Last week I wrote a column about the missing children who have run away from District of Columbia foster homes. Youth Services Insider estimated that foster youth account for about 10 percent of missing children reports and a larger fraction of the current pool of missing children in the District of Columbia.
But we must not forget that the majority of runaway youth are fleeing their own homes, not foster care. Many of these children are fleeing abusive or neglectful homes.
Federal data suggests that nationwide over 20 percent of the youths who run away or are thrown out of their homes reported being physically or sexually abused at home in the prior year or fearing abuse upon returning home. Many of these children have been betrayed by a system that failed to protect them, leaving running away as their only option.
Stacey Patton, whose new book I reviewed in my previous column, has a powerful new piece in the Washington Post entitled: “Want to keep black kids from running away from home? Stop hitting them.“
In her column and her riveting memoir, That Mean Old Yesterday, Patton describes her own experience running away from her adoptive mother, who beat her with switches, belts, extension cords and anything else she could lay her hands on, leaving lifelong physical and emotional scars.
Corporal punishment, abuse and neglect are hardly problems confined to the black community. But Patton speaks specifically to black parents who argue that their children will go to jail if they are not “whupped,” an argument she conclusively demolishes in her book.
While Patton is speaking to black parents and churches, I hope that all professionals who deal with families will heed her message as it applies to children of any color and ethnicity. Patton recommends more parent education on child development so that parents don’t have unrealistic expectations, as well as on non-violent discipline practices.
In addition to churches, pediatricians’ offices are a perfect place for such education. Pediatricians should be asking parents how they discipline their children, then providing them with research-based evidence on the consequences of, and alternatives to, corporal punishment.
But we need to remember that there are times when the abuse has deeper causes than false beliefs about corporal punishment. I don’t think any additional education would have changed Patton’s adoptive mother’s sadistic disciplinary methods. Her extreme harshness likely stemmed from untreated mental illness to which past trauma was probably a contributor. This is not a kind of mental illness that could be erased by even a year of therapy ordered by a family court judge.
As Patton described in her memoir, she was almost sent home after her attempt to escape. She obtained a last minute reprieve when a psychiatrist finally understood the extent of the physical and mental damage and the climate of fear in which she had been living for most of her life.
The prevailing view in child welfare, over the last decade at least, has been that removal from home by CPS is a traumatic event that is almost never justified. When I went through training as a Child Protective Services caseworker at D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), one of the first things I was told is that I was not there to save children. Yet, being rescued from her violent home saved Stacey Patton.
I disagree with CFSA. Saving our children is what all child-serving professionals should be about. Of course we should save children from sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation. But as Patton tells us, let’s spare some concern for the much larger group of children who are not safe in their own homes.