An elderly mother describes how in 1942, doctors who were treating her baby’s serious rash quarantined him in a hospital. Teddy had good medical care, but she was allowed to see him only occasionally. Originally a responsive infant who loved being cuddled, she says, her baby boy became aloof and distant as time went on.
When Teddy finally came home after several months he was lethargic and withdrawn, and had completely lost interest in people, including her. “All [the doctors] could see were the physical problems,” says the mother. “I don’t think there was much research on how babies feel about things.”
There is now.
Scared Sick, the new book for which the above videotaped interview serves as an online promotional trailer, traces connections between chronic fear in childhood and its consequences in adult life. The book draws on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. This groundbreaking research showed that the bodies and brains of children who live with constant fear and loss are neurochemically altered. Later in life, they are prone to learning disorders, social and behavioral problems, chronic depression and physical ailments such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, despite making healthy lifestyle choices.
Growing knowledge about the long-term effects of childhood trauma and the importance of relationships is changing the foster care system. Today, more and more families who are reported for child abuse or neglect are staying intact, as long as officials determine that the children’s safety is not at high risk. Instead of removing the kids, child welfare professionals and community groups are providing families with critical support services such as job training or mental health treatment, and coaching them in parenting techniques.
Such family-centric goals and approaches aren’t wholly new to child welfare in Washington State. For example, a Kirkland teen who ran away from home after a fist-fight with his father was quickly reunited with his family once child welfare professionals gave the father, who had been struggling to keep a rebellious kid in line, some better parenting strategies. And though a decade ago a drug-addicted mother would have lost her child, today there are rehabilitation facilities that let that mother keep her child while she’s in treatment.
But soon these kinds of research-based child welfare strategies for preserving families in crisis will systematically govern policy and daily practice throughout the state. In January 2014, the state’s Department of Social & Health Services will launch a “differential response” program called FAR (Family Assessment Response) at the first of 12 of its Children’s Administration offices in regions across Washington. There are dozens of groups and organizations developing birth-family-centered approaches for families reported to the state's foster care system. But due to its wide geographical reach FAR, in particular, promises to make a major impact.
FAR is an alternative to the investigations carried out by the DSHS's Child Protective Services group (CPS), which often end in children being removed from their homes. CPS investigators will still pursue all cases of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse or neglect. But in cases determined to be low-risk, assessment workers from the Children’s Administration (CA) will focus on helping the family, rather than breaking it up.
FAR "isn't just social workers telling parents 'You can’t let your kid run around in dirty diapers for seven hours,'” says Jennifer Strus, CA’s acting secretary. Strus came to DSHS early this year after 14 years on the staff of the state legislature, most recently as senior staff coordinator and counsel for the committee on human services and corrections. If financial and related hardships were what drove shaky parents to mistreat their kids, she continues, “FAR might provide a utility payment to families whose electricity was shut off, or seek affordable housing for them if they couldn’t pay the rent.”
In the process, the family will be connected with community providers for future support. To Strus, 57, an attorney by training, building community networks is “most critical.” When the agency eventually withdraws from a stabilized case, it will leave behind “a support system for that family, in their neighborhood." If the family runs into trouble again, says Strus, "they don’t have to get re-referred to us."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!