Look Before You Leave

Every time I go to Walmart, I can’t help but think about parents. As I shop there, I find myself thinking about all the people I know who have struggled to have children. And I think about all the people I have encountered that possibly shouldn’t have children. By the time my shopping trip is done and I leave the store, I feel frustrated that I can’t take the children from questionable parents and give them to more deserving parents desiring children of their own. I wish I wouldn’t think things like that because I would never actually want the responsibility of making those kinds of decisions.

Just thinking about the topic of parenting makes me feel wrongfully judgmental. The concept of “good” parenting is such a subjective thing. I am equally annoyed by the negligent parent as I am by the helicopter parent who smothers their child and essentially destroys who they could have become without the constant hovering. I have absolutely no right to be judgmental because I have made far too many mistakes with my own children. I am not a fan of black and white thinking, but I sometimes wish that the qualifications for being a parent would simply have to be met by a literally black and white test that is taken before parents are released from the hospital with their newborn child. At the very least, biological parents should have to go through the same screening process that adoptive parents do. But I know that tests and screening can’t possibly take into consideration every scenario where a parent might have the opportunity to harm their child psychologically or physically.

I’m sure that a lot of people assume that there is no need for me to dwell on this topic because there is already a good system in place in the United States for removing children from troubled parents and placing them in better homes. That system is called Child Protective Services. According to Minnesota state rules, “the purpose of child protective services is to protect children from maltreatment.” Unfortunately, because I have witnessed the maltreatment of children by child protection workers in my state, I find myself passing as much judgment on that flawed system as I do on flawed parents.

I assume that people who become child protection social workers in the United States have taken black and white tests in order to earn the proper certification for their job. But passing those tests doesn’t take into consideration every scenario where a social worker might have the opportunity to harm a child and their parents as a result of misinterpreting or mishandling a situation. Black and white tests don’t take into consideration the possibility of human error or bad intent on the part of a social worker.

Several years ago I went to the aid of some people I knew who were wrongfully jailed and had their children taken away because of accusations made by an acquaintance. I am pretty outspoken when it comes to addressing blatant injustice. I was very vocal with the social services department in that county and had no problem going to the press with my thoughts about the matter. Not once did I question that what I was doing was the “right” thing . . . until the director of social services in that county told me he would have no problem contacting the head of social services in the county where I lived to have my children taken away. He made this statement not because he knew anything about my parenting skills or my children, but to demonstrate to me that he had the power to do anything he wanted to the families in his county – and mine. He wanted to demonstrate that someone as insignificant as me could not stand up to “the system” in Minnesota. I also believe that he was threatening me for humiliating him in the process of publicly coming to the defense of innocent people. Because of his threat, for a couple years I lived in complete fear that someone would unexpectedly take my children away. Even when parents are innocent of abuse and neglect, once children are in the system, it can be very challenging to get them out. I watched it happen to the people I was trying to help, and because of the way the child protection system is designed in Minnesota there was no reason to believe that it couldn’t happen to me. Up until the point where I was threatened with losing my own children to the system, I wanted to believe that something like that couldn’t possibly happen in America, especially not in the land of Minnesota nice. My experience in that county made it clear that not all counties in Minnesota are nice. I experienced a corrupt system in that county that involved not only social workers, but also the sheriff’s department, the police department, legal personnel, and county commissioners who all contributed to the maltreatment of children and their families as they tore them apart without just cause – and neglected to do anything about the problems that they were aware of. In this particular county I discovered that a certain race of children was a target of the system because of their vulnerability and the resulting income that was generated when they were quickly placed for adoption.

I confess that the threat of having my own children taken away knocked the wind out of my sails that were set on a direct course to shine a light on the corruption I encountered in that Minnesota county. It knocked the wind out of my sense of security as a parent in Minnesota.  Even though I got past the sheer terror when a stranger knocked on my door after a couple of years, I still struggled with an underlying fear that the social services director would blindside me and get his revenge – up until my youngest child turned eighteen, while going to college in another state. Because of what he communicated to me, I believed that the director had the power to mess with children’s lives in any part of the United States. Now that my children have been adults for awhile, safe from the reach of Minnesota’s Child Protective Services, I’m revisiting my anger about that horrible director who was able to steal my sense of security as a parent. I find myself thinking about those minority families living in that county who did not have a voice several years ago. I’m thinking it’s time for me to be outspoken again. I’m considering doing some investigative reports in the future about what has happened to children and their families in that part of the state.

I feel like I might be able to use my skills to help fix one broken social system in my country. I’d like to help it become a system that is monitored from the outside – instead of from within – to decrease the amount of maltreatment that occurs to Minnesota families. But I still don’t feel I can do anything to help fix broken parents. It appears there are far too many of them for me to know what I can possibly do. So I acknowledge that there is definitely a need for some kind of organization that protects children from parents who aren’t qualified to do the job.

When I turned on my computer yesterday, there were two disturbing stories in my MSN news feed. The first was about a couple from Japan who left their seven year-old boy alone in wooded mountains known to have bears for a short time as a punishment. At the time of the report, he had been missing for two days. The second story was about a woman from Georgia who sat on her two year-old son’s head for an hour to gain his submission. The child is expected to recover (physically) and the mother was released from jail after posting a $55,000 bond. Then an hour later I picked up the front page of the Sunday Star Tribune and read that Hennepin County in Minnesota is swamped by an increase in child abuse reports. Because foster homes and shelter beds are full, some children in the county are still in their abusive homes or are living in emergency rooms. According to reporter, Brandon Stahl, “The increase follows sweeping reforms in the past two years that directed counties to more aggressively intervene to safeguard children from abuse and neglect.” All three stories caused me to dwell on maltreatment delivered by abusive parents and Child Protective Services . . . and to feel judgmental about both all day.

Maybe Walmart has the right idea in stating what seems obvious with its Look Before You Leave signs posted on their front doors, reminding parents to make sure they haven’t left their children unattended in their vehicles. I actually laughed out loud the first time I saw the sign. But the concept is only obvious to those 2016 -  05 - 20 Walmart May 2016parents who are “qualified” by today’s standards, and are accustomed to behavior that prevents disastrous outcomes. I’m pretty sure most parents in the 1970s left their children in the car frequently while they ran into the local store. It was a completely different world then. There are, unfortunately, many parents in our country who probably need frequent preventive reminders to attend to their children in this scary world. In some situations (like when turning a child into bear food or sitting on a toddler’s head) I think people should lose their right to be a parent. Since other scenarios are much more subjective, and we all make mistakes, I also believe that sometimes parents should have the opportunity to become qualified with the proper training and keep their children. I believe that it is necessary to have a system in place that allows for swift, educated decisions in the concerned child’s best interest to avoid unnecessary harm – whether that harm comes from being left in an abusive home, having to live in an emergency room for an extended period while a case is being reviewed, or being taken away from well-meaning parents.

Even though it causes me to dwell on the topic of parenting too much, in an attempt to protect children, I wish other stores, restaurants, businesses, schools, doctor’s offices, etc. would post front door signs like Walmart does to address the potentially harmful behavior of those who don’t typically dwell on what it means to be a parent in today’s world.


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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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