When Insanity is Normal

I’ve started a new case for my volunteer work.  So I don’t repeat myself too much, you can read a previous post about what I do and what my observations have been as of about 2 years ago.  But this new case has made me realize something else.  I can’t name names but let me give you a taste of what’s going in the case.

A 24 year old woman had her kids removed from her because upon the birth of her last child, she and the newborn tested positive for cocaine.  Her partner also tested positive for cocaine.  The partner is the father of the youngest two, the oldest, who is 5 has a different biological father, who until recently hasn’t been involved because the mother actively tried to keep him out of her life when he remarried.  The father of the youngest two was reported as having sexually molested a 3 year old girl.  He claims he didn’t do it, but the child’s story was detailed enough that he is on record as a known perpetrator.  This father is 32, the mother 24, which is a bit of an age gap, given that their first child happened when she was only 22 and he was 30.  He has 3 other children of which he has lost parental rights to all 3.   There was evidence that often the oldest who is 5 was locked in a room with her 1 year old brother and was at times the primary caretaker of him.  Since her children have been removed from she and the father have continually tested positive for cocaine.  If they are unable to keep clean they will lose parental rights to their children.  Currently they both live in their car, and have no home.

The children upon being removed were originally placed with the maternal grandmother.  The story of her life involves her baby brother dying of SIDS when she was 5.  She has cleary had undiagnosed mental illnesses throughout most of her life from PTSD, to bi-polar, to clinical depression.  To give you a sense of the situation she has been recommended to receive mental health treatment from 9-2 pm…Monday through Friday.  Upon the death of her brother she began being extremely violent towards animals, and pushed her sister onto the driveway as her mother was backing out who then ended up running over her sister (luckily this only result in slight injury).  She has 4 children through 3 different fathers ranging from the age of 26, to the youngest being 12.  Her youngest daughter was actually a twin, but she was with an abusive partner while pregnant, killing one of the twins.  She believed that the birth of a daughter would soften this guy (who was also a cocaine user) but not surprisingly this did not happen.  Her oldest son has 3 children, her oldest daughter (the mother in my case) 3 children, her 18 year old daughter is pregnant.  Recently, the partner she has been with now for 10 years was accused of sexually molesting her 18 year old daughter since she was a young girl.  This turned out to be true, and this maternal grandmother apparently knew about it and didn’t do anything.  The maternal grandmother’s sister also hit her niece badly causing child services to remove the niece for a time from her sister’s home.  It would be too lengthy to give more details but this maternal grandmother has exposed her kids to some broken people, has moved back and forth from different states, has at times not had her own home, and has clearly suffered through some nightmarish experiences.

I know that most of my readers will read those last two paragraphs and be like “WTF!?”  Some of you might feel anger, some sadness, probably both.  Overall, if you’re like me you will recognize this as an insane situation in which can hardly connect to.  This is chaos, and my intuition is helpless as I observe all this because it is so foreign to me.  I cannot fathom how this is real, human life.  But what I’ve come to realize is that this is normal for them.  This is just how life is.  This is how life is for much of their family and friends as well.  You might say, how can a mother let her daughter be molested and not do anything about it?  The only answer I can come up with is that through generations of poverty that the tolerance for deeply troubling behaviors and people is high given that this all seems like par for the course.  And poverty is at the heart of this at the heart of this tale.  Now that’s not to say that there wasn’t a period of prosperity in the maternal grandmother’s life, but the people she imported into her life, because she grew up with no parent recognizing her mental illness, because the behaviors of her own parents seemed normal, has kept a level of dysfunction in the family that would break most of us if we had to tolerate it for more than a day.  I remember my first visit to the maternal grandmother’s home.  Two of her other grandchildren were there along with her son and daughter in law.  The place was a mess with laundry everywhere.  It was a small two bedroom trailer, in which the 3 grandchildren she was fostering, her 12 year old, and her and her partner lived.  I felt claustrophobic and wanted to leave and try to pretend that people didn’t have to live like that.  And that’s not to say that people don’t have it worse.  All I’m saying is that for so many families, all this is absolutely normal.  This shouldn’t be normal.  In talking to the maternal grandmother I actually found her to be fairly prescient, places importance on school and education, and seems to at least have good intentions for those in her care.  What’s not clear is that she necessarily always understand what good care actually means.  If anybody expects people to just reason their way out of the situation, theysimply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Thankfully at the last hearing a couple days ago.  The oldest daughter got moved to her biological father and his wife. Both seem like really good people.  The two youngest children have been placed with a foster family who seem really nice and nurturing.  They understand that re-unification with the parents can happen, but are also willing to be a permanent home should the parents not be able lose their addiction.  There is some stability there and there are all sorts of hardworking people trying to do what’s best for the children.  Children are innocent and born into these situations.  It’s easy to condemn the adults, but when you learn more about them you just realize that they were just like these children and born into impossible situations.  I do this work for the children, but my heart breaks for the adults as well.  Most of the time they just get judged by the rest of society and forgotten.  When the mother had her visitation reduced at the last court hearing and found out she wasn’t going to get any special time with her children at Christmas she was in tears.  Despite the fact that she isn’t capable of being the parent her children need, the pain in her voice, in her face, and the intensity of her sobs made it clear that what little love she had in her life was slipping away.  I am not saying this is an excuse for giving her her kids back, and I’m glad Pennsylvania always tries to give parents a path to get their kids back, but I can imagine the pain I would feel if the same was happening to me.  It still broke my heart.

I appreciate all the people who dedicate their lives to helping children and families in these situations, but it’s really just all not enough.  We have to do better.  We have to make these kinds of things priorities for our politicians and raise awareness of what poverty is really like.

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For those of you interested in volunteering for the organization I work for it is called CASA.  You can check out the national website, but you’d have to see if they exist in your county if you wanted to volunteer.  But if you just want to donate to them some time that also helps.  There may be other service providers that help children in your area as well that could use your support.

Murder Addiction: Hollywood’s real problem?

Hollywood, CA – Today horror and shock turned into sympathy and understanding as serial murderer Harry Weinberg admitted to the public that he is in fact a victim of murder addiction.  Just a week ago it was finally discovered that Weinberg had been murdering young female actresses for over 2 decades, and police had thought they caught one of the most monstrous serial killers in U.S. history, but todays heartfelt speech by Weinberg softened the hearts of many when they realized, that like many of us or people we know, he too was suffering from addiction.

Weinberg is a Hollywood mogul known to many for producing some of the most prolific films over the last 30 years and owner of one of the biggest Hollywood Studios Mallowmax.  Having scores of great films under his belt it was hard for even this journalist to not give him some leeway after his impassioned words.  Weinberg said, “I guess you could say that I might be responsible for that first murder, but you know I felt I had pretty good reasons for it.  You never think that doing it once will spark a lifelong desire that you can’t explain.  Before I knew it I had murdered 5 more young actresses in a week.  It’s like it didn’t even matter if they were talented or not at first, and then it became sort of a game.  Like the more talented they were, the more I wanted to murder them.  It really escalated in ways I never imagined.  But now I know I need help and am going to check myself into a clinic that specializes in murder addiction and get the treatment I need…finally…it’s been so long…”  Weinberg then broke into sobs at which point law enforcement officer Sgt. David Wolski, who had initially arrested Weinberg, also became overwhelmed by emotion.  We had a chance to talk to Wolski after Weinberg’s announcement. “When I first started investigating this case I was in a state of horror.  Finding out how he took advantage of the dreams and hopes of young actresses who had no recourse but to trust him and walk into his home.  This type of manipulation is typical of your average serial killer.  FBI profilers made this quite clear.  But now after hearing about how he’s struggling with addiction…well to be honest I don’t know if it’s moral anymore to put him in jail. He’s sick, and he needs help.  Law enforcement will be meeting with the District Attorney’s office later today to discuss our next move.  But I think it’s clear at this point that a lot lighter sentence is warranted.”

Others in Hollywood have also come under fire during this scandal for not alerting authorities earlier of the murders that were heavily rumored to be taking place.  Several big actors have been named in knowing about Weinberg’s behavior including Hollywood star Bob Afflert.  Afflert, however denies any explicit knowledge when we talked to him, “Listen you hear rumors sure.  It happens all the time.  This is a tough business.  Sometimes people say it’s murder getting ahead here, but you know…you think that’s just an expression.  I never thought someone would actually be getting murdered.  I mean sure there are many days that go by where a young actress doesn’t show up to a set, but dreams are dashed 20 times a minute in this industry, you just figure, here’s another actress who couldn’t make it and has gone back to her farm in Iowa or something.  As I look back, yeah I can see now that a lot of them were probably being murdered.  It’s sad to look back and think of all those lives lost.  But no more sad than a powerful and wealthy man suffering from addiction.  I hope he gets the help he needs.  As a powerful and wealthy male myself, I realize it’s all too easy to fall into addiction like this.  Nobody is going to bring those girls back to life, so I hope that moving forward we can focus more on the help he needs and not the hurt he caused.”

Nevertheless public outrage remains high and questions the structure of an industry that could support this type of behavior so long.  They worry that Weinberg isn’t the only one who has behaved this way, as young actresses going missing has been a common theme throughout Hollywood’s history.  People wonder if this incident will finally change the culture of silence and looking the other way that has been a mainstay in the industry, or whether more young actresses will be murdered under the guise of everybody’s favorite cliché: “That’s show business!”

Broken

I know a while back I posted a blog about public defenders and how it inspired me to be more proactive in my community and vowed to do some volunteer work that I had been putting off until the “right moment” in my life and just do it.  So in case you didn’t know I successfully completed the training and wanted to talk a little bit about my experience so far.  I guess there will be two separate parts here, one in regards to the system itself and one specifically about my case (which I can’t get too specific about).

What exactly am I doing?  Well I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate (or CASA).  This is a program that exists in many counties across the nation, and in certain cases of child neglect or abuse the judge assigns a CASA to the case.  My role is to interview the child, parents, foster care, child development specialists, doctors, teachers, etc and then try to compile a report for court hearings that happen every 3 months so that I can make specific recommendations for the child (or children I represent) in court.  I try to make recommendations in the best interest of the child.  This sometimes can be towards reunification with the parents (or parent) or sometimes away from the parents.  The key is to make those recommendations based on as much evidence as follows.

After my first training session one of the volunteers who I had sat next to, when we walked out of the session looked at each other and were thinking the same thing and he said to me before I could say to him “I can’t believe they have volunteers doing this.”  So if it seems unbelievable to you, this is one of the first things I learned:  We really don’t love children as much as we say we do.  The full-time workers of the program say that it’s even hard to get donations for abused and neglected children.  I came in with some pre-conceived notions about Child Protection Services or Child Youth Services taking away children from good parents and getting involved in the private lives of families unceremoniously most of those notions have melted away.  Children services have to act when a report is made, but for the most part I see them dealing with such reports that are unsubstantiated fairly.  That’s not to say that there isn’t mistakes made.  I also learned that it’s a civil service job, and there are no specialized qualifications to do it.  It doesn’t pay particularly well, workers are often overloaded with cases, and many just use it as a stepping stone to a better job, so there is high turnover, meaning that few of the workers are very experienced.  So mistakes are made, and there is some incompetence, but is this their fault or the fault of a system that isn’t treated as important as it should be?  Just like with public defenders, attorneys that are supposed to represent the children in court are also overloaded.  In our county there are 3 lawyers trying to represent 400 children.  It is not possible to do your job well under such circumstances. I’ve learned that despite bad things you hear sometimes about foster families most people who do foster care are phenomenal people and make a big emotional investment into children they may care for, for up to a year and half and will not get to keep them.  I can’t imagine going through that myself.  Many foster families do end up adopting the children for that very reason. I’ve learned that federal child protection laws didn’t happen until the 70’s and that the very first child abuse case was tried under animal protection laws.  The obsession over the rights of the unborn continue in this country while those that are born are overlooked.  I am convinced that if we put our compassion into making sure that every citizen was treated humanely, abortions would drop at an alarming rate.

The case I was assigned is a sad one, although perhaps by far not the worst.  And I guess it goes without saying that any case of child abuse or neglect will be a sad one.  I can’t describe the case in a high enough detail so that it could be recognized so I will simply give vague details which I am sure are not uncommon.  We have one child just over a year old, we have a father with a criminal past addicted to heroin.  We have a mother addicted to heroin who went into early labor while on heroin and had a newborn baby going through withdrawal symptoms for opiates.  A baby who would later die at the age of 8 months due to an accidental death.  We have parents who are not married.  We have parents who do not have their own home, their own phone number.  We have a mother who does not even have a job, and a father who is just trying to make ends meet.  Neither of them have enough money to support themselves let alone children.  There are many who may already be judging these parents, and I do not disagree that there is a reason that their children were taken away from them.  This is not a mistake.  This is not government overreach.  This is making sure a child has a safe environment to grow up in.  Addiction has taken them, and they cannot seem to get out of it.  They have made less and less visits over time with their remaining child, and at the last court hearing didn’t even show up.

abuse-stop-child-abuse-28564872-765-540-2But one of your jobs as a CASA is to gather information about the parents and part of that is a little bit of snooping on their Facebook profile.  When I saw pictures of the mother it was clear she was just a child.  Barely out of high school. She had pictures of her with her children.  There were smiles, and genuine happiness.  Pictures like any family might have and they were beautiful.  In notes taken by Child Youth Services workers there were noted about how the mother sincerely said how much she loved her son.  As a child of an addict myself it reminded me of my situation in a lot of ways, although heroin is a much harsher drug than alcohol, that there are two separate truths to the life of the addict.  As I look at the pictures I see the same love that I have in my pictures with my child.  I know they are filled with it at least at certain moments as much as I am.  But a portion of their life, thoughts, and physical actions are also governed by heroin.  Perhaps a bigger portion now.  And as I look at a picture of someone who is a child herself, and who has a mother who is also a heroin addict I have to admit that I cried and wondered what chance did she have but to follow down the same dark path.  Where does it end?  How do we break the chain?  Even as I have compassion for the innocent child to protect them from a life of having heroin addicted parents, who will have compassion for these parents?  Is there any hope for them?  Will they have their lives turned around?  Just 10 years ago the mother herself might have been a case for the courts if anybody had bothered to report the destructive actions of her mother.  There is an ocean of pain out there, and it feels like trying to tear down a mountain with a small rock hammer.  The only answer it seems is more hammers.  I have no idea how to convince people to pick one up.

There are 6 months left before the case comes to a close, likely too little time for the parents to get their act together enough to keep their remaining child.  There are already other family members willing to adopt and give the child a stable and happy home.  The child is just a few months older than my son.  Sweet with a beautiful laugh and I am glad that his odds for a better life have gone up, but I am certain his struggles are not over.  At some point he will wonder who his parents are.  He will have to wrestle with the idea of why he was abandoned by his parents and whether or not there was just something inherently wrong with him.  I hope that he is young enough now to not let thoughts override who he will grow up to be under his new adoptive parents. I hope he will forgive and know that he is his own man someday and is not destined to continue the cycle.  I hope he will know good love.

Helpless

From http://deviantart.net

My baby is not much of a crier.  So when he does cry it feels a bit worrying.  Of course a baby will have different cries.  Sometimes those differences are subtle and they change a bit as they grow day by day.  There is one for wanting a dry diaper, one for hungriness, one for loneliness and just wanting to be held, and there is a whiny one for a toy they can’t reach (so you give it to them and they become bored 30 seconds later but then want another one!).  But there is one cry that seems very different to me.  This is the one in which they are in pain or misery: maybe teething, gastric discomfort, sleep deprived and tired, perhaps an ear infection.  Whatever it is as a parent you will know this cry.  They wail at the top of their lungs.  They are inconsolable.  There is no reasoning with them because there is no way you can communicate with them except to simply hold them and hope your warmth and love eventually calms the down.

There is a helplessness to babies, especially before they can understand language well and before they can move on their own that draws us towards them, that pierces our heart so deeply that we move almost unconsciously to try and take care of them.  But that cry of pain is a helpless cry for which there is no immediate solution.  You must simply bear it and simply wish each and every moment that such cries will stop.  Hopefully it is just a matter of the pain passing, the medicine working,  sleep arriving, or whatever it is (because sometimes you just don’t know) stopping so that that helpless and desperate cry will stop.  And I have to admit that the first time I experienced this cry when I was alone and I didn’t want to bother my wife who was getting some much needed time out with a friend, I despaired and felt helpless myself.  Not knowing what to do.  Of course this is part of what all babies go through and it’s not traumatizing for them, it’s just life.  Nevertheless it brought tears to my eyes and feeling like a terrible father for not being able to take my son’s pain away.  In that moment I felt utterly helpless as he wailed and wailed in my arms.

As I was able to let my mind catch up to my emotions it occurred to me how fortunate I was to have medicine, how fortunate I was to have a 911 to call, or a pediatrician that has a 24 hour answering service, or just people in my life in general to turn to.  Sometimes it just takes the reminder even that all of this is just normal and that everything will be fine.  Then I started thinking about all the mothers out there in the world who must listen to that cry for which there is no help.  There is no medicine.  There is no spouse.  Maybe they are just desperately tired after a long day of work and could use their child’s smile to life their spirits, but instead the baby is sick and wails into the night.  I started thinking about all the babies whose cries go unheard.  Helpless as they are and even through their tears there are no arms to hold them.  I have to admit I cried again, but it’s probably worth all our time to take a moment to remember this.

From http://images.fineartamerica.com

It is a sad reality though that “helpless” is not only something we all feel, but is sometimes the actual state of things.  How many times have you felt helpless in your life?  I’m sure there have been plenty.  We might have felt helpless against a bully at school, a loved one dying from a terminal disease, helpless against the abuse of a parent or guardian, helpless because there is nobody to go to when we are in trouble, or helpless against a traumatic event, accident or natural disaster through no fault of our own.  Maybe you have a loved one with an addiction.  Whether a child, sibling, parent, or friend.  In such cases no amount of help will do much good unless they want it, and the feeling of helplessness mounts.

There are certain realities that are hard to face.  Perhaps even harder than facing death.  As we grow we feel more powerful, we feel like there is more we can do to affect change, help ourselves and help others, but in the end we are always subject to forces outside our realm of influence.  Life is a mixture of experiences both in and out of our control.  Recognizing the difference between the two seems, to me, a lifelong struggle.  All we can do I guess is to continue to love and care – about ourselves and others, and hope that feelings of helplessness will pass quickly for all who walk on this earth.