In darkness the seed sprouts, new life is formed and transformation happens.
Joan Healy rsj
This reflection on the value of children requires a contextual introduction with some thoughts on how church and society and in particular, the child protection system, view the issue of child protection. Children themselves are finely attuned to injustice in a world that does not provide their parents with due respect or their families and communities with adequate support and resources to care for their children.
From sand to solid ground – if we are to stand on solid ground regarding this issue we need to have a different approach towards it. I am convinced that the journey forward is counterintuitive and contrary to our natural instinct and to what we perceive as a common sense approach. When child protection systems are in crisis, we tend to revert to how we have responded in the past while the children of today need a different response from the state and our Church.
We, the Church, are being challenged to raise our consciousness to a level where we will avoid repeating the mistakes of the past in our care and protection of children. I suggest that our policies and procedures:
- acknowledge the acts of omission and commission in the past that have caused such profound pain.
- include the voice of children
- see the child as a contributor and not a consumer
- preserve parents, family and community as central to children’s safety and wellbeing
- remove language that retains the power and authority in the organisation
- are preventative and proactive
- provide healing for people who have suffered abuse
- consult with people who have suffered abuse to determine and validate the healing process.
In his book “Great Expectations” which he published in 1861, Charles Dickens clearly showed his readers, members of the privileged class, the poverty and terrible conditions endured by the underclasses in London. He enabled them to see what was always in their midst but what they had not previously observed. He has depicted Pip, a child and one of the main characters in this book, as having been the one most aware of what was wrong in his world. As he reflected on his childhood, he commented:
It is the most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.
Charles Dickens 1861
In 1873, when Mary MacKillop herself was in London, she wrote a detailed description of the Congregation’s mandate to do everything possible to improve the lot of the children of the poor. Contrary to what one might have expected, she spoke strongly against the idea of Sisters giving music lessons to these children. Her reasoning was that, as she put it, they might grow up “totally opposed to their position in life, neglecting essential things … dissatisfied with their state, ….ashamed of their parents”.
The most poignant and heart felt lesson I have learnt regarding the impact of poverty and abuse of state authority was from two interactions with Aboriginal parents when I worked in child protection on the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY) in South Australia.
The first was in a small community where I had a conversation with the mother of a 12-year-old child who was out of control and had begun petrol sniffing. When I was offering the mother suggestions as to how she could try to rein in his behaviour she told me that I was the ‘boss’ and then explained that the ‘welfare’ had taken her authority away by not showing her respect as the parent. She also told me, calmly and without blame, that ‘welfare’ had provided clothes and sport equipment for her child, goods she would never be in a position to provide him on her limited income. The mother earned the equivalent of a pension while working full time in a Community Store.
Prior to this, I had assumed we had helped children, families and the community by providing these items and I was deeply disturbed by what I perceived to have been my part in taking away both her authority as a parent and her pride in providing for her child.
In her book, “Sojourn on Another Planet”, Nancy Shepherd, a missionary who worked in Pukatja in the 1950s, shares a similar experience She describes how children were comparing the missionaries who were ‘educated’ with their parents who continued to live as their ancestors had done for thousands of generations. The children were openly disparaging of their parents, even calling their mothers una (rubbish). Nancy describes one situation where a mother had not known that her daughter was sleeping with a young boy. Not understanding how this could be happening, Nancy, a young woman herself, approached the mother saying,
While I was working in child protection, Aboriginal parents told me in different ways how, after long-term intervention with ‘welfare’, they were unable to control their children once they reached puberty.
I learnt a second lesson after a teenager tragically died as a result of self-inflicted injuries and I was attending his funeral. There was a church service and then an opening ceremony six weeks later. The young man who had died had been removed from his parents, community and country as a young child and had been placed under the Care of the Minister. As I was the current person responsible for children with Youth Court Guardianship Orders, the family invited me to stand with his parents through both rituals.
I cannot think of another situation where I felt so responsible and so powerless and I was convinced that once children have been removed from their parents it is impossible to provide them with an adequate replacement.
Child Protection systems are overwhelmed and foster placements cannot keep pace with the ever-increasing demand. Removing children is costly for parents and the State and carries huge risks for the children. We know that the outcomes for children who stay at home and receive intensive home-based family support are much better than those achieved by children who are removed.
In crisis situations, there is a natural tendency for the State, and even for Church-based organisations, to take over the role and functions of a parent and to assume the responsibility for the care for children. This is an impossible task as no State Department or Church organisation can function as the family unit.
I have never met a child who would choose to be separated from his or her parents or a parent who doesn’t want the best for their children in their particular and often tragic circumstances. Undoubtedly, there are some circumstances where a child needs to be removed from parents for their best interest but contrary to popular opinion, this is rare.
A social worker can know the many different models of intervention and therapy when working with children and families but the best way forward, almost without exception, is defined by the family itself. Children can be at risk in their neighbourhood, family and church environments when their family is trying to cope with insurmountable problems including poverty, trans-generational trauma, racism, poor housing, lack of education and health care, in short, when it is overwhelmed by the daily grind of providing food and shelter for its members.
If the focus was on family preservation and the best interests of the child and not solely on ‘safety,’ children and their families and communities would be better placed to reduce actual risk. The risk for children decreases significantly as the family unit is strengthened.
Children can be secure in an unsafe environment and insecure in a safe environment. Let us help strengthen known protective factors including parent- child attachment, and increase family preservation and social network supports. Let us help reduce major risk factors such as poverty and alcohol and drug misuse. Our task is for children to be both safe and secure and to know they belong and are loved.
Over generations in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand and throughout the Western world, we have unashamedly ‘rescued’ children from their families of origin. We have failed to address the social problems that resulted in the children being in need of care and protection and state intervention.
On St Joseph’s Day, 19 March 2013, Pope Francis called us to be protectors of all life. He described St Joseph as having a vocation of the custos, the Protector. We know that Mary MacKillop herself was an advocate for children, understood the devastation of poverty and did what she could to support children to thrive in their families of origin. The mission of God entrusted to us today is to be like Joseph, protectors of children, to stand in the shoes of parents and listen to the experiences and voices of children over many generations.
Compassion is at the heart of the care and protection of children. The journey ahead will require us to stand with parents and their children, in and through suffering, to safeguard the natural ties between parents and children and address poverty.
An enormous travesty of child protection in our time is to attempt to safeguard children outside of their family and the casualty will be future generations.
Together let us reach to another level of consciousness and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
bind up wounds,
and feed the hungry
but through every form of effort
to raise the powers of love upward to the next stage of consciousness.
Teihard de Chardin
Kenise Neill rsj
Artist: Kenise Neill rsj
The chapter is in a Love of Ideas published by Future Leaders
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