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Find A Better Place For Forgotten Children

Find A Better Place For Forgotten Children
by Reta Jo Mitchell
The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, MO)

Who can be jolly in this season when the sweet faces of little children scalded, starved or shaken to death will not go away? When every day brings more of what The Star called “the heartbreak of child abuse and neglect.”

Compounding the sadness is a deluge of numbers. More than half a million American children are in foster care. Daily, three or more are murdered, one a week in Missouri alone, by caregivers. Nationwide, the old year will be rung out on another million cases of child abuse.

Behaviorists attribute these horrors to social defects such as poverty, teen pregnancy, divorce, substance abuse. But what, beyond magnitude, is the difference between the Holocaust child killers and live-in boyfriends who suffocate tiny babies? Some blame low education, especially ignorance of child development. So not knowing when babies should quit soiling their diapers drives adults to kill them?

Recent statistics are surprising. Mothers kill their children more often than baby sitters. Far more children are slain in their natural homes than in a foster home

Many foster child abuse cases are heinous, like the four New Jersey boys found subsisting on pancake batter, wallboard and garbage. Or the Claycomo foster father who allegedly sodomized the four little children in his paid care.

Yet one of the most caring persons I’ve ever known was a foster mother. I still can see Ruth cradling that little blonde cherub with cigarette burns on his tiny chest. Trouble is, there aren’t enough Ruths to go around.

Meanwhile, where are those social workers hired to check on endangered children? Why don’t they break down doors like caseworker Maxine Gray does in the television drama, “Judging Amy”? Wouldn’t you or I risk being attacked, fired, charged with illegal entry or sued? In Kearney, Mo., the birth parents of a toddler who died in foster care recently sued four social workers.

Some social workers are no doubt derelict. But Bob Danzig, an orphan who became CEO of the Hearst Newspaper Group, wrote a book titled Every Child Deserves a Champion, revealing that his champion was a social worker.

We Americans haven’t always responded to the poet Yeats’ “cry of the child by the roadway.” But our Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dates from 1866. Churches have long maintained orphanages; a few still do. From 1854 to 1929, many waifs were shipped out west on the orphan trains, where the promised new home was often a straw bed in a barn and backbreaking labor in the fields.

In the 1950s came a new attitude. Orphanages were viewed as cruel warehouses, to which distraught mothers sometimes threatened to send their unruly children. The best hope lay in homelike settings, so foster parenting with training, supervision and pay became the answer.

Author-psychotherapist Eileen Simpson, herself an orphan, poignantly described the heart’s desire of lost children wherever they were put: remaining with their siblings. What mattered most to her was sleeping close enough to her little sister “to exchange whispers” in the dark.

This last tie to family explains why children endure savage treatment rather than tell on their caregivers. The threat of separation keeps many little mouths closed.

My husband spent two years in the Johnson County Children’s Home in Iowa City, more than 60 years ago. He remembers how nice the university students serving as house-parents were, how he always knew where his bed was, and how he and his big brother had each other.

Perhaps it is time to re-establish publicly run children’s homes staffed by future teachers, nurses and social workers. Siblings could be kept together, guaranteed, till their lives were sorted out. Foster parenting could continue, but in a less frantic mode. There could be fewer trips to the hospital or morgue or police station while a foster home is sought.

It is time to establish a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. England did. And, time to remember with our deeds and dollars some words appropriate to the birthday we are about to celebrate: “In as much as you have done it unto the least of these … you have done it unto me.”