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Work hard, pray harder column: Children first

Sarah Yacoub

Sarah Yacoub is an attorney at Equal Justice Inc.

As an advocate for victims I have stopped counting the number of times survivors of abuse have

relayed their horror stories. Men and women across numerous local counties have shared the all too common experience of having a judge or commissioner order their children into the unsupervised care of an abuser, addict and or someone displaying a level of instability and volatility such that no reasonable person would trust him or her to be the village dog collector. Whether it's sending a toddler to live with a parent who is an alcoholic, abusive, not law abiding and who lives in a homeless shelter — where the other parent provides a stable healthy home — as a shared placement schedule, or deciding that a small child should be sent to spend half of his or her nights with a parent who never directly cared for the child and where that child only knows that parent in the context of their abuse of the child's other parent, there is no shortage of stress and fear associated with these orders.

As an advocate who believes that people don't generally wake up in the morning with a stated goal to abuse their power or to hurt others, specifically children, my sense continues to be that if there was a better understanding among guardians ad litem (the attorneys representing children) and bench officers, things could and would get better.

In 2015, NPR ran an article titled, "Take the ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does and Doesn't Mean." An ACE score is that which corresponds with one's adverse childhood experiences. Accounting for different types of abuse, general hallmarks of childhood trauma and chronic stress, the higher the score the more likely someone is to experience problems later in life. Such problems, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include alcoholism, drug use, missed work, smoking, lack of physical activity, severe obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, STDs, heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD and broken bones. One study revealed that children are sometimes misdiagnosed with ADHD when in fact they are responding to trauma, noting that the behavior that comes with exposure to childhood trauma and or chronic stress can look a lot like ADHD.

If we were to look at a report card for our local justice systems, the box next to "ability to appreciate and avoid exposing children to adverse childhood experiences" would be checked "needs improvement." The good news is that there are countless good hardworking people within our local justice systems working towards better.

Part of what makes better tricky is that we are a justice system that operates as though we only want to see and believe the best in everyone. We operate as though all parents have the tools to not traumatize their children, as if a strong admonition to knock it off will set everything straight. We operate as though it is realistic to think placing a toddler with an alcoholic is just fine because the person—who won't admit or deal with the addiction—has been ordered not to drink. The problem with continuing this approach is that we don't get to take it back when the child very predictably experiences everything that comes with a caregiver who just doesn't have the tools or health to responsibly parent or care for another human being, let alone a small child who cannot escape a bad situation or speak for his or herself.

We need guardians ad litem and bench officers who are willing to call balls and strikes, to make hard calls. We need to stop acting as though we expect addicts and abusers to announce to the world or to hold up a sign in court that they are addicts and or abusers. We need to start understanding that some attorneys insulate, enable and lie for their clients and stop acting as though we expect these attorneys to tell us that their client is abusive and unstable. We need to be willing to investigate further, search for and find the truth, rather than approaching the situation as an unsolvable mystery and assigning 50/50 placement because we've accepted the falsity that there's just no way to know. We need to stop perpetuating the misconception that because one parent is not healthy both parents must be bad.

No parent or person is perfect. Having been said, there is a very big difference between a parent who is sober, functional and otherwise healthy operating in good faith and a parent who is deceptive, vindictive, abusive and or immersed in an addiction to drugs or alcohol. A child spending the night in the bed she has always known with the parent who has always cared for her is not likely to experience an increase in her ACE score. In contrast, sending a small child to spend half of her nights with a parent who is battling an addiction, abusive and living in a homeless shelter will very predictably expose that child to circumstances and experiences that will very predictably raise her ACE Score.

As to why we should all care. Beyond the obvious empathy that we should all have for a helpless child unnecessarily getting hurt, the failure of local justice systems to protect children costs us all.

Whether it is healthcare costs, loss of economic productivity, antisocial behavior like continuing the cycle of abuse or committing crimes, drug use and or addiction, these are all problems that not only cost taxpayers money, but problems that erode the fabric of our communities. As we embark upon more rounds of elections, those looking to earn our votes should be able to explain and demonstrate how they have and will put children first.