"Family faces are magic mirrors," said Lena Horne's famous daughter, Gail Buckley. "Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future." This is as true of siblings as it is of parents.
Anyone who has lost the magic mirror that was a brother or sister will instinctively understand why it's important for child welfare officials to preserve that bond at all costs, especially during the times of crisis that result in foster care or adoption. Fortunately, child welfare services are beginning to acknowledge this fact.
Why has it taken so long for this understanding to penetrate? Some speculate that Freud's obsession with sibling rivalry was one of the more unfortunate of his ideas—setting back for decades psychology's understanding of the richness of that relationship.
Later studies have since illuminated the deeper and more significant sibling tie that is characterized by attachment rather than rivalry, revealing that in times of crisis it is often siblings who provide safe harbor when parents can't or won't.
But there are other factors to consider. While the parent-child bond is of primary importance when it has been forged properly, in most cases children outlast their parents by decades. And now that advances in health and hygiene have greatly extended human life, siblings may actually be the most enduring of all family relationships.
"The lack of emotional security of our American young people is due, I believe, to their isolation from the larger family unit. No two people—no mere father and mother—as I have often said, are enough to provide emotional security for a child. He needs to feel himself one in a world of kinfolk, persons of variety in age and temperament, and yet allied to himself by an indissoluble bond which he cannot break if he could, for nature has welded him into it before he was born." ~Pearl S. Buck
A little education may go a long way
We've talked often about the importance of attachment bonds between parents and children, but attachment bonds also extend in multiple directions throughout the family network. This understanding has gradually led to positive changes in child welfare systems and foster care.
Not only have child welfare workers begun to recognize that children are often better off in kinship care than placed with strangers, but many service organizations have also begun to institute programs aimed at keeping siblings together when placed outside the home in foster care.
The ultimate goal is to work as a team: foster parents, biological parents and extended relatives (when possible), case workers, health care workers and other service providers.
One barrier to this lofty aim has been a lack of communication and understanding between the potential team members. Fortunately, there are forces battering even at this wall. One of these is a magazine called Rise. Written by and for parents whose paths have taken them in and through the child welfare system, Rise seems to have had some success in educating families and making the goal of reconciliation a realistic one for many. According to the Rise Web site:
Some of the personal stories related by parents in the Web pages of Rise are enlightening even for those who have never encountered child welfare services, however. For those who may be moved to help a neighbor, a friend, a child's school mate—a little understanding may go a long way.
All Things Temporary: Confessions Of A Young Foster Mother
To repeat an idea from my last post (a concept that bears repeating), stable communities are made up of people who step forward to help each other in times of crisis.
One such person is Lisa McGlaun.
Lisa, an accomplished freelance writer and poet, blogs at Life Prints: Good News for a More Compassionate World, where she explores the thoughts and actions that offer life-changing potential.
McGlaun says, "In every moment we leave our mark on the world through our intentions, actions, and relationships. These legacies are our life prints. What do you wish to leave behind? LifePrints is dedicated to stories of individuals and organizations making a positive difference in our world, one compassionate deed at a time."
But Lisa doesn't just talk about making a difference. She's one of the people Judith Wood evoked in her article about being a village. Lisa is a veteran foster parent, and her in-progress book, All Things Temporary: Confessions Of A Young Foster Mother, is a heart-rending and first-person account of her journey as a villager who risked her familiar existence in an effort to live the values she espouses.
I've given you one excerpt from her story. Here's another.
Stable communities are made up of people who step forward in times of crisis
In a recent article from Vision, Judith Wood points out that: "occasionally a family crisis leaves a child suddenly without his or her normal support system of adults."
When this happens, rather than allowing a child to fall to the responsibility of impersonal social programs, community families would—in ideal circumstances—bridge the gap until the crisis is resolved.
"At such times, an existing peer friendship is even more precious," notes Wood, "especially when it comes with a ready-made family. The encouragement and help offered in these cases can make all the difference as to how a young person copes."
It's not always about promiscuity
This piece by Malika Saada Saar adds another consideration to discussions about the problem of teen pregnancy.
Saar quotes from Darkness to Light, an organization fighting child sexual abuse, which says that "an estimated 60% of teen first pregnancies are preceded by experiences of molestation, rape, or attempted rape. The average age of their offenders is 27 years."
As with many other causes of teen pregnancy the crux of the problem would seem to be at the family level. Only about 10% of abusers are strangers to the child victims.
This, of course, does not mean the abused child's family is to blame. But plainly there is much education needed to encourage stable, nurturing, safe family environments for children. Without such environments, it seems unrealistic to expect succeeding generations to be any more stable than those that have come before.
After severe neglect, can the windows of a child's soul be re-opened?
Lane Gregory, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, covered a very disturbing story last week. "The Girl in the Window" follows the discovery and subsequent adoption of yet another feral child, a young girl named Danielle, whose development was arrested—not by violent physical abuse—but by something much more subtle that is every bit as traumatic and stunting to a child's mental health. That something is neglect.
In this blog we've talked about Bruce Perry's The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and have quoted a range of research to demonstrate how important nurturing relationships are to the healthy mental development of young children.
Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, also has a lot to say about why this foundation is so important, and an interview with him figures prominently in a recent article written for Vision titled "Building Resilience in a Turbulent World." Here is an excerpt from that article, which relates directly to cases like the one in Lane Gregory's story:
While Cozolino's encouraging comments aren't necessarily addressing the most extreme cases of child neglect, there is certainly some proof of his assertion to be found in Danielle's story. How far she may eventually be able to come given the right circumstances, one can only guess at this point. But it's certainly a story one would hope Gregory will continue to follow.