2014: The Year That Really, Really Sucked.

2014 has been the worst year of my life. No really, it has been.

“Life,” of course, is lived more in stages and vignettes than in a totality of lived days. So when I say 2014 has been the worst year of my life, I don’t mean it’s been worse than the year my son passed away, or the times from my life I was completely destitute, or any other terrible year from a prior life of mine. I mean instead that 2014 has been the worst year in this stage of life—the stage in which I’m in my thirties, married with (what to me is) lots of kids, and have lived out one career and am in the early days of another.

But to be honest, 2014 is the only year that has been so consistently bad from start to finish. Rather than a series of vignettes, 2014 has been a 1.2-million-word Mission Earth kind of year.

“Why,” you may ask, “has this year been so bad?”

To which I respond, “it’s complicated.”

Complications aside, the simplistic glory of a bad year is how the good times shine all the brighter through the dark and mired days, such as:

–joyfully celebrating a fairly stress-free Christmas.

–seeing my oldest walk towards me, suitcase in hand, smiling and ready to stay a while.

–finding four walls to call home.

–witnessing a four-year-old’s first snow.

What I mostly see as I look for the constellation of pinpoints from 2014 is family. Lots and lots of family. Family gathering at the dinner table (always my favorite thing), singing in the van, packing boxes, and, yes, even saying goodbye.

Instead of a dearth of community, I see within those shining lights a husband and wife determined to make a go of it, walking hand in hand into new churches, a new neighborhood, a new town.

Instead of a lost career I see an exciting opportunity to be more, live more, create more.

Instead of children separated by miles, I see joy-filled, tear-filled reunions, brimming with tickles and stories and glitter and Elsa… so much Elsa.

Instead of overwhelming sadness, I see through always-threatening tears a friend’s newfound dedication to living a lovehard life, searching for her own pinpoint-constellation in this darkest of years.

Although I’ve always made them, I’ve never really believed in New Year’s Resolutions. If you have a goal, why wait for January 1? Why not start now? But this year I’m convinced that January 1, 2015 will start something new. Something wonderful, full of laughter and friendships and loving hard. A year in which I fail at times to exhibit patience and grace, but will succeed in forgiving myself, determined to try again. A year in which goal setting is less important than life living, and playing trains and creating crafts become my be all and end all.

Today isn’t the day to start. I have a cold. I’m tired and I’m cranky and the kids’ schools have been closed for what seems an eternity. But in these last two days, whether my family believes it or not, I will be working on building up a reserve of all the things I know I’ll need in the year to come. Should you have any of these things to spare—love, patience, grace, serenity, humor, wisdom—please feel free to send them my way. Your kindness may just help me close out 2014 with a happy bang, and usher in 2015 with the strength of community—virtual or otherwise—propelling me forward into my fresh start in a new place, shaking off the vestiges of west coast living to embrace fully this new chapter of east coast life.

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Why the Lutherans Won’t Have Us

“There is no way to capture the hilarity of what happened,” Andy said. “It simply isn’t possible.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Yesterday we attended a Lutheran church near our home. We aren’t Lutheran, but the church is close and it has the only service that will fit with Aaron’s nap schedule. Besides, having never been to a Lutheran church and being very much a fan of the ELCA, Andy has always wondered if perhaps there isn’t a raging Lutheran inside of him. I’ve tried to explain that there isn’t a raging Lutheran anywhere, let alone in him, but he won’t listen.

We walked in and were immediately greeted by warm air, the smell of chili, and Usher Darrel.

“Is there childcare?”

“Childcare? Um, let me check.”

When an elderly usher who has likely attended the same church since the 1950s doesn’t know if the church has childcare or not, it’s a sure sign it doesn’t.

“Should we just leave?”

“No, I’ll walk around with him.”

So there we were, one child happy to sit at the coloring table in the back of the (very staid) sanctuary, the other child happy to terrorize all present in the narthex.

Rachel and I sat side by side, neither of us listening but each happy in our own way: Rachel because she loves to color, and me because anything is better than sitting at home all day being terrorized into playing trains. I flipped through the bulletin and saw that there was indeed a Kids Time that the bigger children are escorted to right before the sermon starts. Score!

When the time came, I walked out with Rachel to introduce myself to the teacher. As I started to head back to the sanctuary, Rachel begged:

“Stay with me, Mama! Stay with me!”

Sure, why not? Like I said, anything beats all-day train attacks.

Even though Aaron is too young for Kid Time, he and Andy followed us down the hall. And what did we find? That the kids were going to watch VeggieTales! Merry Larry to be exact, and boy were they excited.

But no one was excited as Aaron. Aaron’s current obsession is trains, but it’s followed closely by his love of “BobMato.” Aaron’s eyes grew large when he saw what was on the screen and he struggled to get out of Andy’s arms. Andy let him. After all, surely Aaron would just sit and watch the movie. You know…. Like the 15 other kids there.

Uh, no.

Aaron went right to the TV and stood directly in front of it.

“Hey, I can’t see!” A chorus of protests rang out and the teacher kindly moved Aaron to the side. Andy ran to the teacher, arms waving frantically.

“He’s going to turn it off. He’s going to turn it off!”

“Oh, he likes buttons does he? Don’t worry. It’s fine.”

And it was.

For about 30 seconds.

The theme song kicked on and Andy and I exchanged looks. We knew what was coming.

Still at the front of the room, only slightly not in front of the TV, Aaron began to dance. And I don’t just mean dance. I mean dance. Like American Bandstand, Soul-Train-on-steroids dance. The kids snickered, but not meanly, and Rachel, poor sweet Rachel, didn’t even think to be embarrassed. This was, simply, Aaron.

For those who are unfamiliar with the VeggieTales theme song, it has a couple of drawn out notes that the fruits and vegetables are especially enthusiastic about singing. Aaron likes those parts the best. The first long note came…. “If you like to waltz with potatoes, up and down the produce AISLLLLEEEE…” Aaron howled. And danced. And howled some more. I smacked my forehead and turned around to avoid the teacher’s eyes. At this point the kids were way more into watching Aaron than the show.

The second long note came: “…It’s time for VeggieTales,UHALES,UHALES, UHALES,UHALES!” Aaron howled again. The cucumber fell, the tuba bleated, and the song ended. “Yayayayayayay,” Aaron clapped and shouted his thrilled endorsement.

Then turned off the DVD player.

I walked away.

Thankfully, the movie started right back up. Andy and I grabbed Aaron and for the next 30 minutes chased him up and down the hall. At one point, Aaron began climbing the steps to the chancel. Right before Aaron entered the spotlight, Andy realized what was going on and snatched him away. Oh. Dear. God.

The teacher approached me and I felt I had to explain.

“He’s really a good kid. He’s just… energetic.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “At least he’s joyful.” Yes! That’s it! We are successful parents because when all signs say otherwise, our kids are joyful. The thought buoyed me for at least five minutes.

Eventually we had to head back to grownup church and I begged Rachel to leave now. To get while the getting was good.

“No! I want to go to church!”

Well, crap. I couldn’t very well say no to that.

Darrel, oh-so-helpful-and-kindly Darrel, explained we hadn’t yet missed communion. “Take the kids up front! They’ll pat their heads and give them a blessing.”

Our youngest walks straight into koi ponds, ladies’ restrooms, and traffic. Only my good manners kept me from laughing.

“Now, Rachel. NOW,” I hissed once we were out of Darrel’s hearing range (which, frankly, wasn’t very far.)

We headed back out into the cold and found Andy and Aaron already in the van, Aaron in the driver’s seat, Andy sitting balanced on the edge of Aaron’s car seat. An apt scene, I thought.

Driving home we discussed what had happened.

“It’s close to home, but there’s no childcare.”

“That’s okay. Maybe I’m not a Lutheran after all.”

Sigh.

“So can we go to a Presbyterian church for service and the Lutheran church for the chili?”

Sure, why not. They already think we’re pretty terrible anyway.

(Seriously, this doesn’t even begin to capture what happened yesterday. He’s being, like, a gazillion times calmer. But do watch to the end; it’s pretty darn cute.)

(PS – if you know of any parents who have a similarly “joyful” child, please share this with them. I’d love to provide them with the virtual support of knowing they aren’t alone!)

(featured image courtesy of bible.ca)

We’re Here!

Well, we’re here.

Which, of course, means we are not there, something that I am reminded of by surprise tears and news of 6.1-magnitude earthquakes.

That we arrived at all is nothing short of a miracle. Once we settled onto our first flight and the chaotic reality of our cross-country travel set in, I leaned over to Andy and said, “I should be live tweeting this.”

I didn’t, but had I chosen to, my tweets would have read something like this:

“Crawling in hole to die: AJ just Duplo-smacked the woman behind us… On purpose.”

“Ha! Andy’s finally glad he listened to me about buying Aaron his own seat. #mamaknowsbest #sanityseat”

“Turn off the seatbelt sign. TURN OFF THE SIGN.” #travelingwithtwoyearold”

“OMG, I forgot the Benadryl.”

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Overheard from one passenger who walked by and studied our little section of hell: “Ohhhhh, there are two of them. No wonder.”

No wonder what? No wonder I had to get into the overhead compartment every five minutes? No wonder we had apple sauce all over our clothes? No wonder we had eighteen pieces of luggage plus a DVD player, pop-up tent, and the largest double stroller BOB makes? No wonder we looked more frightened, traumatized, and fatigued than characters from the Hunger Games?

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But all in all, it was really quite a successful trip. No bags were lost, check-in, security, and baggage claim all went quickly, and our ride was on time and parked nearby.

And so now we’re here.

Our temporary place is nice. Small, but nice. Two bedrooms, un-child-proof-able stairs, and a gas fireplace, also un-child-proof-able. There is a rabbit in our backyard, and Rachel devises “traps” for it daily.

My priorities for settling in, in some semblance of order, are:

Finding a church
Finding childcare
Finding a Trader Joe’s (done)
Finding an NPR station (done)
Finding a salon (done)
Finding a gym

As you can see, we’re essentially working backwards.

Overall the kids are settling in okay. Not perfect, but okay. We have found Aaron standing in the bathroom sink at 2:30am, and on top of a dresser shortly thereafter, with Rachel frantically attempting to talk him down and coax him back to bed.

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Sunday we went to our first Annapolis-area church. We had spent hours researching churches from Berkeley, and then researched some more from here, Saturday night.

Me: “What about this one? Looks like they have a lot of families.”

Andy: “PCA or PCUSA?”

Me: “I don’t know. I just looked at childcare.”

Andy: “What social justice outreach programs do they have?”

Me: “I don’t know. I just looked at childcare.”

Andy: “What does it say in their statement of faith?”

Me: “I don’t know. I just looked at childcare!!”

As you can tell, knowing that I have to work from home with no daycare/preschool options in sight, one car, and a husband whose work schedule is Monday through Friday, 7am to 6:15pm has changed my way of thinking just a teeny bit.

So we checked out a church with good childcare…

and ended up leaving after twenty minutes. .

Yesterday I looked at three childcare centers, and today I looked at another. I think it will fall together more quickly than I had anticipated, but by 6:30pm yesterday, with Andy stuck in traffic and having just found a tick on Aaron’s thigh, followed almost immediately by him peeing on the floor with the dog threatening to do the same, I felt like it couldn’t happen quickly enough.

But the boxes we mailed to our temporary place (we call it our “vacation home” to keep things fun for Rachel) are slowly trickling in, and after a week (one week today), we’ve found something of a routine.

Rachel already says things like, “Don’t worry. That’s just guns because they are practicing hitting targets.” (We live next door to a military training ground, apparently). We’re waiting for her to adopt sailboat slang and start asking for crab instead of chicken nuggets.

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I do love the freedom of knowing exactly how the weather will be when I step outside in the morning—hot. No layers to put on, or sweaters to pack. The sun will burn high and hot, unless it’s raining, and even then it’s far from cold. While dressing in the morning I’ve realized that the kids have a dearth of short-sleeved shirts, and man am I pale.

Give us a couple of years, though, and we’ll be tan, flip-flopped, and hanging out with the best of the navy and sailing families, attending the “Mariners” church, cooking up soft shell, and sending the kids to Mom’s Day Out at Anchors-a-Wee (I kid you not) during the summer, and busting out the snow suits and shovels in the winter, while I curse our muddy mud room.

Because sooner or later, we won’t just be here, we’ll live here.

RandJNapTown

 

 

Following Christ as a Lunatic Grass Farmer: An Interview with Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin is a grass-farmer in Swoope, Virginia, where he and his family own and operate Polyface Farms, a multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm. Joel is the author of nine books and has been featured in Michael Pollan’s award-winning book Ominvore’s Dilemma as well as the movie Food, Inc. Often cited in conversations about and with Joel is that he describes himself as a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic-farmer.” He’s here with us today to talk about how his work as a “lunatic grass farmer” embodies the teachings of Christ.

So, Joel, how does your work as a lunatic grass farmer embody the red letters?

Christ as Creator established numerous principles for how this grand scheme would work. He established herbivores, for example, as pruners to make sure biomass did not go into senescence, but rather stay fresh and growthy, aggressively metabolizing solar energy into decomposable plant material that breathes in carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. The whole earth’s ecosystem runs on sunbeams converted to tangible biomass through the magnificent process of photosynthesis. As a farmer, I have the distinct privilege of participating in this grand scheme, and as a human, I can either humbly encourage it or arrogantly fight against it.

The point is that all of creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. So what does a farm that illustrates compassion, holiness, forgiveness, abundance, faith, and order look like? Does a farm that requires more and more chemicals reflect these Biblical principles more than one that has such a great immunological function it doesn’t need veterinarian care or pesticides? I would suggest that a farm that builds soil, heightens immunological function, produces more nutrient density, and runs on real time sunshine more consistently illustrates divine attributes than one that destroys soil, produces deficient food, runs on petroleum, and reduces immunological function.

Just like a local group of believers functions better when many different gifts and talents can be exercised, a farm functions better with synergistic and symbiotic multi-speciated relationships. Mono-speciation is a direct assault on God’s relational ethics, and yet simple crop or animal farms are encouraged in the industrial paradigm.

Life is fundamentally biological, not mechanical. Appreciating the pigness of pigs creates the moral and ethical framework in how we preserve the Tomness of Tom or the Maryness of Mary. Our industrial food system views food and life as fundamentally mechanical, to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. So in our human cleverness, we can innovate things we can’t spiritually, physically, mentally or emotionally metabolize, like feeding dead cows to cows to create bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This kind of assault on Christ’s ecological patterns stems directly from a disrespect toward life.

If life is sacred at all, then we should be farming in such a way as to honor the distinctiveness, the created uniqueness, of the plants and animals under our care. That extends to the eaters who partake of our fare. In other words, growing it faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper must take a second seat to honoring the pigness of the pig.

You can read the rest of Joel’s interview here.

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Honoring the Dead: A Prayer for Peace

Today we are much like any other American family. We have cold watermelon, sweet tea, and .10 cent corn to go along with our burgers. I spent some time sprucing up the lawn, and guests will be over later to enjoy the sunshine with us. My mom’s was a military family, and I was raised to remember.

I want my kids to remember, too. So this morning, we did things a little differently than in years past. When my daughter asked when Grandma would arrive and we could eat yummy food and cupcakes, I took the time to explain that today is more than a “party” or time off of school: Today is a day to honor the dead.

“How?” she asked.

In answer, she and I spent time in prayer, not just celebrating the dead, but honoring them. Honoring them by praying for peace. Praying for an end to policies and wars and “conflicts” that steal our often painfully young men and women from us. Praying for the taken lives of soldiers who leave behind moms and dads, sons and daughters, men and women who love them.

We prayed for those with 8 x 10 photos on their mantles, showing sharply-dressed soldiers with closely cropped hair or neatly tied buns, a stern hat upon a still-youthful, trying-not-to-grin face. We prayed for the Sermon on the Mount to be remembered today of all days.

My daughter is young. She didn’t really get most of what I said, or know the full meaning of the things that we prayed for. But I think she got the point: today is not a party, or a barbecue, or a day to glorify war.

Today is a day for peace.

Related post: Celebrating the Fourth of July

 

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I Know You Think You’re “That Family,” but Trust Me, You Aren’t. We Are.

The nicest guy in the world is painting the inside of our house. His name is Gonzalo, and he’s a single dad to six kids. And yet, there he is, every morning, knocking on my door with a giant can of Monster is his hand, looking like he’s ready to take on the day.

When Gonzalo signed on for the seemingly-easy-enough task of painting the house, I said, “You know my husband and I both work from home…. and the kids will be around most of the time, too. Think that will be okay?”

“Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem… just work around you. No problem at all.”

“So, you’ve done that before and it’s been okay?” (tone of hope)

“Eh, no… we’ve never had this come up, but I’m sure it will be fine. Don’t worry.”

Here we are, about two weeks into the job, and Gonzalo’s default cheer is fading fast. I feel for this guy. If I remember correctly, he’s got a three-year-old, an eight-year-old, an eleven-year-old, and a thirteen-year-old with him full time. I imagine work is usually a reprieve from the insanity of childrearing. I mean, I know that for me even a trip to the dentist for a root canal is a reprieve (I can lay down! I can close my eyes and no one will try to decapitate me with a plastic object!). But for the last two weeks, Gonzalo has gone from his own zoo to mine. So when yesterday dawned dull, gray, and wet, and neither kid was scheduled to be at daycare, I knew I had to do something, anything, to avoid death by paintbrush.

So we went to Habitot.

Andy and I took Rachel to free day at Habitot when she was younger, and I’d say it was a resounding failure for a number of reasons. It’s also expensive and germ-filled, so given our little kids’ propensity for getting sick, we just haven’t been back.

Until yesterday.

I would love to list each and every adventure we had, from attempting to use a broken handicapped lift, strewn with debris and what I think was (adult) urine, upon entry, to losing our parking ticket—twice—upon exit. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll just say that Aaron stole the show. I mean, seriously. We were THAT family. It wasn’t even close. Given that it was a rainy day, Habitot was packed and I had a lot of kids to evaluate against my own. The results? Rachel measured up beautifully. Aaron… not so much.

For real. He was the ONLY child not playing nicely at a station. That isn’t to say other kids weren’t running back and forth, but they were doing it in an orderly, okay-now-I-know-he’s-going-to-fall-down-get-up-then-take-a-sharp-left sort of way. Aaron was just hopped-up-on-Mountain-Dew crazy.  I am so not kidding: there were at least four other moms—you know, the kind who not only say it takes a village, but actually live it—helping me keep Aaron from drowning, throwing himself from high places, moving furniture from one side of the building to another, etc. And that was just the moms. There were also two STAFF women who assigned themselves to the not-paid-enough task of looking after us. Habitot has been around for a looooonnnngggg time, but it wasn’t until yesterday that staff had to check with their boss to ensure that neither the paint nor the soap was toxic. Because, you know, Aaron ate them both. And that was WITH a total of five moms and two staff watching.

At first, the non-helping, spectator moms seemed to get a kick out of watching Aaron run pell mell down the hall covered in paint and a ladybug apron. But after a while, they started taking notes, with headings like “What Not to Do in Public With Your Child,” and “How to Studiously Avoid the Woman Whose Eyes are Pleading With You to Help Her.” I honestly think our neighbor was there with her daughter who is Aaron’s age, but every time I tried to get close enough to talk she’d quickly leave the scene.

Rachel, sweet little Rachel, went straight for the art room and began to nicely paint the walls. After much corralling, Aaron joined her. He started off double-fisting the paintbrushes, painting with one and eating the other, Fun-Dip style. Then he decided to cut out the middle man: he tossed both brushes to the floor, grabbed the supposedly-child-proof cup of paint, and dumped it straight into his mouth. And then the floor. You know, for variety.

So I convinced Rachel that instead of painting, she really wanted to give the little naked, plastic, private-part-endowed babies a bath. She was totally into that, so we went to the water station. I actually got to sit down at this point. Aaron was thrilled to splash around, and there was the added benefit of washing the paint off him without any effort on my part.

Just as I started to relax, thinking it wasn’t so bad after all, things took a turn for the worse. I realized Aaron had not just been splashing, but for the last five minutes had been actively DRINKING the water from the splash tub. The same tub that had ten little cootie-filled kids around it, arms in up to their elbows, and filled with dolls, boats, scrub brushes, and other toys that had been only-God-knows where being used for not-even-God-knows-what before landing in that tub.

The other village moms and I tried our best, but I finally had to resign myself to squatting beside the tub right by Aaron, one arm out, defense-style, ready to pushhisfaceoutofthetuborgrabthebowlfromhismouthorextractthetoyfrombetweenhisteeth.

This gave me the perfect vantage point for watching Rachel put the smack down on a kindergartner who picked on Aaron.

Little kid: “Hey, give me that!” snatches toy from Aaron.

Aaron, who is the youngest of three, doesn’t hesitate to take it back.

Little kid, getting pissy: “You took my toy!” Takes toy back. Aaron glares but then takes a big gulp of swamp water and is happy again.

Not so much Rachel. From the other side of the tub, Rachel says in a mama-voice, “he’s just a baby. He doesn’t know any better.”

The kid stares at her. About 30 seconds pass and then Rachel apparently decides this simply isn’t good enough.

Rachel walks like she has a purpose–arms swinging, face determined–to the other side of the table to stand by the bully. She gets right up close, peering into his freckled face for a few seconds before saying, louder this time, “He’s just a baby. He doesn’t know any better. You have to be nice to him!”

Bully-kid thinks Rachel is off her rocker, but from that point on is much nicer. Rachel seems satisfied and shuffles off (not quite happily, because I couldn’t play with her, what with trying to keep Aaron from drowning and all) to the cool water ramp-thingy.

At no point in all of this did I feel embarrassed. Not even when I had to send Rachel alone to the cubbies to put Andy’s favorite sweatshirt (which I was wearing) away before it got ruined, and one of our two self-assigned staff members offered to walk with her since, you know, Rachel is four and the cubbies are right by the front door. It just is what it is. I commiserated with another mom whose first—her first!—was the same way. A year after her first was born, she gave birth to twins (who were much, much calmer, she said). I was encouraged by the fact that this woman was still alive and able to function well enough to share her story.

My mother-in-law has suggested that Aaron is such a handful because he doesn’t get out much. That’s a nice suggestion, but given Aaron’s recent adventures climbing six-foot tall ladders, jumping into buckets of oil-based Kilz, and tying himself up with blue painters’ tape, I think Gonzalo would disagree.

Pop Quiz: What do American Dependency Courts and Resource Poor Countries Have in Common?

I recently read and reviewed Gary Haugen and Victor Boutrous’ new, groundbreaking book, The Locust Effect. In it, Haugen and Boutros spend a considerable amount of time detailing the corruption, abuse, and dysfunction rampant in the justice systems and law enforcement agencies of developing worlds. Until these systems are fixed, they argue, remedial measures to eradicate poverty will not be able to take full effect.

Although Haugen and Boutros say little about corresponding U.S. systems, as I read their descriptions of outrageous police, judicial, and community actions that disallow the poor and disenfranchised from receiving justice, I couldn’t help but compare those descriptions to what occurs here in the United States.

I won’t pretend that our justice system and law enforcement agencies are anything near what is described in The Locust Effect. Our systems are vastly less corrupt, less abusive, and less dysfunctional. Nonetheless, I found far too many similarities between the impoverished courts of developing worlds and the American court system established to obtain justice for the least powerful among us: abused and neglected children.

In a section entitled, “Justice Moves at a Glacial Pace,” Haugen and Boutros detail the most harmful courtroom conditions they have witnessed, and greatly emphasize the outrage Americans would feel if such things took place in American courtrooms. Making the list of outrage-worthy actions:

  • a shortage of judges and decades of underinvestment in the judicial system
  • trials conducted over months and years instead of consecutive days
  • that lawyers, witnesses, and even the judge can, with impunity, simply fail to show up
  • pre-trials and trials being frequently cancelled and rescheduled
  • child sex victims having to testify two or more times
  • frequent changes in counsel.

Having spent over a decade working within the foster care system, I have witnessed my fair share of courtroom action on behalf of abused and neglected children. Unfortunately, the conditions detailed above are precisely what occur most days in the American courtrooms whose mission it is to protect children.

Let’s compare:

Haugen and Boutros are clear in their belief that Americans would revolt if trials were not heard on consecutive days and settled within short periods of time. Yet, that is precisely what foster children—who wait daily to determine where they will live and who they will call “mom”—experience. Because of backlog, underfunding, and overcrowded dockets, trials can take months or even a year. Often times this occurs due to the next absurdity noted by Haugen and Boutros, which is also commonplace in American dependency courts: key players fail to show. And instead of being punished for this, the trial is cancelled and rescheduled, sometimes being put off for a month or more due to scheduling conflicts, vacations, or court holidays.

It is for similar reasons that child witnesses are often forced to testify over the course of several non-consecutive days. Even when the child’s testimony is given within the judge’s chambers, outside of earshot of the accused, the emotional impact is great.

Lastly, given the overwhelmed and underpaid attorneys and social workers who are appointed to represent and advocate for children, counsel and social workers frequently change. This impacts not only the attorney/client, social worker/client relationship, it impacts the judicial process as new social workers and attorneys must be brought up to speed about prior proceedings.

In their call for complete and total reform of judicial systems in most developing worlds, Haugen and Boutros write that these problems are “devastating little detail[s] of systemic dysfunction that people outside the developing world might never imagine.”

Indeed.

And those outside the dependency system would never imagine them, either. But these problems do exist, and they do the same harm here that they do in resource poor countries: delay justice, increase pain for victims, and create distrust of a system put into place to protect those in need

We are lucky. We have well-educated professionals to protect children. We have kind and caring judges. We have loving social workers and passionate attorneys. Importantly, we also have laws to protect children from the “devastating details of dysfunction.” But as Haugen and Boutros write, laws on the books do little good if they are not applied in the day-to-day workings of police stations or courtrooms.

Haugen and Boutros paint a striking picture when they rightly compare courtrooms in the developing world to Alice in Wonderland. When the Queen puts Alice on trial for stealing, Alice takes comfort in her familiarity with the court environment. She can identify the jury box, the jurors, and the judge—she is perhaps not in her element, but she is at least knowledgeable of what (she anticipates) will occur. Yet when court enters session, Alice witnesses “absurdities, gibberish, and malapropisms” far removed from what she thought she knew.

Similarly, we—as Americans or lawyers or advocates—think we know what happens within our courtrooms. We can identify the key players, we sometimes even know applicable law. But upon entering courtrooms whose job it is to protect children, we become “lost in the swirl of confusion, non secquitur, and dysfunction,” just as Alice was.

I do not purport to know the answer to this problem. We have decent laws and wonderful attorneys, judges, and social workers. We have non-profits such as the National Center for Youth Law whose mission it is to change the policies that cause such problems (and others) to occur. The people who are aware of the existing dysfunction are trying to make things right. Perhaps if we bring this dysfunction to light for others—not just those intimately involved with the foster care system—change agents will discover this “new” place of need and act accordingly.

We are all called to different works and moved by different needs. We cannot, however, realize our callings and passion without knowing what needs exist. So here you have it. Just as Haugen and Boutros say justice systems in the developing world need our attention and efforts, so too does the U.S. dependency system. If you didn’t know this before, you know it now. I would ask that you search your heart and conscience to determine whether this is something you are passionate about and willing to take action to address.

If so, I suggest checking out wonderful organizations like Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). I suggest paying far too much for law school so you can take an underpaid job helping children. I suggest pursuing an MSW so you can spend 12-hour days driving between the foster homes of various children just to make sure they know they are loved. I suggest saying a prayer for a judge or commissioner whose docket is (over) crowded with heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect, and who sometimes tears up during testimony.

If this isn’t your area of passion, I get that. But if you feel a little niggle in your heart as you read about local courtrooms comparable to what two American authors call a “dysfunctional outrage,” then please, do something. Leave a comment here if you have ways others can get involved, or if you want to know more about ways you can help.

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