In doing research for a paper this morning, I came across the story of Baby P, a toddler in London who was subjected to horrific abuse until he was finally beaten to death. The tragedy is that he had every chance to be saved. The British version of Social Services reportedly visited the home sixty times within a few months but failed to either recognize the signs of the abuse or to act for his safety. He was even seen by a doctor who reportedly failed to realize he had a broken back, 8 fractured ribs, and numerous bruises and scars. The doctor has been quoted as saying the baby was "miserable and cranky" making the examination difficult. There is a series of stories on The Sun website if you want to read about it. You can start here then follow links.
My reason for writing about this is that I have been in similar shoes in one of my previous jobs. I worked with families that teetered on the edge between poverty and neglect, between discipline and abuse. My job as a therapist was to try and help the families learn where those lines are, learn about themselves, learn new skills and techniques, all with the hope of transforming them into healthy loving families. Did it always work? Sometimes quite well, sometimes kind of, sometimes only minimally, but not always.
I never – thank god – had to face a situation like Baby P and his "care"givers. But I had to face some very very difficult situations that cried of depression, despair, hopelessness, anger. There was a lot of substance abuse. There was a lot of poverty. There was a lot of physical/mental/emotional/sexual abuse. There were a lot of people stuck in situations they did not know how to get out of. There were a lot of people who had resigned themselves to being the object of someone else's anger or of living in homes that were so dirty and buggy it was like a movie set.
Through all these journeys with all these families, I tried to keep one thing in the back of my mind – protect the children. It was not always easy. There were some very loving parents who loved the dickins out of their kids but could not provide enough in the way of food, clothes, etc and so were under observation for neglect. There were families where I suspected that things might have happened to one or more of the kids or one of the parents before my involvement but nothing specific ever came up in sessions. Grey areas were plentiful. The absolute worst possible scenario was for some thing to happen to one of those kids. Thankfully, I never had to face that, but there by the grace of god…
I also remember when I was a teacher at the young young young ages of 21-26 and being faced with similar decision-making. As a teacher, I was responsible by law to report all instances of abuse or neglect I observed or suspected. But what happens when the teachers are too young, too naive, too inexperienced – not by any fault of their own, just because they haven't lived enough or experienced enough – to see abuse or neglect for what it is? What then? Who will protect the children then?
Reading about Baby P brings back the feelings of worry and trauma and stress and fear and anger and despair and helplessness and hopelessness I experienced right along with the families I worked with. It changed me. I cannot look at the world the same way anymore. Having the responsibility of protecting the children is a heavy burden to bear. The turnover rate amongst social workers is high. I worked with a lot of really amazing social workers who cared and tried their best to do the "right" thing. They not only have to be present in the children's and families' lives but they get buried in paperwork that is often overwhelming. The paperwork, necessary to make sure everyone in the system knows what is going on, can be a hurdle that prevents as much face to face time as is warranted or needed by a particular situation. The whole system is heartbreaking.
Never one to be a Debby-Downer, I do not think it is hopeless. I know there are amazing people at work trying to help people every day. I do not have a magic wand solution to prevent more Baby P's from happening, I wish I did. We are often not aware of the depth of people's sadness and despair until it is too late. But in each of our lives, in each of our small circles of influence, is there something we can do? Is there a kid who lives in your building or down the block who needs someone to talk to? Is there a Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization you can get involved with? Is there a food bank in your community you can contribute to? Is there anything that you – as one small person in one small corner of life in one small corner of the world – can do?
I don't really know how to end this, it just needed to be said. I suppose experience has taught me to be sensitive to warning signs. It has also taught me to be sensitive to – and hopefully not judgemental of – other people's lives and experiences. For my part, my job as a therapist was never really a "job" to me, it was a way I could give back to the world and try to make a difference. This week, even before I encountered Baby P, I was thinking about getting involved with BB/BS. I am so very busy as a grad student it seems like an awfully big commitment, but I find that I miss the altruistic part of my life. I don't want to commit and not follow through – that can be very harmful to the kid I get assigned to. But I want some form of contribution/service back in my life. Maybe you do too?