Preventing Child Abuse in a Pandemic: Helpful Tips

Our current national landscape is one of physical isolation. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans are staying home right now, either because of stay-at-home orders, or because they fear getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. That almost 300 million Americans are homebound and probably will be for an extended period of time is extraordinary and unprecedented in our lifetime. A portion of the homebound are continuing to earn a paycheck and while the stressors of COVID-19 for that group of people are very real, there is another portion of the homebound suffering much great repercussions from this pandemic.

The Department of Labor reported that last week alone, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment. This is more than four times the previously highest recorded number. For the 75% of Americans already facing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, things just got considerably worse. Add to that the strain of fear and anxiety of a pandemic; the social isolation we must all endure; that children are home without the support (and break) given by schools or childcare; and the strain on already overburdened social services and you have a recipe for domestic disaster. And that list barely scratches the surface of the host of family-specific issues each household bears.

If history is any indicator, the result of domestic disaster will fall disproportionally on our most vulnerable; cases of child abuse and neglect (as well as domestic violence) will rise sharply while reports of the same will drop drastically: with schools and childcare centers closed, the sharpest eyes and ears of our child welfare reporting system—our teachers—are closed as well. And like so many things with this pandemic, one problem becomes compounded by another: Even as more children than ever are home 24/7 with their families, social workers are unable to conduct home visits with those already in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect and are similarly unable to visit homes when new reports do occur.

Services previously provided to families—such as drug treatment and mental health services—are severely limited or non-existent due to social distancing requirements, and family visitations are often not occurring, potentially leading to a downward spiral of hopelessness and depression for parents and teens who may turn towards drugs, alcohol, or other damaging acts to ease the pain. All of this combined leads to a significantly increased risk of harm behind the closed doors of American homes. Sadly, there is little most of us can do to fix these problems: Children’s outdoor areas are emptier now than ever, and we simply are unable to keep a collective eye on children and suffering families the way we need to.

But that isn’t to say there is nothing we can do, and what we can do, we should.

Stress of all kinds is a significant contributing factor to abuse and neglect. Tempers are short, resources scarce to non-existent, and tools some are fortunate enough to have for comfort—Zoom calls with friends; virtual “playdates” for children; paying for online games, movies, and school substitutes to keep the children occupied—are not easily obtained by lower income families. And even the families who have the resources may find they aren’t enough.

But don’t give up! There are ways we can help families from all backgrounds, though I will admit that many of the ones I’ve listed below assume that the person helping has resources of their own to draw from (time, money, or energy). A few of these might help our most significantly at-risk families—those with serious addictions, long family histories of abuse, or the types of terrible things we read about in the media—but others wouldn’t. But again, what we can do, we should.

Abuse knows no economic, cultural, or societal bounds. From my years working with families already in the child welfare system, I can promise you that. I can also say that the simplest assistance, and perhaps the silliest sounding, might be all that’s needed to avert a catastrophe.

Consider a morning from my own life:

I, an obsessively tidy mother, sit in the middle of an increasingly cluttered home. My back and feet hurt, and the younger kids are arguing loudly while the oldest child tries to get some much needed sleep. Andy, a hard-working and busy father, already stressed from hiding in the walk-in closet to do Zoom calls where kids can’t find him, too loudly shushes the arguing kids. The kids begin to complain about the unfairness of it all and I try to intervene while stumbling over the puppy pulling on my socks and biting my toes. The other dog begins to bark at a person walking by, and both Andy and I begin to shush the dogs. The kids’ voices grow louder to be heard over the din of shushes and barks, and my mom, who lives with us, suddenly appears in the kitchen, asking why her dog is barking and saying she may need to go to the hospital for stomach pains but is scared to because of the virus so what do I think she should do and can I please contact her doctor for her? The gardeners begin mowing next door and within a minute we all hear a door slam from upstairs because the 24-year-old has frustratingly given up on getting any sleep.

Our situation eventually resolves as best it can: Andy takes one kid to do a puzzle and I take the other to bake some bread, but not before I hop on one of the four laptops in our home to email a doctor, free of charge and easily accessible, about my mom. Sad to say, the oldest is still tired and the dogs still bark, but few things in life are perfect.

In this scenario, the main fridge is stocked, as are the one fridge and two freezers in the garage. We always buy in bulk so our toilet paper situation is fine. The same pay the adults usually get is still coming in, and the grandmother who walked into the kitchen at an inopportune time lives in the home and can watch the children should that be needed. Oh, and I have plenty of time to spend with the children and enough education to help them with their e-learning during our school’s closure.

And still, this isn’t a pretty situation. Imagine if:

  • The fridge was bare
  • The parents had just lost their jobs
  • There was no adult in the home with available time for the kids
  • Any one—or all—of the four adults had a substance abuse problem or untreated mental health issue

This scene could have ended in a very different and explosive way.

And so:

Think about your own circle of people, as far as it can go. Who in that circle is most in need of a break right now? Do you know any single parents? Someone who struggles with addiction? A family with a small home but a large number of kids? Someone who lost a job? Who is sick? Who is prone to anxiety and depression? The list could go on, and it should. Make an actual, physical list of people in your life facing larger-than-average stressors. Do you have their phone number? Their email addresses? Do they live within driving distance? Write those things down as well, then:

  • Call them. Talk to them. Ask to speak to the children for a while. Maybe read the kids a book over the phone or on FaceTime if possible.
  • Text them. Ask how they are. Tell them how you are. Send a funny meme. Ask if they need anything. Or don’t ask, but just assume they need something and then …
  • if possible, get it to them. Mail them $20 or a grocery store gift card. Leave food or other necessities (or non-necessities!) on their steps. Shop for them if they’re in a high-risk group. No, money doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help at times like this.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of income to spare (and hey, we’re all going without our lattes these days), order something online to send to the kids to keep them distracted. Or send chocolates for the parents. Loan them an extra laptop by leaving it on their porch and letting them use it for Google Hangout or online school or even just mindless show watching. Again, these are money and material things, but if you can do it, please do. We may not like to admit it, but material things do often help.
  • Kids are still going outside, even if not to designated playgrounds. When they’re out, pay attention. Do they seem okay? Do the adults who are with them seem okay? What do you notice? Don’t turn into the nosy neighbor peeking out from behind the curtain—that’s just weird. You’re likely a savvy enough person to find a non-stalking way to do this. If you see signs of abuse or neglect report it, even if your state’s current isolation situation means a social worker can’t make it out for a while the risk still needs to be recorded. Then make it your daily commitment to help that family any way possible.
  • Offer to watch younger kids (but who old enough not to need hand holding or carrying) outside while their adults take a break. You don’t have to forgo social distancing rules to make this happen.
  • Have a six-foot-away playdate with your kids and theirs.
  • Take a social distance walk together. Or talk to one another from your own front doors.
  • Send them a card in the mail. A homemade one is fine, so you only have to pay for the stamp.
  • Offer to walk their dogs (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of this!)
  • Volunteer with or donate to groups that are helping those in the most financial need.
  • Donate not just food, money, and cleaning products, but board games, movies, electronics, coloring books—anything that can entertain children/teens or provide relief for parents. Do the same with any and all income groups if/when you think it might be helpful.
  • And, of course, pray for them.

Here are some other resources for how you can help at-risk families during this pandemic:

End Violence Against Children

The Alliance for Children in Humanitarian Action

Prevent Child Abuse

What you will find using these resources is a significant emphasis on stress reduction. Because that is what so much of this is truly about. Stress decreases our abilities to appropriately cope with even typical events such as arguing or crying children. And without appropriate coping abilities, typical situations can quickly turn to situations of abuse, even for families who otherwise would never find themselves taking such harmful actions.

Feel free to make your own list of stress reduction ideas for how we can assist those in need during this time. Act on those ideas and do it now. It’s never too soon to help a family in need, but it is often too late.

Churches Unite to Reverse Foster Care Wait List

In recognition of foster care awareness month, this month’s Red Letter Carpet features Aaron and Amy Graham. Aaron and Amy have a career-long history of helping those in need: prior to moving to DC, Aaron started the Quincy Street Missional Church in a low-income neighborhood of Boston where he served for five years, and Amy served as a foster care social worker. In 2013, they co-founded DC127, a faith-based non-profit with a mission to unite churches around reversing the foster care wait list in Washington, DC. It both recruits and supports foster and adoptive homes and prevents children from entering the child welfare system by supporting families in crisis through its partnership with the national Safe Families for Children movement. Aaron and Amy also founded the The District Church, where Aaron is lead pastor and Amy is the discipleship pastor. They have adopted two children, Elijah and Natalie.

You can read my interview with Aaron and Amy here.

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5 Ways Churches Can Support Families Providing Foster Care

The rewards of foster parenting are many, but that doesn’t change the fact that it, like all parenting, can be difficult and emotional work.

Even those who have raised a brood of their own biological children may not be fully prepared for the circumstances of foster parenting, such as court hearings, therapy appointments, visits with the birth family, medication evaluations, individualized education plans, and the rollercoaster of emotions and deep vulnerability that comes from opening one’s heart to a hurting child.

This is why we often give foster parents pedestal status. We assume they must be more patient, more giving, more loving, and more capable than the rest of us. But the truth is, they, like the rest of us, need all the help they can get.

Churches have a unique opportunity to provide this needed support, as well as to help those considering becoming a foster parent to make an informed and prayerful decision.

1. Extend new-parent ministries to include foster parents. Many churches have a network in place to support new parents. This network should extend to foster parents, including those who are fostering an older child. While there may not be night wakings and seemingly endless 2 a.m. feedings, opening one’s home to a child comes with its own kind of fatigue.

You can read the rest of this post (and the four other ways your church can help foster families!), at The Christian Century by clicking here.

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Mythbusting for Foster Parents

As a community committed to caring for those in need, Christian families looking for ways to reach out and serve often think about foster parenting. Barna Group reports that 31 percent of Christians have seriously considered foster parenting (compared to 11 percent of non-Christians). Strikingly, only 3 percent have actually become foster parents.

Why the discrepancy between those who are interested in the opportunity and those who have actually gone on to serve in this way?

While there are many practical reasons that could prevent people from taking on foster children, negative perceptions of the foster care system—such as front-page stories of social worker neglect and the belief that most foster parents are only in it for the money—loom large in America, including among Christians.

Whether from movies, media, or word-of-mouth, people worry that they will be unable to take on the responsibility of welcoming a child into their home for foster care or will become frustrated with the demands of the system itself. The Dave Thomas Foundation, which advocates for orphan-care in the U.S., cites this negative view as the most common reason people choose not to foster.

As with most things, it helps to know the facts. We are more comfortable and more willing to commit when we are well-educated about a cause. As an attorney and advocate who has spent 14 years working for and volunteering with foster children and their families, I’d like to offer the nearly one-in-three Christians considering becoming foster parents a realistic look at the demands and benefits.

To have the top truths and myths explained and debunked, click here to read the rest of the article on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics.

Six Ways Single Christians Can Help the Orphans

Faith-based organizations, church leaders, and Christian families across the country have propelled the orphan-care movement in the past decade, inspired by the repeated biblical command to “father the fatherless,” to take care of children who need our help.

Often, though, we associate orphan care with married Christians who can adopt children, who can welcome foster kids into their home, and who can afford to send hefty donations. Single Christians, even those who feel the issue of orphan care weighing heavy on their hearts, may resign to wait until they’re ready to start a family before they can live out this biblical call.

Read the rest of today’s post here.

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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Mississippi Teen Pregnancy Laws and Sex Trafficking – Has Mississippi Gotten it Right?

First off, let me say that I’m from Arkansas. And just like Mississippians make the joke, “Thank goodness for Louisiana!,” Arkansans make the joke, “Thank goodness for Mississippi!”

That said, I’m wondering if maybe Mississippi is ahead of the game this time.

Mississippi’s teen birth rate, although declining, is still 60% higher than that of the rest of the nation. And approximately 111 of the 6,100 births to teenagers in Mississippi were to mothers under the age of 16.

Effective July 1, doctors and midwives in Mississippi will be required to take umbilical cord blood samples from babies born to some women under the age of 16. The new law is intended to discourage older men from having sex with teenagers and to track down statutory rapists.

Lawmakers responsible for drafting the bi-partisan legislation believe it will deter older men from having sex with younger women:

“It is our hope that we can deter men over the age of 21 from having sex … with girls 16 years and younger, particularly if they know we are going to pursue them,” Jim Hood, the state’s Democratic attorney general, said.

If a girl is impregnated by a male more than three years older than her, the state will prosecute the baby’s father. This law applies to girls under the age of 16, which is the age of consent in Mississippi. Although the legislation has no opposition, it is poorly crafted in that it is unclear who would prosecute the men if they are located, or how lawmakers would determine where the baby was conceived in order to file charges. It also does not state who will pay for the DNA testing.

The bill is getting some push back from the state medical association, which has asked lawmakers to remove a provision that includes penalties for doctors who might not abide by the law. It is also getting push back from advocates for women.

Jamie Holcomb-Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, believes the legislation’s focus is misdirected, saying that few teen pregnancies involve very young girls and much older men.

“It is a lot easier for politicians to talk about protecting young women than it is for them to talk about adequate sex education, access to contraception, looking at multi-generational poverty, [and] making sure we have an adequately funded education system,” she said. “All of these things have been shown to decrease the teen pregnancy rate.”

What Holcomb-Bardwell’s statement does not address, however, is sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is on the rise in Mississippi. Girls are forced into sex trafficking in a variety of ways, and their pimps are the ones who gain monetarily. Despite the fact that these girls are victims, they can be and are criminally punished for their “participation” in prostitution. The absurdity of this, of course, is that these young girls cannot “consent” to participating in prostitution. Even if they say “yes,” when a 12-year-old has sex with a 30-year-old, that 12-year-old is not yet developed enough to give true consent. This is certainly true when that “yes” is born of fear, early grooming, or a desperate need for “love” otherwise not available.

Nonetheless, in cases of child prostitution, police often target the girls instead of the pimps, because the girls are easier to catch. That makes a certain sort of sense, assuming the girls divulge the name of their pimp and/or stay off the streets, but unfortunately it doesn’t tend to happen that way. And as one of the top anti-sex-trafficking advocates in the nation states,

“Every act of what’s called … ‘prostitution’ with these children is actually a form of child sexual abuse — and to take it further, child rape,” she says. “So I don’t think children who are raped should be criminalized, no I don’t.” (Nole Brantley)

So if the children shouldn’t be criminalized, and the pimps are too hard to catch, what are the options for our police officers and prosecutors? Local, state, and federal governments need to start thinking creatively on this. Is Mississippi’s law the way to go? Well, maybe. If even one child under 16 becomes pregnant and the umbilical cord DNA leads to someone involved in a child- sex ring, the results could be amazing and far-reaching.

But, let’s go back to Holcomb-Bardwell, especially her point regarding multi-generational poverty. According to Brantley, it is often children from impoverished families who end up involved in sex trafficking. The reasons for this are many, and Holcomb-Bardwell is right that legislative efforts must begin there. Assuming that Mississippi’s new law takes up much-needed funds that could otherwise be spent on poverty eradication and the other areas mentioned by Holcomb-Bardwell, I have to say I agree with her. In a perfect world where funding is unlimited; however, I say “why not?” Every little bit helps, and this law may be a creative way to address sex trafficking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Mississippi has it right? Or is the law a dead end? What are some creative options for our law enforcement and our legislators?