Guest blog by Tracy Cook, ProKids Executive Director
There is no such thing as a throw away child.
The death of Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old foster child who was killed by Columbus police April 20, shook me to my core. How can anyone view this as anything but a horrible tragedy? Yet some media coverage seems to imply she shouldn’t have continued to live.
Children who have been abused and neglected often experience further trauma when they are taken from the only families they have ever known. Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s book What Happened to You? poses a question long thought about by those in the child protection and mental health systems. In many ways, it is a more effective question than “What is wrong with you?” When we ask “what happened to you?” we can help get at the root of behavior that doesn’t serve someone well because it is destructive or even dangerous.
Some children’s needs are met by those around them. But for too many of our children, there aren’t sufficient support or resources. And when these children experience trauma and what we call toxic stress, this lack of understanding from others and interventions provides little opportunity to process and heal. What is the price of this for the child and our community?
We all are complex beings who deserve to be understood in our full humanity. Our children, whose lives are not entirely their own, are incredibly vulnerable when they are not understood by those making decisions about their lives and futures.
Working with foster children and their complex, traumatic histories has been a part of my life ever since I came to ProKids in 1992. Our children have difficult lives, through no fault of their own.
How can we truly value every child? Especially the ones with trauma shadowing their lives? How can we better recognize the full humanity of our kids?
We can start with a deeper understanding of how being separated from a family can impact a child. Children are removed from their families based on the information available to the child protection system, including Job & Family Services. It investigates suspected child maltreatment and serves as the custodian for the child and administers services to support them and their families. The Juvenile Court approves placements and services for children and their families, ultimately deciding who will raise a child.
But to fully value a child means valuing the intrinsic need each of them have – expressed and unexpressed – to belong. For most of these children, that means working to find a safe path back to their family.
More mental health and substance abuse treatment for families, more financial support for willing and capable caregivers within the extended family, and more training for those who impact a child’s life, would be a start in further valuing our children. It would mean that reunifying with parents would be more likely, that caregiving could stay in an extended family rather than depend on a stretched foster care system, and that others they encounter in their lives would understand more about how trauma can impact a child and their behavior.
For 40 years, at ProKids, we’ve trained volunteers on trauma and how to work with those in an abused and neglected child’s life. These volunteers reach for better, for every child they are paired with, by taking a holistic view of what a child needs. Whether it’s making sure family members are considered – and supported – so they can care for a child or recommending specific services to help a child heal, connecting foster parents to supportive services or advocating for adoption, ProKids volunteers do all they can to make sure a child is not thrown away. Is not discarded. Is not dismissed.
Our kids deserve better. Will our community rise to that challenge?
This was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday, May 23, 2020.