According to a recent report by the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services, more than 200 children died in Texas last year due to abuse or neglect. Take a minute to think about that.
Imagine an elementary class photo of students. You know the one; typically, the photo shows students standing in a couple of rows, smiling awkwardly with their proud teacher. We treasure these photos so we can look back at our funny haircuts and clothing or to recall someone’s name from our class that we once knew. There are usually about 20 students in those class pictures. Multiply that image by ten. Now imagine that number of children dying at the hands of an abusive caregiver in a single year.
It makes us uncomfortable to imagine this kind of atrocity. We read statistics like this all of the time and briefly pause to think about how terrible it is, but do we really allow ourselves to conjure the image I just led you to?
We live in a culture where finger pointing and blame shifting is commonplace. It is easy to blame a failing Child Protective Services (CPS) system for these outcomes but that is neither fair nor productive. Child abuse is a social problem that is our community’s responsibility. It is something that should be of major concern and something about which we are all outraged.
At The Settlement Home for Children, we work to heal emotional scars of individuals who have experienced severe abuse and neglect. Emotional scars take much longer to heal and are much more complicated to treat than physical scars. Our job is to wrap these deserving young people in a community of care that provides everything from basic needs to intense psychotherapy. We see the worst of the worst abuse histories. We intervene, provide time to develop trust and we witness tremendous healing. We teach the kids we serve how to have healthy relationships and how to use healthy coping strategies so that when they become parents one day, this vicious cycle of child abuse can end.
I dream of a day when our services are no longer needed and a place like The Settlement Home can close its doors because child abuse is not a prevalent social problem. I am afraid we are a long way from that being a reality. Last year, CPS sent us more than 1,200 requests for admission into our Residential Treatment Center. The need for residential care is significant and highly sought after for children across the state of Texas.
With this high demand, would it surprise you to know that there are a number of advocates who want to do away with facilities that provide residential care? Granted, not all residential treatment programs are created equally and some of them need major improvement. Someone recently told me that The Settlement Home is the Cadillac of treatment centers. While I appreciate the sentiment here, we are far from perfect. There are times that even with our best efforts, we experience undesired outcomes. However, one of the reasons we are able to provide the quality of care that we do is because of our fundraising efforts and because of the generosity of supporters like you. The reimbursement we receive from the state does not come close to covering the cost of care. This funding gap becomes much harder to close for organizations that do not have the private dollars we do to support their operations. Rather than addressing this barrier, adversaries focus their energy on promoting the misguided ideology that residential care is harmful across the board and that children belong in families despite the risks involved.
I could not agree more that children belong in families. Of course they do! The majority of children removed from their homes for abuse or neglect typically do go to live in a family setting with a relative or friend of the family. When this is not an option, they are placed in a foster family. However, the sad reality is that not all children are ready to try living with a family again when their past experiences have been so painful and terrifying. These are the kids that we serve at The Settlement Home. This is the population referred to as the “hard to place kids” that are sleeping in CPS offices or are living in psychiatric hospitals for months. Not all children can function in a family environment. There is great benefit to giving children time to work through their trauma in a safe, structured environment. The intense behaviors that manifest in children from abusive backgrounds can be far too dangerous and emotionally taxing for a family to safely manage.
These children often demonstrate their anger through physical assault or property destruction. Their sadness is frequently exhibited through self-abusive behavior like cutting or burning themselves. Their fears are sometimes expressed through running away or through experiencing such intense nightmares that they require someone to sit with them through the night to feel safe. Once a child has the sense of safety to release all of the emotions that cause them to act out, they are better prepared to cope more independently and be successful in a family. There is an absolute need and purpose for residential care, and in many cases it is the only answer.
The advocates who want to do away with residential care (also referred to as congregate or group care), have valid concerns about the unintended consequences that can occur in these settings. Unfortunately in some circumstances, children learn bad habits from one another, act out with and against each other, lose hope and end up worse off than they were before entering the program. Why not focus energy and efforts on providing financial support and technical assistance to the existing facilities in the state that need improvement?
Residential programs are indeed an imperfect solution to this extremely complex societal issue. However, the alternative is to continue the revolving door of foster home disruption, psychiatric hospitalization, juvenile detention and homelessness–all of which cause further damage to the child and cost the state far more than it would cost to support the existing residential facilities we have in Texas.
We should all be outraged about child abuse, understand the impact it has on an individual and become informed about the landscape of our child welfare system. By working together rather than against each other, we will be more effective in making a lasting impact in the lives of children who have experienced severe emotional trauma, abuse and neglect. Child Abuse Prevention Month is a great way to start the conversation but children need us to focus on this every month of the year.
~Darcie DeShazo, Executive Director