Monday, December 17, 2012

Why mental health care and child welfare reform matter in a post-Newtown world

My heart could not have been heavier when I heard about the Newtown shootings from a coworker on Friday. As I read the stories, I cried at my desk and had the undeniable urge to go pick up the Younger Belles from school, even though I logically knew they were fine. My thoughts and prayers are with the children's families and friends, along with the family and friends of the brave women in the school who also perished. I cannot imagine that community's grief.

But I'm also a problem solver by nature. So I had to ask, where do we go from here? How can I feel comfortable letting the belles go back to school? How can I avoid another scenario where I have to look my 9 year old belle in the eye and tell her I can't say for certain that it could never happen in her school?

The gun debate is already going in full force, so I won't address that here. Besides, I think the larger problem is what have we done to our children?

"...we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children." - President Barack Obama

Yes, we are all parents. If this tragedy has taught us anything, it is that we are all parents - stewards of children - in some way. I have seen on social media my childless friends grieve, my childfree friends grieve, everyone from my friends who are elementary school teachers to my friends who are single with no children.

It's because this tragedy goes beyond biology. I didn't have to give birth to feel the undeniable pain and anger at the thought of, "What if it were me? What if I were one of those poor parents?" The brave women who literally laid down their lives for these children did not have to birth these children to give their lives for them. At least one was a stepmother like me, and a few did not have children of their own.

As the custodial stepmother to two children who have mental health concerns, and as someone who works with children in the child welfare system, I have been screaming for years for serious child welfare reform. The harsh reality is that even if you're middle class, employed, considerably educated and more or less financially stable with health insurance, if you have a child who has any type of developmental, neurological or behavioral issue, you may think your health insurance will be enough. It won't be. You will face an uphill battle on finding professionals who will work with you and are qualified and willing to listen to your concerns and take them seriously. Then, if you're fortunate to even get that far, you will have to convince your insurance company that if you don't deal with this now, they are sentencing you to life with a ticking time bomb also known as puberty and its onset of hormones. If you can even get that far, you will continue to struggle and pay dearly for quality care. Then, it's a guessing game as to whether or not any of it will even work.

This is all of course assuming that you don't suffer from any mental health issues of your own and that you have enough education and background to know how to navigate any of this properly. What happens to those who don't?

I can tell you exactly what happens. They wind up in my office. They are the children who don't have mental health issues but who are in the foster care system because their parents are drug addicts. He is the teenager who haunts my memory all the time because he came and told me goodbye less than a week before he put a bullet through his head as a final message to the caseworker, judge and parents who failed him. They are the countless children I have encountered whose parents chose abusive partners and drugs and/or alcohol over being a parent.

Do you know what happens to these children? With any luck, they get adopted by people who love them and have been waiting for them. Many transition into independent living and become successful adults. Some go home eventually to a rehabilitated parent. But many, many others wind up on the streets. Homeless, desperate, with little resources. They turn to drugs and violence. They get pregnant or get their equally unstable partners pregnant. And the cycle starts again.

I have for the most part gotten over my initial anger at the younger belles' bio-mom. I'm not a perfect human being, and I'm protective of my girls, so some anger is still there. But after working in child welfare, I have a different perspective on her than I once did. Coming from a family wrought with addiction and mental illness with no good examples of responsible parenting, how could I have expected her to be a responsible mother? How could I honestly think she could step up and be a mother when she had no example to follow?

It starts with adequate funding. Paying social workers their true worth, ensuring the system and its partner agencies have enough funding to where decisions are made based on what's in the child's best interest rather than what will cost the state the least amount of dollars. It starts with proactivity rather than reactivity. Understanding that poverty does not equal bad parenting, but that poverty can lead to bad decisions which can lead to bad parenting. It starts with making funding for children with mental health issues across socioeconomic boundaries a priority, and with making children who are in the state's care a priority. It starts with understanding that in times of economic crisis when funding is slashed for mental health care and child welfare is when we need that funding the most.

It starts with you. That old cliche saying has some truth right now, because if it doesn't start with you, then where does it? We must stop passing the responsibility onto the next person's shoulders and realize that if we don't fix this now with our children, it will only get worse.

Don't let these babies in Newtown's deaths be in vain, nor the deaths of the children I have met who have passed on whether by their own hand or someone else's, nor the deaths of the hundreds of youth we lose each year to gang violence. The cycle stops now. Because they are all our children.