so callously and cruelly disregard, ignore and abuse their own children, just about broke me.

But I kept going with the work for years because it was so valuable to the lives of the children I was able to help — sometimes by helping to get their family back on its feet and functioning well, sometimes by helping to remove them entirely from a dangerous and horrible nightmare, and more often something in between where things got better but folks kept an eye on the family for a long while afterward to be sure they didn't get worse again. 

Being able to catch these children and help to lift them up a bit while they were young often made all the difference between helping them to heal and find some happiness, or leaving them only to have them pop up again as juvenile offenders, then adult criminals, and then parents of more kids in abuse and neglect situations.  Stopping the cycle in its tracks — and as early as possible — is much more effective, in my experience, and is also more beneficial for the child in so many ways on an emotional level.

Through the years, there were a number of cases which stuck with me, either due to the extreme abuse that the individual children suffered through before their situation was discovered, or in those rare, amazing success stories, because some very deserving kids found an amazing adoptive home and some parents to love them unconditionally. 

Sometimes it was a quirk in the case that stuck in my mind, but most often it was the strained, prematurely aged eyes that had seen far too much in their young lives, their hollowed faces and the longing for some love and respect from someone — anyone — that they could love right back.  The worst of all were kids who had lived through severe physical or sexual abuse and were facing such a difficult road ahead because we found out about the abuse when they were older and had endured it for years by that time — trying to find some way, any way, to make those kids feel safe or whole was so, so hard.  And often, next to impossible, but you had to try because they deserved whatever chance at happiness any of us could give them.  Some cases in particular still give me nightmares or wake me up worrying, even now years after working on them.

Yesterday, after I picked up The Peanut from preschool, we ran out to the store to restock our bare fridge, and I caught a glimpse of an adoptive mom that I had worked with years ago in a case that turned out well.  I didn't go up and re-introduce myself because she was with a lovely child who I am fairly certain was one of the kids that I had worked for in this particular case, and you just don't insert yourself back into their lives as a reminder of the past without warning — especially since sometimes these kids don't have a lot of memories of their past because of post traumatic stress issues and such.  But it was clear from the little bit that I saw that these two were having one of those parent/child moments that was not only close but tinged with some teasing and laughter and a lot of love for each other.

It was all that I could do right there in the middle of the grocery store to hold back tears, because when you work in the criminal justice system, you just don't see many happy endings.  It was only a glimpse, but it sure looked like this child had found one…and I could not be happier, for the child or for the parent. 

I've been thinking about that little glimpse back into their lives — and about the history that I know, and all the years since then that I know nothing about but only hope were far, far better for this child.  Knowing that I may have been able to help, even in some small way, for that child to find some comfort and love means a lot to me.  And it occurred to me that folks here might have no real idea how they could help in these sorts of situations where at risk kids could use some help.  But that folks might like to lend a hand up here and there if they can.  So, I've put together some resources for everyone with links where possible, and I hope this helps you or someone you know both to help and, in some way where it's needed, also to heal a bit if you need it.

First and foremost, if you think that a child you know is being physically abused in some way — lots of bruises, some of which look like finger or handprint marks or belt welts or severe burns in the shape of lit cigarettes or blisters from being held into scalding water as punishment or…well, you get the picture…call someone to help that child.  If you don't know who to call, check with your local child abuse prevention hotline or the local CASA group (more about them below) or your pastor or someone at the child's school or a local police officer.  But, for heaven's sakes, talk with someone about it if you think the child is truly facing abuse — you could be the difference in saving that child's life.  To be sure, some kids just bruise easily or have issues that can look like abuse but really aren't — it's a tough call sometimes, but one that you should consider making if you are at all concerned for a child's safety. 

Having worked with kids whose lives were literally saved because of those sorts of calls, I can tell you that it can make a world of difference for a child at risk.

Some great resources for abuse and neglect issues:

— Local shelters for battered women.  Often moms will run to the shelter with their kids in tow, and they are pretty much always desperate for clothing and toiletries donations, both for adults and kids, as well as stuffed animals, coloring books and washable crayons.  For that matter, local homeless shelters also have these sorts of issues and can always use volunteers and donations as well to help get a family — especially one that is fleeing an abusive home — on its feet.  You'd be amazed what a little respect and care can do for someone who has forgotten that they not only deserve it, but that they should expect it, too.  And for a child who has never known that from an adult, it can work miracles.  (As an aside, the Lakota women's shelter that some of you donated to recently after a Saturday Pull Up A Chair post is doing very well — lots of help pouring in and it looks like they'll be able to keep their doors open for a while after all.  Thanks so much to everyone who helped with this, you truly helped to save a life.  And then some.)

— Your local CASA group.  CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates — they stand up for the kids in abuse and neglect cases, and are invaluable where you have overworked social workers who aren't able to do enough follow-up or an attorney who isn't diligent in representing the kids' interests or some other gap in the court case.  Their role is to make sure that the children's voice is heard, and that their needs don't fall through any cracks in the system.  And they are always — ALWAYS — looking for great volunteers.

— A lot of communities allow for pro bono legal help for battered spouses who are trying to get restraining orders against their batterers, or who are trying to sort out divorce and custody issues, and such — including serving as a guardian ad litem for kids whose parents are fighting over custody so that the childrens' voices get heard as well.  If you are a lawyer and have a little time to donate, this can be an amazingly worthy cause.  Contact the local magistrate court judges (or whomever it is in your particular jurisdiction that does restraining orders) or the family court judge's office or your local or state bar association and ask how you can help.  I'm sure someone will be able to point you in the right direction.  (And I know we have a number of lawyers in the readership because you all write me to nitpick my legal articles, so I know that some of you have some ample spare time there somewhere.  Hint hint.)  Because of substantial budget cuts the last few years, a lot of the programs that were legal safety nets for the poor are no longer operating, so your offer to help out as a volunteer could make all the difference for a battered spouse and his or her kids in being able to get out of a dangerous and difficult situation.

— Community centers and programs like "Big Brother, Big Sister" can be amazing resources for kids who are at risk.  Just having an adult that they can lean on and who treats them with some dignity and respect can mean a lot.  Truly.

— Just lend a shoulder to a friend who needs one, or a helping hand to someone in your neighborhood who needs it.  Knowing that someone cares about them can make a world of difference.  Even if it is only allowing some friend of your kid to spend an extra night or two away from a tough home life, showing them that you care and that they can talk with you about life and their feelings can make such a huge impression on a kid who has known only indifference and ridicule.  Reach out.

There are any number of things that you can do.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, believe me, but it is a start.  (And, please, if you know of other great resources on this, please share in the comments.)  I haven't been able to shake the feeling lately that there is some other child out there that I am meant to help — I don't know why, but sometimes you just get one of those feelings that you can't shake somehow.  Perhaps by posting this, some good will come of it.  And, in the meantime, I'm going to do some drawer and closet cleaning this week and take a donation over to one of our local shelters.  Sometimes it is that next step forward that carries you where you are desperately needed.  Won't you take a step or two with me on this one?

UPDATEThis blog post (H/T to N=1 who linked it below) gives you a glimpse of what it can be like working within a system with too little funding to hire good people to do desperately needed work on behalf of at risk kids.  I spent entire weeks of my life battling through things like this to ensure that the children I represented were safe whenever I could possibly do so.  Hats off to this doctor who did the same here.  Anything that you can do to help, including talking with yoru elected representatives about the need for more resources for this problem is very much appreciated.  One caring person fighting to keep a child safe can make an enormous difference.  Truly.

(The above YouTube is one of my all time favorite Martina McBride songs.  Her voice is amazing, even though this particular song breaks my heart every time.)

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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

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