As a retired child-welfare professional, I no longer spend my days working with abused and neglected children, but they are never far from my mind. Certainly not after the three excellent books about them that I’ve read recently.
The Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot is the journey of one smart and resourceful young lady living in New York City who was the victim of dozens of “interventions” at the hands of city, state and federal systems of child welfare as she tried to grow into adulthood.
In The Invisible Child, a talented Dasani tries to navigate poverty and homelessness, while Elliot follows her ups and downs in homeless shelters, foster care and placement at the famed Hershey Residential School. Most child-welfare programs can’t seem to ever make a genuine difference, and those in Brooklyn are no different from here in Middle America.
First, nearly all children who come to the attention of the child-welfare system are part of a family with at least one parent and siblings. While those families may not be like yours or mine, the child loves her family, even when the environment is harsh and sometimes violent. We miss the point when we erroneously try to “save” the child and punish the parents, which is all too clearly what happens to Dasani. Shelters are often terrible places for children, with daily struggles to protect their belongings, find enough to eat and find transportation to far flung offices of bureaucrats who control the family’s lives. It’s no wonder parents and children alike are angry and depressed as they fight to hold things together.
On the rare occasion when housing, food, and employment come together, we – politicians, administrators and voters – assume those parents will quickly become good, responsible citizens like all of us. Can we really expect that parents who themselves were born into poverty will somehow blossom because a few of the barriers are lifted? Solving a generational problem will require generational solutions.
I found both Copperhead and Turtle required frequent breaks during the reading, because I was afraid of what might happen next to the children. Both are written in the first person, so the reader knows that, somehow, the author will survive the story telling, but at what cost?
The stories are contemporary, and in Lucky Turtle the story is narrated by a teenage girl. The first third of the story describes life in a residential program for delinquents, operated by adults who claim to be loving Christians but whose daily “treatment” program consists of harsh judgment, grueling labor and brutal punishment. There is nothing loving about the behavior of the staff, and unfortunately, I’ve witnessed programs like this first hand.
Demon Copperhead is a book for Kentuckians. Set in southwest Virginia, it perfectly mirrors Eastern Kentucky, where I worked as a child-welfare professional for many years. A red-headed boy named Demon tries to navigate foster care and all the elements of a community suffering unemployment, inadequate education and opioid addiction, the same issues faced by people in many of the small towns and rural areas in Kentucky and around the nation.
You can read these three books to learn how the child-welfare system is broken and how we must find ways to serve our children and their families. But more importantly, I hope you’ll read these stories to meet three amazing young people and open your heart to the notion that all them, in the final analysis, are our children who deserve our best.
Charlie Baker is a 35 year veteran of children’s work. He retired in 2004 as president and CEO of a private child welfare agency in Eastern Kentucky.