by Julia Steiny
In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people's lives.
Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes. But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.
Speaking at a recent conference, she says, "I've done a lot of bad service in my life. I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways. I can't tell you how many attached family relationships I've interrupted. Sometimes there were good reasons. But mostly we (social services) are re-traumatizing children in our efforts to help."
That's some indictment.
If a state's Child Protective Services (CPS) find that a kid's parents, usually Mom, are substance-involved, hurtful, mentally ill or neglectful, obviously the best thing to do is to get that kid out of there, asap. Duh. Right?
But Harden's research proves that it's absolutely the worst thing you can do — except in totally hopeless cases when Mom is irredeemable.
Automatically removing a child treats moms and babies as though they're just spare parts. When Mom doesn't work out, switch her out for a better one. Even "congregate or residential care," essentially institutional orphanages, are preferable to letting Mom keep a baby she doesn't deserve.
But such babies plunge into mourning. They can't express deep loss in ways adults recognize, but mourning it is. Babies know and love the sound of Mom's voice, smell, her familiar movements. Mom is inevitably the first relationship. The health or weakness of that bond affects kids' capacity to attach to others in healthy ways going forward. Strong mother-child attachments give kids a resilient, socially-healthy start in life. Weak, screwed-up, or broken early attachments often lead to a range of future problems, including attachment disorders, depression and other mental health issues.
Harden says, "Good mental health is what gets us through life."
Harden's research shows that what works best for everyone involved is to teach the "defective" mom how to parent well. Strengthening rather than weakening their bond gives both the mom and the baby their best shot at future health and success.
Granted, if everyone's best efforts reveal the situation to be hopeless, of course you have to terminate parental rights and liberate the child for adoption to improve his chances for success.
But before that happens, Harden has trained workers to go into troubled homes to teach moms how to be responsive, affectionate, attentive, playful. They find a spark between mom and child, and fan it by modeling responsive parenting. Some women have little feeling for their child, and must fake it until they make it. But sparks can burst into flames. Harden shows videos where we see her nurture the mother-child relationship. One technique is to give Mom a video edited from the workers' research tapes, that captures happy moments when mom parented well and was rewarded with her child's joy. She showed one such, set to the song "Eres Tu" — a tear-jerk, partly because of how much the child adored the awkward mom. The point is that responsive, responsible parenting can be learned.
"Brains always have capacity to change. But experience matters. For a baby, the experience of adversity is the absence of stable care-giving."
So Harden adores programs that keep "bad" moms and babies together, stabilizing the bond. Surely her most controversial, but also most convincing example is of incarcerated moms who are allowed to keep their babies. "Most of the women are in for petty crimes and will be out in 3 months. Put Early Head Start in prison. The moms are a captive audience, so build the mother-child care system right there. Strongly bonding with the baby gives the mom motive to succeed on the outside, when she's released."
That makes painful amounts of sense. The alternative is ripping the baby away from Mom to punish her, but what about the baby? Strengthening the bond helps Mom stay clean or to lose the drug-dealing boyfriend.
"Moms have a host of problems, DV (domestic violence), substance abuse, mental health issues, developmental delays of their own. Unless you add services into their lives, you can forget the baby. With substance abuse, we bring mom into treatment and put the baby somewhere else. These programs don't work well. The moms get out and use again. The babies provide motive."
As a culture, are we just too punitive to get our vengeful eyes off the offender and onto collateral casualties, like the kids? By removing defective moms as though they didn't matter, social services endorses the kick-out mentality. The mom is bad, thus disposable. Labeling people "bad" and putting them aside is too simple. It ignores all the connections, the attachments, the context.
As such, automatically removing children from troubled homes is an early-childhood version of the kick-out mentality that leads to the classroom-to-prison pipeline. It demeans how critically important relationships are to kids — all kids, of all ages. Family members are not spare parts.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.