Editor's Note: Whether physical or emotional, benign or malicious, neglect alters the developing brain's architecture and circuitry in profound ways that often lead to physical and behavioral problems throughout life. In the final installment of our four-part series on The Neglected Brain we watch Danielle Goodwin, abused and neglected as a child, become a capable, loving parent, spouse and political activist. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
The first thing Danielle Goodwin had to do to change her life was stop running.
If she wanted to solve her problems, she needed to face them first. So she turned herself into the police and did time to clear up outstanding charges — in Seattle, Kent, Renton, Edmonds, all over King County. She also met with a social worker to see what she would have to do to regain custody of her five kids.
To reunite with her children, Danielle had to follow through on a range of court-ordered requirements. She had to attend three AA meetings a week, meet with a therapist, go to group therapy and parenting classes and submit to random drug tests. She also had to pay off thousands of dollars in court fees (she's still paying), overcome addiction, get a driver's license and find a job.
Danielle was 29 years old when she landed her first legitimate job cleaning up after games at Safeco Field. She didn’t make much money, but it kept her busy and out of trouble and a trickle of money coming in was better than none at all.
Until she got her license, her friend James Encinas drove her to all her appointments. Before long, James and Danielle were dating, and talking about getting married. As she started arranging visits with her kids, James was the one who explained to her that the whole purpose of the visits was for her to show the social workers, who were observing everything, that she knew what she was doing.
But Danielle didn't know what she was doing. Even the simplest parenting tasks were foreign to her. She had to learn how to be the mother she'd never had. "I'm like, I'm supposed to bring snacks?” says Danielle. "That was eye-opening for me. I didn’t know."
Danielle knew that hers wasn’t the only life she had to get on track. Her kids were going to need extra help too. She asked the court if they could be sent to Childhaven, a non-profit daycare that specializes in helping abused and neglected children.
Danielle had spent time in foster care growing up — not once but twice. It hadn’t been easy for her and her kids were also struggling. They’d been split up and moved from home to home, once because the foster family only wanted kids who were immediately eligible for adoption. Her kids had also spent time in a home that was investigated by the state's Child Protective Services after one of them was hit on the head with a frying pan and made to eat feces. In their last foster placement, with the family of Danielle's ex-husband, one of her boys stopped using the toilet.
Parenting isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s especially challenging for foster parents who are often caring for children who’ve been abused or neglected and arrive with behavior problems from those experiences. What troubled kids need, according to Dr. Rebecca Wiester, clinical director of the child protection program at Seattle Children's Hospital, are caregivers who understand child development and the impacts of neglect.
Neglected kids, for example, may not act their age. They might need to be rocked to sleep at night like a baby; they may have never learned to associate positive feelings with touch. "It's almost like taking it from the beginning again,” says Wiester, about parenting neglected children. “You just have to redo it."
Besides Seattle Children's Hospital, Wiester also works at Harborview where she is clinical director of the Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. The two institutions share many clients, and Wiester spends her time seeing patients, consulting on court cases, teaching resident doctors and advising social workers. "These kids are going to be difficult to raise, and they're just going to have things go wrong for them," she says. "They need people who understand what they're up against, and are ready to stick with that kid while they go through this. Not medicate the kid. Stick with the kid."
Even parents who were abused or neglected themselves, can learn how to treat their own children well. Evidence-based approaches are now being used to teach those parents what to do, how to parent. "The vast majority of people who abuse and neglect a child are not monsters," says Wiester. "They are normal people without skills. They don't really want to hurt their children. Some are downright mean or crazy, but most physical abuse or neglect isn't malevolent. It's just either a bad day or bad couple of days, or a bad life."
"There are very few [good parents] out there that are born," she adds. "Most of them have learned it. And anyone can learn it."
One of the techniques parents learn is to focus on the positive. "If you go into a good pre-school, you'll see the same things over and over again," says Wiester. "'I really like it when you use your words.' 'Hitting is not a good thing to do.' It sounds ridiculous, but it works so well."
The power of prevention - and home visits
Parents who are isolated or depressed are at higher risk of neglecting or abusing their kids, but simple interventions can defuse the danger. One of the most successful is a home visit from a public health nurse, a trained professional who can listen, talk to and support the new mother. Unfortunately, says Wiester, funding for public health nurses has been cut repeatedly over the last 20 years. When pediatricians like her encounter cases of neglect, she says, "a lot of us in the community just dream about having our public health nurses back."