Cherishing the Parents

Posted on: March 26th, 2014

By Anita Weinberg
Clinical Professor and Director, ChildLaw Policy Institute
Loyola University Chicago School of Law

This winter saw gripping headlines in Chicago about the tragic deaths of children at the hands of their parents. The public response is to want action from our public officials. And legislators are ready to comply, often introducing bills they believe will protect children by removing more of them from their homes.

But that’s the wrong approach. Instead of reacting to headlines, we need a more considered approach that separates actual trends and facts from tragic individual stories. When we do that, we see that children who come to the attention of our children welfare system are almost never at risk of being murdered by their parents – in fact, these numbers may not be rising. But at-risk families do need support systems.

John Bowlby, a British psychologist, and psychoanalyst best known for his pioneering work on attachment theory, wrote over 60 years ago, “If a society values its children, it must cherish their parents.”

In the child welfare system, we generally meet parents at the worst time in their lives, when someone has decided the family warrants state intervention. But that doesn’t mean they are bad people. They may not know how to properly care for their child, or they may be overwhelmed with life’s circumstances and not focus on what their child needs and deserves. But we also need to recognize that the child welfare system sees these parents in one-dimensional terms – as drug addicts or as an abusive or neglectful parent. It has not seen the times the family laughs together, or a mother gently moves a strand of hair out of her daughter’s eye, or a father shares a joke.

When something goes wrong we always want to find someone to blame, and a quick fix. And that’s completely understandable. But we can’t do that when we are working with children and families. The issues and relationships are just too complex.

I believe that those working in our child welfare system intend to help children. But so often instead the system’s intervention is “disruptive, disrespectful, and ends up hurting the children that it intends to serve.”

In order to really serve the children, we must support families and communities by looking at the broader picture and asking the hard questions about what has brought the family to this painful moment. We can’t consider the abuse or neglect in isolation.

As advocates, we have a choice to make: We can continue to serve children and families separate from most of their life experiences. Or we can look at the whole picture and respond to families and communities as part of the solution rather than the problem.

The common denominator of most of the families in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, is that they are poor and live in communities with far too few resources.

We need to identify and provide resources specific to individualized needs, and we must work to instill a purpose, and a hope, and a sense of future in our children and families.

If we are serious about the best interest of children, in the vast majority of cases we owe it to the children to cherish their parents.

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