When I walked into Children’s Village for the first time to apply for a job as a child care worker with their population of emotionally disturbed kids, I remember thinking how the kids there must be on the road to being model citizens. After all, I turned out okay; my sister and brothers and cousins and friends all turned out okay. And none of us had access to the incredible support that these Village kids had: psychiatrists, and psychologists, and social workers, and special ed teachers, and so forth. How could they not turn out (beyond) okay?
Furthermore, I believed that it would be an honor to be chosen as worthy enough to work with these kids, who had all been – in today’s language – so traumatized. To be hired meant, to me, that I was being assessed to have the capability to help these kids. It came as a shock to realize that my (naive) standards were (just a wee bit?) higher than the reality called for.
So I got hired, and I adjusted to the fact that it was all about behavioral control of the children. I bought into the therapeutic model that, if nothing else, we were taking the street and familial pressures off the kids and allowing normal growth processes to reassert themselves. As time went on though, it became clearer that normal growth processes were apparently not enough.
When I took my first kids it was obvious to me that a protective family, and normal community living – what my aunt and uncle gave me – was the minimum that the kids needed to heal and that is why I became – and remain – such a strong believer in adoption. But as the decades went on, it became clearer still that even that was not enough. I wasn’t buying into the “damage” argument – that the kids had been internally structurally damaged at some point – and I still don’t. I have seen growth and I have seen major change in some kids where no one would have expected it.
Then a few years back the trauma model developed and took off. I haven’t been impressed by the implementation that I’ve seen, but I remain hopeful that maybe this is a key. In the end, though, I believe that our kids beliefs about themselves have been distorted by what they have – and haven’t – learned. I believe that getting the kids to recognize the core of those beliefs, allowing them to examine them in the cool light of day, is their ultimate hope for change. But I also believe that when they pull out those beliefs, one of the deepest core beliefs that they would find is the belief that there is no hope. For them. I believe that they believe that they are broken, damaged, and worse of all, just plain bad. I also believe in the very deepest part of my own existence that they are wrong.
But I know that if someone believes that they cannot walk, then no matter how able they really are, they will not walk. As a culture, when we reinforce to our own – especially to our kids – that there are people who are truly hopeless, we ourselves become the models for the power of hopelessness.
One of my adult kids is in the hospital after being beat very badly earlier in the week. He is in an induced coma and we wait until the bleeding in his brain stops to assess any long term damage. The medical staff is very straight with us: three days later, and he still may not live. But they act as though he will. They treat him as though he will. They’ve told us that he may end up brain damaged. But they act as though he won’t. They treat him as though he won’t.
The medical staff lives with hope. And their procedures insist on hope. Not blind hope. Not false hope. Real hope. What they say is: We don’t know yet. We are going to protect his body and his brain in every way, in every least risky way, that we can. While we wait. Their approach doesn’t come from being nice: it comes from being respectful.
My son – himself a multiply rejected and multiply betrayed foster kid till he came to me when he was twelve – has no job, and no money. You would never know that from the way he is being treated.
That approach, that perspective, is the model that I am talking about – a model of hope that reinforces hope, based upon the needs of a person, as a person, not as a bureaucratic object. It is the model that we use at Family Focus, which is all about hope.
But it is a model that is missing from much in our society, including our criminal justice system and, in days to come, I want to come back to that.