“The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” -Steve Jobs
In the past six months I have seen complex cases of heartbreaking abuse and trauma in Australia and the United Kingdom that have shown how truly difficult it can be to help children and families in need.
Child abuse and domestic violence are extremely complicated phenomena.
Most cases are very complex, involving the intersectionality of different societal issues including child abuse, child neglect, child maltreatment, domestic violence, sexual abuse, criminality, mental health problems, substance abuse issues, racial/ethnic prejudice and discrimination, housing issues, and poverty.
In a safe house in the United Kingdom for women and children who have survived human trafficking, I have met families who have just escaped disturbing situations of sexual exploitation and forced labor. A family with six children was brought by police and local social workers to a new town, a new area, and a new temporary home filled with people who they did not know. Upon entering the safe house, these families often struggle to speak the local language, do not have any contacts from their country of origin, and they are completely dependent on the safe house for food and money in order to survive. With limited funds, limited resources, and with a limited organizational mandate focused on providing a safe space for victims who are escaping human trafficking, how can safe house workers try to help their clients with all of their different challenges and struggles?
In child protection court, I have seen parents with substance abuse issues and mental health issues struggle to engage with a system that can seem paternalistic, formal, foreign, and distant. Often families struggle to remain in contact with the local government child protection agency and parents are left with minimal support and assistance to combat the difficult and complex issues of family violence, substance abuse, and mental health. With an outdated, formulaic, formal, and unemotional approach to jurisprudence, how can a judge work with a family to help and support parents to make the necessary life altering improvements they need to keep their children safe?
In child protection court and at the safe house, I have met people who faced these challenges and worked to create change. They are not only making a difference everyday for their clients, but have also been working toward larger changes in how their organization, legal system, social welfare services, societies, cultures, and communities approach helping children and families who have experienced abuse or trauma.
The director of the safe house, her family, and her team of caseworkers work everyday to not only help their current clients and prepare for new clients, but also to expand their services and their facilities so that they can help even more people in new and needed ways.
When these hardworking caseworkers saw the opportunity to do more, they fought to improve their services. The director established the newest site of the safe house, has updated its mandate to help more than just women and adults, but children as well. While the workers struggle with limited funds and limited time, they are still working with clients to be more than just a safe house, but a support network that connects clients to other services to help with many issues including substance abuse, child protection, family violence, and mental health.
In Family and Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) in London, I was able to see the progress of the only FDAC court in existence in all of the United Kingdom. I learned how Judge C worked for years to implement the Family Drug and Alcohol Court. After witnessing the benefits of the FDAC system in the United States and in Australia, Judge C. felt inspired to change the nature of child protection court. Over the course of his career, he has been able to successfully adapt the United States’s and Australia’s model of Family Drug and Alcohol Court to fit the needs of the United Kingdom legal system. Now, seven years after its creation, he has not only expanded the original FDAC in London, but also is working to create these courts in other jurisdictions all around the United Kingdom.
What Judge C has been able to help implement and develop, is a truly amazing court system. FDAC is a specialized court that departs from the formulaic, “hands-off”, and formal approach normally taken by judges in child protection cases. With expert court staff who each have specialties and experiences that include knowledge of substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence, London’s FDAC is providing families with a more involved level of court support and social service support. Instead of families rarely interacting with judges, FDAC provides the opportunity for families to have a conversation with all of the parties involved in the case as they all work together to create and execute a plan of intense intervention. Even more inspiring considering the low social service worker retention rate in the United Kingdom, is the fact that London’s original FDAC team has remained essentially intact since its creation almost seven years ago.
I have also witnessed how Judge C has left a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the families he sees in court. His supportive and compassionate nature are evident in how he interacts with his FDAC clients. His conference room styled courtroom helps make the conversation more accessible to all parties. His kind heart and commitment to helping families is demonstrated by how he takes the time to talk to the parents in his cases, congratulating them for their successes, confronting them for their shortfalls and failures, and ultimately motivating them to continue with the difficult FDAC process.
I have never heard a judge so directly, openly, and honestly speak to the parties in a case with such strong words of encouragement. He has told many parents, “we all want you to have your children back, but we want your children to be safe when they are back with you.”
Judge C has adopted the approach that I admired in Australia, an approach focused on working with families throughout the entire social welfare and judicial process of child protection. This theme of a family focus has also helped my project evolve to include trying to understand the role of the family unit in addressing child trauma and abuse. I have learned that a focus on children is inseparable from a focus on family. I have seen how “family” is the context for healing, community, and life for children. Furthermore the experience of “family” is different for every child. For some it may be the stereotypical nuclear immediate family unit of a mother, father, brother, and sister. For others it can be an entire aboriginal community. For others in can be all of the staff, workers, and clients in a safe house. Overall, each family is different with unique dynamics, styles, and relationships. And it is because of this unique family experience and the child´s link to family that treatment of child abuse and trauma must be approached at an individual family level.
I have seen how FDAC is a step toward providing that individualized, family-first approach.
Observing FDAC and shadowing judges in child protection during my time in London has left me wanting the benefits of this court process for ALL child protection cases and not just those that involve substance abuse. There are so many benefits of this type of involved system. The FDAC process provides a detailed casework plan for parents to follow in order to achieve reunification or to improve their child protection concerns. With individualized court caseworkers, frequent informal meetings with court staff and the judge to assess progress, and specified plans for parents to address their child protection concerns through intense court intervention and services, families are given a chance. Parents are given a chance to address difficult and complex issues that are affecting their children’s safety, wellness, and wellbeing. The court is able to monitor cases, adjust plans, and help people get the services and help that they need.
I could see this process benefitting not just substance abuse cases of child protection, but all kinds of child protection cases.
Furthermore, the London child protection system has another key aspect that I believe would be a great asset to any system: the role of the guardian. Guardians are social workers by profession who are independent of the government and child protection agency. If the guardian’s opinion matches the wishes of the child, then the guardian and child’s opinion will be both advocated by the child´s attorney. If the opinions do not match, the child attorney will present the child’s opinion and separately the guardian’s opinion will be presented. This is important because this system allows for two distinct opinions concentrated solely on the child to be heard: that of the child directly and an independent analysis of the child’s best interests.
The role of the guardian in the London child protection system is very similar to the role of the CASA (court appointed special advocate for children) that I participated in during my last year in university. However, two key and distinct aspects of the guardian role in the UK are that guardians are paid positions and every case has a guardian.
I believe that this system, although costly in both resources and time, ultimately provides a necessarily complex approach to truly understanding cases. The London FDAC system of child protection allows many different opinions and ideologies to be presented in court: the child’s opinion through the child attorney, the guardian who states an opinion based on his/her independent assessment of the child’s best interests, the local authority (government child protection agency) analysis of risk and safety, the opinion of the FDAC team, and the opinions of the parents. Furthermore, the FDAC process allows for parties to meet often, provide feedback, and work toward a solution.
Through these experiences, I have been exploring my own ideas for my work in the United States. I am inspired to work to expand this kind of therapeutic jurisprudence in child protection and domestic violence law in the United States.
I am also learning to ask and work toward finding the answer to many difficult yet significant questions including: How do cultures, institutions, languages, prejudices, biases, and different conceptualizations of abuse and family affect how we approach helping children and families in need? How do we work to change a system that has been so firmly and strongly embedded in a locality’s legal system, political system, culture, society, and ways of life? How do we balance between the desire to help as many people as possible and the desire to help people completely with the variety of complex issues they face? How much help is too much help? Is there a point that we can provide too much assistance and enable our clients or harm their ability to survive after our intervention and assistance? How do we bring about change?
In Australia and the United Kingdom I have seen how one person can truly make a difference. The safe house and child protection Family Drug and Alcohol Court have grown and will continue to grow thanks to the continuous hard work and dedication of inspirational people. These people have made a difference by doing more than just their jobs. Through reflection, hard work, dedication, perseverance and a genuine desire to help, they have challenged institutions, organizations, and services to change and progress. Despite setbacks, despite resistance, and despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, these individuals have diligently and successfully persevered and have successfully created change.
Seeing the progress that my mentors have made and continue to make inspires me to work to change how the United States legal and social welfare systems approach helping children and families.
My experiences have also brought about changes within myself.
With each new experience that I have, every success and every challenge, I am becoming a stronger person.
This fellowship year has been a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.
I have ventured out of my comfort zone and have explored areas of the world that I have always dreamt of exploring.
I have seen some of the most beautiful sights in the world.
I have let several walls down and have opened my heart and my mind to new people, places, and experiences.
I have developed friendships and relationships with incredible people.
I have overcome difficult travel and personal challenges throughout my year as I have faced fears and have learned to let go, try new things, and give myself the chance to make mistakes.
I have grown to believe in myself more now than I ever have before in my life.
In the past, I have let others emotionally tear me down to where I would often be left questioning if I was “enough”. My self-criticism grew to the point that behind a façade of confidence and sometimes outright cockiness I would struggle to see myself as being “enough” in several aspects of my life from physical looks and personality characteristics to my performance in different familial and occupational roles. I struggled as I doubted that I was smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough, and hard-working enough.
I let toxic relationships with partners, family, and friends leave me fighting to improve myself in order to prove my worth to them.
For too long I have let others tear me down. For too long I have given so much of myself to toxic relationships that lacked positive reciprocity. For too long I have let others take advantage of me. For too long I have let others stifle my progress, my goals, and my dreams.
I will work hard to change that pattern in my life.
For the first time in my life, I am working to improve myself and my life for ME.
I am finally beginning to see the person who others see in me. I am beginning to see myself as the beautiful, strong, resilient, passionate, compassionate, and intelligent person who I have always wanted to be.
Now I have the opportunity to take back control of my life. I know that this will be a lifelong journey, but the longest journeys begin with the first step.
And this is my first step.
Now, rather than focusing on improving in order to prove myself to others, I want to improve to become the person that I need and want for myself. I have learned that until I become who I need and want myself to be, I will not be able to fully become the person who other people in my life need me to be.
By taking back ownership, control, and power of the different parts of my life, I believe that I will be able to make progress on my personal struggles.
I know that I have the power to make my dreams and my goals a reality.
I can choose to be positive and to be happy. I can choose to finally start to stand up for myself in my relationships and in my life. I can allow myself to not question but instead celebrate my accomplishments and successes. I can allow myself to continue to grow and to learn.
Without restraint I can move forward.
This is my life to live, my mistakes to make, my lessons to learn, my opportunity, and my chance to achieve my goals and my dreams.
By first embracing change within myself, I will be more free and more able to continue to help others and make a meaningful and significant difference.