“Your father is as worthless as your mother.”
Those words – said by a caseworker to a 13-year-old child whose parents were addicted to heroin – jumped out at me as I read the case file. My heart immediately sank.
I tried to imagine how I would have felt if someone had uttered those words to me as a child. And I tried to visualize the sadness on my children’s faces if they had heard those words. Devastated is the one word that kept coming to me. No child should ever hear someone talk about their parents that way. Ever.
Many argue that the biggest challenge confronting child welfare is a lack of resources. We lack funds for prevention services. We don’t have enough foster parents. We need more high-quality lawyers. The list goes on and on.
But perhaps what we lack most is compassion. Will we ever be able to engage families if we think of them as “worthless?” Or if we think they are “too dirty to parent,” as I heard one lawyer tell his client? Or if we ignore their pain in our zeal to force them to comply with services?
Maybe a better approach, as suggested by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of HomeBoy industries, would be to “stand in awe of the burden the poor carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”
Research from the medical field – captured in the ground-breaking book, “Compassionomics” by Anthony Mazzarelli and Stephen Trzeciak – suggests that this type of compassion is exactly what it takes to turn around people’s lives. For example, a study of 1,700 patients with HIV found that when patients believed that providers saw them “as a person,” patients had a 33 percent higher chance of adhering to therapy and a 20 percent higher chance of not having a detectable virus in their blood.
Similarly, a study of 500 people receiving outpatient services found that increased compassion from medical staff was associated with significantly better adherence to prescribed medication. The reported concluded that “[t]he effective use of empathic communicative skills may be one of the best ways to improve patient satisfaction and patient compliance.”
In contrast, a study of 3,000 patients found that when providers extended low compassion, patients struggled to feel empowered to manage their treatment. That empowerment “never occurred with low empathy.”
In other words, if we want people to work with us, it’s crucial that we first show them compassion. We must notice, acknowledge and address their pain, while hearing their stories.
“Compassionomics” concludes that “there is robust evidence that depersonalization represents a risk of harm to patients.” Research within court systems backs this up. In a study of 69 drug courts, researchers found that judges who spent more than three minutes with litigants had a 153 percent greater reduction in recidivism compared to judges who spent less time. And while moving from under three minutes to over three minutes doubled the reduction, when judges spent seven minutes or more with litigants, they tripled positive outcomes.
Think about that. Spending just seven minutes with litigants tripled positive outcomes. People are craving to be heard and seen.
The lesson from this research is clear. So long as we think of people as “worthless,” we will never fully grasp the potential of the child welfare system. Instead, we will undermine our own goals of bringing families together. Let’s embrace a different philosophy.
As Plato wisely said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Until we embrace this, no amount of resources will solve child welfare’s problems.
Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.